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Week of 10.23.09

Transcript: Water World

BRANCACCIO: Here's the power of clairvoyance: in early December, you'll see a pile of news reports out of Copenhagen, Denmark. Leaders from around the world will be there to figure out what's next for climate change. As we speak, lower level officials are horse-trading and knocking see if a comprehensive agreement is possible to slow the amount of greenhouse gases that get pumped into the atmosphere. That meeting comes too late for parts of Bangladesh, where global warming is already forcing drastic and dramatic changes in daily life. Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Amy Bucher have our report.

HINOJOSA: Imagine you lived in a world of water, where dry land is a scarce and precious commodity, something you dream about while fording rivers that used to be streets, while going about the daily business of living, up to your elbows in water. This is what the future could look like for much of the planet if the current pace of climate change continues.

RAHMAN: Millions of people will have to move...this is going to affect everybody.

HINOJOSA: But some places in the world are already underwater. Bangladesh is on the front lines of climate change. Though it has contributed virtually nothing to cause the problem, it's one of the countries getting hit hardest by global warming. I've come to Bangladesh to see how people here are adapting to life in a world shaped by water.

What do you call those boats?

REZWAN: Climate Shelters.

HINOJOSA: Climate shelters.

REZWAN: It's powered by solar. You can see the panels on the top.

HINOJOSA: From building floating communities to actually creating new land.

PINCHELL: This is a kind of automatic solution for the future.

HINOJOSA: People here are searching for innovative solutions to the enormous problems caused by climate change. Simple geography is what makes the country of Bangladesh so vulnerable. With 230 rivers and a huge coastline, water is everywhere. It comes from the sky, it comes from Himalayan glaciers melting to the north, and more and more, it comes from the sea. On May 27th, a devastating cyclone slammed the southern coast of Bangladesh. A 16 foot wall of water from the storm surge breached the protective embankment around Gabura Island in more than a dozen different places, flooding the interior with sea water. This is the fifth cyclone to hit Bangladesh in less than three years. Scientists now point to the increase in power and frequency of "extreme weather events" like cyclone Aila as evidence that global warming has arrived.

RAHMAN It's not a question of whether it will come, when it will come; it has come.

HINOJOSA: In the capital city of Dhaka, I meet environmental scientist Dr. Atiq Rahman, considered one of the world's leading experts on the human impacts of climate change.

RAHMAN: This is where the flood level will increase.

HINOJOSA: Rahman is alarmed by the heavy toll climate change is already taking on the planet.

RAHMAN: We are using the word climate change, global warming, these are soft words. What really is happening is a catastrophic climate destabilization.

HINOJOSA: People need to understand the term now is catastrophic climate destabilization.

RAHMAN: Irreversible destabilization.

HINOJOSA: Irreversible.

RAHMAN: Yes. What used to be a cyclone every 10 to 15 years, is now every 2 to 3 years, and even more frequent than that.

HINOJOSA: More and more often, aid workers like Chayan Rozario, with Oxfam, are seeing the harshest effects of climate change strike the people in Bangladesh who are least able to protect themselves.

ROZARIO: The poor and the extremely poor are suffering the most from environmental disasters. People who are better off they're able to afford better homes in better locations, so they are less affected.

HINOJOSA: 20,000 refugees from the cyclone now cling to a man-made embankment barely 20 feet across. It was supposed to protect their island. Now, this fragile perch is the only safe place people have left to go. Here families crowd into makeshift housing. Food is in short supply, and so is the thing people need most to survive. It is a bitter irony: surrounded by water on every side, there is nothing for the people of Gabura to drink. All the wells on the island have been tainted with salt from the storm surge. The only reliable source of fresh water is a boat ride across the channel, on the mainland. 11-year old Halima makes the journey with other children from the refugee camp. It takes several trips a day to collect enough fresh water to meet all the needs of her family.

HALIMA: I come at 7 and 8, and 10 in the morning.

QUESTION: And how long have you been doing this?

HALIMA: Three or four months.

HINOJOSA: Four months since the cyclone and there is still no relief in sight. Restoring the island will be an enormous and potentially impossible task. First, they have to rebuild the earth embankment, by hand. Workers estimate it will take months to fill all the gaps and strengthen the wall. Rebuilding individual houses will have to wait until then. For now, refugees are trying to make do with what little they have. Aminor, his wife Mita, and their family are heading back to visit the home in Gabura they fled during the storm surge, hoping they can find something left to salvage. Their route takes them across Gabura's flooded interior. Before the cyclone, this was all land, villages, gardens and walkways. Now, there's only water. And where Aminor and Mita's house used to be, just a mound of dirt and a collapsed roof top.

