The UK-Bangladesh climate conference (London, 10 September 2008) has been a success at least on two counts: establishing Bangladesh's vulnerability to climate change and supporting its quest for financial assistance from international community to meeting the challenge. Attended by hundreds of members of GOs, NOGs and the civil society from Bangladesh, UK and across the European Union the conference reiterated the prevailing scientific prediction that at least 8 per cent of Bangladesh will be submerged under sea water by 2050 and that extreme weather condition will continue to wreak havoc in the national economy and human security.
In response, Bangladesh government formed an initial seed fund of $45m and UK government commits $132m, to be followed by more from the Netherlands, Denmark and the World Bank. The collection, to be known as Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF), is a significant starting point towards securing about $4 billion in the course of next fifteen years. Most of the fund is expected to gear up a series of programmes of 'adaptation' to the impact of climate change. These are all very simple equation: a poor, environmentally vulnerable country like Bangladesh shows commitment and determination to fight climate change and the international community responds positively. Yet, between the climatic science and dynamics of foreign aid, there are a few issues that demands serious attention.
First, the agreement has taken place between the UK government and a caretaker government in Bangladesh whose legitimacy is in doubt. In the context of the UK and European Union's continued pressure on this government to hold elections by December this year, the agreement seems to have been made in surprising haste and undue alacrity. The agreement will remain a bone of contention and will surely lead to protest and instability to be faced by the incumbent government.
Secondly, the entire proceedings of speeches, dialogues, recitation from creative writings, documentary shows and display of flyers and leaflets, there were no mention of the fact that despite its obvious risk to climate change, Bangladesh is, at the same time, one of the few counties in the world where a dynamic geological process of land-formation is going on in the coastal region, as reported by an environmental agency of Bangladesh government itself on the basis of satellite data. The failure to bring this issue in the conference leaves Bangladesh prone to a defensive 'adaptation' programme, although the given geological system in the region provides option for an aggressive scientific measure to enhance the natural process of the formation of new land mass, similar successful experiments having been taken up in the Netherlands.
Thirdly, the economics of the agreement is not clear. It is stated that the assistance comes in the form of a grant. It is not clear if the grant status applies to the rest of the projected amount of $4b. It is reported that the fund under MDTF will be under investment and interest accruing from it will be enough to sustain the continuous cost of adaptation in Bangladesh. This raises the question of where and with which financial institutions will the fund be invested? Is the total interest gain meant for use in Bangladesh? If not, where? There are also romanticised rumours that the fund offered by the UK is nothing but an example of pure compensation for the injustice caused to low-emitting countries like Bangladesh by high-emitting countries like the UK. If this is the case, a more reasonable option could be to have substantial debt relief for Bangladesh, which pay more than $1b in debt repayment to donors each year, rather than asking Bangladesh to set aside $45m from tax-payer's money. This is also a misnomer of compensation when no measurement of damage is yet comprehensively calculated. A further concern is that, as the Finance Adviser assured the delegates, the MDTF would be a 'window' for the NGOs and Civil Society so that they can access the fund 'direct', meaning an unfathomable chaos of multiple institutional interest and overlapping of activities.
Fourth, the proposed adaptation plan (Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (CCSAP) that the MDTF wants to carry out sounds alarming from an ecological perspective. The CCSAP seems to take major environmental, social and economic problems such as flood, drought, erosion and salinity or insecurity for human life and livelihood and above all poverty within the single package of climate change. It is assumed that all these problems will be solved if Bangladesh is 'climate-proofed'. This is preposterous.
The CCSAP tend to ignore the earth-bound specificity of some of the major environmental problems. For instance, draught in northern Bangladesh, which is now known as Monga-prone area, was common as early as Emperor Ashok's time 2000 years ago; water-logging rather than flood which is the key problem in Bangladesh today and the problem is increased by enormous extent of embankment from colonial times till date and the CCSAP proposes to build more ecologically unsustainable construction of bridges over meandering deltaic rivers with strong currents have led to siltation at some points and erosion; salinity in the coastal region is taking place because of sluggish current of sea-bound rivers due to erection of numerous bunds upstream within Indian territory and these enable seawater to overpower incoming sweetwater.
In Bangladesh, problems of livelihood and poverty are direct result of unequal access to existing resources and legal and administrative incapacity to ensure social justice than the melting ice of the Himalayas. If existing land in Bangladesh (even excluding the 8 per cent Bangladesh is going to 'surely' lose) is meaningfully reformed and already raised new landmass (including chars or river islets) are properly distributed among the landless and the land-poor, a lot of pressing social problems may be addressed.
Once put these issues in proper perspective, Bangladesh can take closer action on its mainstream development programmes while giving considered attention to the problem of climate change.
Sixthly, another alarming issue arising from taking this 'holistic' approach to climate change is the very destructive message it can send to democratic polity and governance.
Last but not least, British PM Gordon Brown in his video message to the conference hailed Bangladesh as 'world leader in climate change adaptation'. The host side has so generously depicted Bangladesh to be so throughout the conference. While this must be taken as a compliment, there is hardly anything to be complacent about it. Bangladesh is drawn into the driving seat which means it has also the responsibility to join together other developing countries by setting an 'example' of forming a global fund whose financial mechanism is not clearly charted. This is not to undermine potential lead position of Bangladesh in global context, but neither could anyone deny that debt is rising faster than the climate change and making Bangladesh a 'leader' in 'adaptation' campaign means most poor vulnerable countries would be persuaded to follow its lead in hazy climate deals-a responsibility Bangladesh can barely afford to take. In fact this agreement directly contradicts the collective goals of G77 and other poor countries in ensuring global climatic justice. Besides, Bangladesh is a country with little record of putting its own house in order through pragmatic and formative leadership so far; and yet given the task of leading the environmentally vulnerable world sounds a bit too ambitious.
In Bangladesh, there is a National Environmental Policy (NEP) and the new CCSAP must work within the framework of NEP which has a larger vision of the more immediate earth-bound environmental issues and of multiple local stake-holders, although it remains subject to further deliberations in the wake of challenges of climate change. International community, donors and well-wishers of Bangladesh must look beyond 'climate-proofing' Bangladesh and take a broader view of the situation. There is hardly any doubt that climate change is happening, but there are folks out there who are not yet ready to give up to the teleology of a doomsday predicted exclusively for Bangladesh.
The writer is a teacher in the Department of History, University of Dhaka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org