Mohammed Khan was a child when the deadliest cyclone ever recorded struck Bangladesh (at the time East Pakistan) in 1970. The cyclone brought torrential rains and winds stronger than those seen during Hurricane Katrina. As many as half a million people were killed. Then river waters rose and claimed the land.
â€œMy family lives on an island called Bhola,â€ Khan recalls. â€œThey have some land, but a lot of the land was taken by the river during a great flood.â€
Khan, 51, who now lives in Queens, N.Y., has a daughter and more than 200 family members in Bangladesh. Heâ€™s worried about how his large extended family will fare when the next cyclone strikes, and he fears climate change will worsen such disasters.
â€œAs the water levels rise in the next few years, much of southern Bangladesh will go into the womb of the river,â€ he says.
Concern about climate change among the public has waned, but the issue is foremost among many Bangladeshi Americans, because of the vulnerability of Bangladesh to climate change. Some community members are organizing seminars to learn about how rising seas and extreme weather will play out in their home country, and theyâ€™re making their voices heard on the political front.
Bangladesh is often considered ground zero for climate change. Crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers, much of the country is a massive flat delta, extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. As global warming pushes sea levels higher, Bangladesh would have the most land inundated among its South Asian neighbors, according to the World Bank. If sea levels rise by one meter, as much as a fifth of the country could be submerged, displacing about 20 million people.
In the last few years, awareness about climate change has grown among Bangladeshi Americans.
Hasan Rahim, a software engineering consultant based in San Jose, says Al Goreâ€™s documentary, â€œAn Inconvenient Truth,â€ was a wake-up call for him and many Bangladeshis in Silicon Valley. Rahim, who also teaches math and statistics at San Jose City College, says he organized screenings of the film in his community.
Rahim connected the filmâ€™s dire predictions about climate change to his homeland. â€œWe live here, but we have roots there,â€ he says. â€œWe are connected and we have got to become more aware of [climate change impacts].â€
More than a dozen rivers, including the mighty Ganges, Brahmaputra, Jamuna and Meghna, flow across Bangladesh, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The southern part of the country is a massive delta, with its fertile land known as the countryâ€™s rice bowl.
â€œItâ€™s really a concern. Weâ€™re a small country with 150 million people, so lots of people would lose their houses, land, and become homeless,â€ says Abu Taher, editor of the newspaper Bangla Patrik, in New York. He says people want to know the future consequences of climate change on the country so they can tell family members to take precautions.
When he travels to Bangladesh, Khan says he notices changes in the environment. There used to be three crop seasons, he says, but now thereâ€™s one. â€œNormally, we would have floods during the rainy season, but now there is no one season for floods anymore,â€ Khan adds.
A construction worker, Khan also heads up a group made up of immigrants from Barisal, a southern province that is frequently hard hit by cyclones and flooding. The group has organized seminars to learn more about how climate change will affect Bangladesh. From the United States, Khan says he sometimes feels powerless to help his family back home.
â€œThereâ€™s nowhere for them to go. Bangladesh is a small country,â€ he says. â€œWhere would they get the land? Who will give us the money? I can just advise them to use the deep tube wells to get clean water.â€
Khan says his group wants to share the information with U.S. elected officials, and tell them they want the United States to curb its own pollution and help vulnerable nations.
â€œAmerica as a leader should help all the poor and affected countries, including Bangladesh,â€ Khan says. â€œAffected families are dying without food, without a roof over their heads. We should provide financial assistance and even bring them here.â€
In the last two decades, Bangladesh suffered the most deaths and greatest economic losses as a result of extreme weather events, according to Germanwatchâ€™s Global Climate Risk Index 2010.
At the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December, the United States and other developed nations pledged $100 billion in aid to countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
â€œIt would make all the difference in the world if the aid were used not to buy finished products like solar panels, but to develop local indigenous talent,â€ says Rahim.
Bangladeshis have already had to adapt to higher sea levels, Rahim says.
â€œPeople who raised chickens are now raising ducks,â€ he says, and farmers are experimenting with â€œfloating seed bedsâ€ to save crops during floods.
Until more funds are directed to helping people adapt to climate change, more frequent and more intense storms and floods will create more environmental refugees.
Queens resident Sheikh Islam says refugees have already poured into the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, which the World Wildlife Federation ranked as the city most vulnerable to climate change impacts out of 11 Asian coastal cities.
Islam says thereâ€™s more recognition now that climate change is causing the refugee surge into the city.
â€œThey thought the migrants who came to the city were just jobless and landless. Now, the government is mentioning that they are jobless and landless because of climate change,â€ he says.
Islam says thereâ€™s also a growing perception that Western developed countries bear more responsibility for the problem because they contribute the most to carbon emissions blamed for global warming.
â€œNow, people know about climate change and they are talking about it,â€ Islam says. â€œThree to five years ago they donâ€™t talk about it. They thought it was our problem. Now they think it is a global problem.â€