MITA It's all gone. We used to have a house with a bed, a closet, a table, and some chairs, we weren't able to take any of them with us.

AMINUR We don't think we'll ever be able to return to our homes. How will we survive? I don't think we'll ever have a normal life again.

HINOJOSA: With their world going under, Aminor and Mita may be left with only one choice: to become refugees of climate change. In ever increasing numbers, displaced Bangladeshi's are seeking higher ground in the capital of Dhaka, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Some 3.5 million people now crowd into Dhaka's slums, in densely packed shacks of tin and cardboard. Just across the river from expensive condos, children dip their nets in the polluted waters, but their catch is meager at best.
The boat man we've hired to ferry us across the channel to visit the slum is himself a climate refugee.

How exactly did you end up coming to Dhaka from your village? Why?

BOATMAN: The flood took away our homes. And then, what could we eat? There was no food. Where we came from, I used to work at the market. But when the flood came, there was no work. Hopeless, I came to Dhaka.

HINOJOSA: Did you ever imagine that the weather, the climate would be the thing that would end up changing your life?

BOATMAN: No, this thought never occurred to me. I never imagined this would happen.

HINOJOSA: If the current pace of climate change continues, millions more people will share Kithisra's fate. Scientists warn that climbing temperatures are melting the world's glaciers much faster than was first estimated. With no reduction in carbon emissions sea levels will rise, with devastating consequences for Bangladesh. Just a one-meter increase means 20% of the land will disappear, and millions of people will lose their homes.

For one meter that the sea level rises, how many people are displaced?

RAHMAN: About 35 million people.

HINOJOSA: And how long does it take for one-meter of...

RAHMAN: Right. That is the question, depends on how much, you know green house gases do the Americans, and the Canadian, and the others produce, and how far are they willing to pull it back in Copenhagen. Are they going to release it faster, are they going to - I mean it's a suicidal act you are in. It's a question of how quickly you want to commit it.

HINOJOSA: You're saying that the United States is in a suicidal act?

RAHMAN: The whole planet is. They are the leaders.

HINOJOSA: One meter. 35 million climate refugees. Bangladesh is already one of the world's most densely populated countries, and will not have room for all of them. Atiq Rahman believes that nations that produce the most greenhouse gases, like china and the United States, will have an obligation to take them in.
You have this down to a calculation. You say, that for a country that produces "X" amount of carbon emissions, they should take in "X" amount of people from Bangladesh?

RAHMAN: Those that produced, say one hundred tons of carbon will have to take a Bangladeshi family instead.

HINOJOSA: And when you hear somebody from the United States say "there's no way that you're going to get the United States to start bringing in hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis"...

RAHMAN: We do not have the capability in Bangladesh to hold our people back once sea level rise has come in. Millions of people will move. They will find their way. Who wants a confrontational world? I don't. I want these people to have their right to live with dignity. Now that nobody can refuse. The question is, why have they lost their life and dignity? It's somebody else's carbon dioxide. It's somebody else's greenhouse gases. So, that somebody else will have to take responsibility.

HINOJOSA: But the people of Bangladesh can't afford to wait for international treaties to curb carbon emissions. All across the country, the water is rising. Already, they must figure out how to survive and adapt to life in a world transformed by climate change. I'm heading to northwest Bangladesh, where remote communities are finding a new way to prepare for a flood - with cell phone technology.

MITA: Yes, yes, today we got two plus. Perhaps the water level will rise. We'll wait to see if we get another text.

HINOJOSA: Mita Islam is on the receiving end of a steady stream of text messages that could save thousands of lives.

Two pluses, what does that mean?

MITA: 2 plus means the water level will rise the length of one arm.

HINOJOSA: This much water ...

MITA: Yes.

HINOJOSA: When you have three or four pluses, this is a problem...

MITA: Yes. Then there is a problem. It's a terrifying flood.

HINOJOSA: Mita's text messages are actually the result of an international joint venture. hydrological and satellite data from Bangladesh is analyzed at Georgia tech in the united states and then sent back as flood forecasts that can warn communities up to ten days in advance.

HASSAN: This is amazing information. They're not only telling us water is going to rise or fall, but how much quantity of water is coming to the system.

HINOJOSA: Ahmadul Hassan's team converts the forecasts from Georgia Tech into text messages, which go out daily to a vast network of local volunteers who share them with their community. In Rajshahi district, the text warnings are also received by Jahangar Alam, who responds by raising flags to help alert the village to the changing status of the river. Blue flags mean the water is rising, the number of flags tell people how high, and how soon they need to prepare themselves for a flood.

