OPINION: In conversation… with Saleemul Huq – Extended Version, Part 3
Part 3: Bangladesh, the iconic country for climate change
Simon Maxwell: We’re interested in the question of what Bangladesh might look like by 2030, say if there were no climate change and what changes we have to make if there is climate change.
Saleemul Huq: Let me look back a generation, since Bangladesh became independent in 1971. I think over that period there’s been several major achievements in Bangladesh. The population growth rate has come down very considerably, from something in the region of 3% a year to less than 2% a year in a predominantly Muslim country without cohesion and that’s the major breakthrough – getting the Muslim Imams on board on family planning, providing mother and child care to the population. At the same time we’ve also improved education of the populous in general, particularly girls education and now women going into the workforce for example in the textile and garment industry.
Simon: Well now here we have Bangladesh a successful country, if we project all that to 2030, I imagine you would say Bangladesh is likely to be much more industrialised, much larger service sector, 2% growth a year still gives us quite a big increase in the population by 2030. Does Bangladesh find its place in the world in that region where you have your Thailands and your Malaysias and of course India growing so fast and China on the other side? Where’s Bangladesh’s niche going to be?
Saleem: Well Bangladesh sees itself in the next 20 years becoming a middle income country maybe in the order of between Thailand and Malaysia – it has the ability to do so. We have a very thriving private sector and very capable entrepreneurs who’ve established themselves in certain sectors in the garments and textiles in particular, they can upgrade to higher technologies; very thriving mobile phone sector for example in Bangladesh; and a very thriving social, entrepreneurial sector. In fact we have, by some accounts, the biggest NGO in the world, BRAC, which is now an international NGO working in Afghanistan and in many countries in Africa,
Simon: And of course Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize Winner?
Saleem: And we have Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen bank in micro finance as well.
Simon: Now if we take that picture which is an optimistic picture for Bangladesh, how does climate change threaten the trajectory?
Saleem: Well climate change threatens the trajectory quite significantly. I mean Bangladesh in the climate change world has become the iconic vulnerable country, we have floods which are going to get worse, we have cyclones which are going to get more frequent or more intense, we have droughts in part of the country during part of the year as well. So most of the climatic impacts other than very dry conditions are going to affect the country and it will affect agriculture, it will affect livelihoods of people, but these are not unknowns, these are things, as I’ve mentioned, we have coped with in the past; they’ll just get worse. So we need to be much, much better prepared than we used to be. A few years ago, when we had a major flood in Bangladesh, I happened to be in the country and the Prime Minister’s Secretary, in the Prime Minister’s office, who was organising the relief effort invited me to a meeting and he asked me, he said – is this what we should expect with climate change, what should we do – and I said – well yes this is the kind of thing you should expect and what you need to do is expect it every year, don’t wait for the next 20 years for the next one in 20 year flood, assume it might happen next year; prepare yourself.
Simon: Tells us a bit about how Bangladesh is addressing that challenge of managing the planning and the politics of climate change.
Saleem: Well I’ll give you my personal take on it, which I think is evolving from having the climate change issue be part in the ghetto of environment. It was seen as an environment problem and the economic pressing issues of development and growth were seen as much more important and environment was a luxury we couldn’t afford, or we worry about later on; that I think has changed dramatically now. Even the highest political levels in the government and in political parties more generally.
Simon: And is that a cross party issue or is it part of the political conversation at large?
Saleem: It’s absolutely a cross party issue, I’ll give you one example – the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan that I mentioned was prepared about a year and a half ago by the previous government, and it was prepared by Bangladeshi national research experts and government people with consultation from civil society, and it was presented to the Cabinet about a year and a half ago, and the finance minister at the time was so taken with this he said – why are we waiting for international assistance to do this, we should do it ourselves – and he allocated $50 million worth of Bangladeshi currency in his own national budget to implement a climate change strategy and action plan. And then that started rolling out and then we had elections and a new government came in. The new finance Minister added another $50 million to the climate change strategy, they adopted it lock stock and barrel and Bangladesh has now put $100 million of its own money into implementing its climate change strategy. At the same time it’s asking for international assistance as well, but it’s not waiting for that to happen.
Simon: How necessary is it for Bangladesh that there be an international climate accord to replace Kyoto and how necessary is it to have the level of international funding – the $100 billion a year that’s been talked about to support the poor and vulnerable countries?
Saleem: Well on the first point I think it’s absolutely essential. There’s only so much that the poor and vulnerable countries can do to adapt to the major impacts of higher temperatures, global temperatures, maybe a degree, one and a half degrees up to possible two degrees they could do it themselves, but if it goes to three, three and a half, four degrees, which is where we’re now projected to go, then they’re not going to be able to manage at all, and not only them the entire globe is going to be in very, very big trouble. And that can only be solved by a global agreement to bring down emissions by the major emitters of the world. At the more, mundane level of how they can cope with themselves, as I said they’re putting $100 million in themselves. Their own cost estimate is in the region of 3 to 5 billion, so they are very far short of reaching that. They have set up something called the Climate Change Resilience Fund, where they’ve invited international donors to provide assistance. The UK’s put in money, Denmark, Japan and a few other countries. They’ve already raised over 100 million in that trust fund as well. So in a sense there is a good example of a country a, being proactive, and b, the donors and the supporters also being proactive in terms of not competing with each other but working together to help the country.
Simon: Saleemul Huq, thank you very much for joining me.
Saleem: Thank you.