Think of a baby born today in Dhaka. The likelihood is that she will see her birthplace sloshing under water by the time she is at the end of her lifespan. Bangladesh itself will then reduce to 20 per cent of its present size, leaving only the highlands of Chittagong Hill Tracts and Sylhet peeking out of water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts 35 million could flee Bangladesh's flooded delta by 2050.
Maldives , Sri Lanka , India , Pakistan or Nepal will not be much better off than Bangladesh, if not worse. For example, Maldives is expected not to exist anymore, Sri Lanka risks a similar fate and India, Nepal and Pakistan faces up to 40 percent drop in food production, frequent flooding and erosion.
And all this is becoming the reality today for the South Asian region with the climate change already taking its toll on this huge swath of land populated by 1.5 billion people, a majority of them poor.
It is against this backdrop that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) environment ministers will meet here on July 3 to look for a way forward through collaborative actions that will help them overcome the challenges. This conference, to be preceded by a two-day expert level meeting beginning today, is in fact a waking up to the realities staring at the Saarc countries.
Already the visible impacts of climate change are scary - the memories of the super cyclones Sidr and Nargis are still fresh in public mind. Sudden floods in Delhi and Bombay had wrought havoc on the cities; droughts of last year wrecked many Bangladeshi farmers' back. The paradisaic beaches of Maldives are receding with waves inching forward. Maize output in Nepal is dropping consistently and its Terai floodplains are facing frequent flooding as ice on the Himalayas is melting fast.
The future is even scarier. Professor James Hansen, the director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, whose climate calculations have proved to be more accurate than anybody else's, believes the melting of the Greenland ice cap being picked up by his satellites today, now, suggests a 25-metre rise in sea levels this century. This would drown Bangladesh entirely along many of its Saarc neighbours.
The IPCC third assessment report made a concrete case that the climate is changing because of greenhouse gases, but it was quickly dismissed by a group of US scientists who said this was a hoax. But after the fourth report of IPCC, the UN secretary general called a meeting on climate change in September 2007. it was then univocally agreed that the temperature has increased by 0.8 degree Celsius in a decade that has also raised the sea level by 4cm.
The Saarc nations could as well take China along to discuss the climate issue as the giant dragon also faces challenges that are commonly shared by its South Asian neighbours. The Tibetan plateau spawns the great river systems of China , Southeast and South Asia the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers, the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Mekong and the Salween. These rivers fed by the Mihalayan glaciers support some 1.3 billion people and create a maze of ecological wonders.
But the glaciers are melting fast and China predicts that by 2050 the ice on the Himalayan side of China will disappear by a quarter since 1950. Professor Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a leading Indian glaciologist, predicts that the Himalayan glaciers will be gone in 20-30 years because of climate change as well as the Asian Brown Cloud - the 3km-thick fug of pollution that has gathered over north India because of emission from power plants and cooking ovens. And that would make many of the great rivers including the Ganges , Brahmaputra and Indus run dry by 2035. Only seasonal rain will bring them to life. The westerly winds of winter that blow rain-clouds over Pakistan have already been disrupted.
Yet the Asian countries most responsible for the emission of green house gases - China and India - are slow to take mitigation measures. Both countries are in hot debates with the US and the EU over emission control measures, saying that they need to development fast probably on par or at greater than their 11 per cent and 9 per cent growth rates to face the climate change impacts. India says, to some extent justifiably, its people have the same right to wealth as anyone. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change also recognises that economic development and poverty eradication are the overriding priorities for the developing countries to face the impending disaster. India, known for being hawkish on any emission control move, has made a tactical 'non-commitment' in the last G8 summit by saying that its carbon emission per head would never exceed that of the developed countries.
India also has green technologies. Its Suzlon Energy has emerged as one of the world's five biggest makers of wind turbines from a mere textile company. India 's solar yield is also bigger than any country except America . China is the top money maker out of rich-world polluters; it has already bagged $5.4 billion or 73 per cent of the total Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) fund. CDM is a scheme whereby companies in rich countries outsource their obligation to cut carbon emissions by sponsoring carbon-cutting schemes in poor countries such as plantation.
As the Saarc nations are meeting in Dhaka with a new reality and challenges, Dr Ainun Nishat, country representative of IUCN, feels that the Saarc region can work closely on three of the four aspects of the Bali Declaration - adaptation, financing and transfer of technology - while the other aspect - mitigation - is largely an issue of the developed countries.
"The Saarc countries can form a climate group for adaptation strategy," he said. "Saarc is a region of 1.5 billion people with a wide range of poor people who have less adaptive capacity.."
Similarly, Saarc can take a common stance on funding adaptive technologies especially community-based approaches.
"Bangladesh had proposed at the Bali conference setting up of an adaptation research centre and Saarc can take initiative in this regard. Bangladesh with its experience in adaptability can lead in this field," Nishat said. "Similarly, India is benefitted by CDM and its experience can be used by other Saarc countries to access this fund."
India with its higher knowledge of cleaner and renewable technology can also help Saarc members to make better use of CDM."
Climate change impacts should be researched collaboratively and issues like migration of plants should be looked into on a wider regional basis. Agriculture is another issues where Saac can have collective research initiative for new varieties as all the nations of the region will face problems in food production because of climate change.
"There can as well be a regional food bank to help each others in times of crisis such as the one happening now," Nishat said. "The way India helped Bangladesh buy its food grains is a bright example of such collaboration." (INAM AHMED/ The Daily Star/ ANN)