What does this program mean to you?

MITA: I have small children at home, I have some older relatives. I have rice crops. When I get notice of a flood, I can bring them to higher land.

HINOJOSA: These new forecasts give people a chance to escape a flood before it hits. That might save lives, but it doesn't help people live with the coming water. And that's where architect Mohammed Rezwan comes in.

REZWAN: The only way to live with water is to have a floating community.

HINOJOSA: If you can't beat the water, you might as well join it. In the province of Natore, this little girl is heading to school. Until recently, getting an education for Aysha was almost out of the question. Constant flooding of the many rivers here routinely closed, or even destroyed the few schools available. But a few years ago, that all changed. Now, instead of fighting the floods to get to school, the children of Natore can wait for the school to come to them.

When you found out that you were going to go to school on a boat, what did you think about that?

AYSA: I really thought it was wonderful. I really like it when the boat goes from place to place to pick up the students.

HINOJOSA: Like Aysha, Rezwan himself grew up in this area, and remembers how difficult it was to reach school when the rivers flooded. As an architect, he crafted an elegant solution: floating classrooms. With the students all on board, the business of learning gets underway. And with solar powered electricity, Aysa is even learning a skill that will open countless doors for her in the future:

AYSA: I like learning how to write my name, making it large, making it small, and changing the color.

HINOJOSA: When you grow up, what do you want to do?

AYSA: I want to be a teacher.

HINOJOSA: A teacher?

AYSA: Yes. The floating-school comes and teaches all the poor children. I want to do the same.

HINOJOSA: Today, some 1,500 children are getting an education aboard a fleet of 18 floating schools. For the first time in this region, flooded rivers won't interrupt the school year. And now, Rezwan has another vision. He's showing me the prototype for a new kind of floating accommodation that will provide housing to families in times of flooding.

What do you call those boats?

REZWAN: Climate shelters.

HINOJOSA: Climate shelters.

REZWAN: Yeah, you can see the middle boat that is a service boat. It is powered by solar. You can see the panels on the top. And the other four boats are for housing.

HINOJOSA: You actually want to set it up with a kitchen, a bed. You want to tell people, look, we are going to make it ok for you to survive.

REZWAN: This is the best example.

HINOJOSA: How soon do you think that these boats will have climate refugees on them?

REZWAN: The water level is very close to the ground level. So within the next three or four days the water will reach the houses.

HINOJOSA: Three or four days!

REZWAN: Yeah, it has increased over the last few days rapidly.

HINOJOSA: But you probably need not dozens but hundred of these boats.

REZWAN: Perhaps millions.

HINOJOSA: Billions. Rezwan can't build these shelters fast enough. The water is here, and rising. Four families may occupy these boats in a matter of days, but a fleet of millions is a distant dream.

What happens if no one prepares with these shelter boats, what happens?

REZWAN: It will be a big disaster for the country.

HINOJOSA: But even if Rezwan gets every refugee into a climate shelter, housing is only half of the problem. Climate change also threatens Bangladesh's primary source of food.

RAFIQUL: We have to grow rice, even if there are floods. We won't survive without it.

HINOJOSA: Most of us remember Bangladesh as the poster child of famine, but in the last few decades the country has made great strides to increase rice harvests and is now almost entirely self-sufficient in food supply. But climate change flooding threatens to undermine this incredible progress.

BAHRI: In this area there are 16 rivers. When these rivers come together, then the water covers the land and it doesn't move for 10 to15 days. The crops are ruined.

HINOJOSA: Bangladesh sought help from the international rice research institute in the Philippines. In 2007, farmers began field testing an experimental strain of flood resistant rice.

RAFIQUL: They started sprouting stems in every direction until the crop was very thick and healthy.

HINOJOSA: The seedlings thrived.

RAFIQUL: Even after being under water for 10 to 15 days there's no reduction in the harvest.

BAHRI: This has been a miracle, especially for the flood prone areas.

HINOJOSA: Flood resistant rice that can hold its breath underwater. It's the kind of breakthrough Bangladesh desperately needs. And here's another: what if flood waters that swallowed dry land could be harnessed to create more land? It may sound impossible, but this is exactly what Dr. Gerard Pichel, a civil and hydraulic engineer trained in the Netherlands, hopes to achieve.

PICHEL: This is a kind of automatic solution for the future.

HINOJOSA: Gerard draws inspiration from what he sees here on the island of Jumuna. Ten years ago, this land didn't exist. It was created by a natural accumulation of sediments deposited by the shifting course of the Jumuna River. Gerard plans to help nature along and accelerate the process.

PICHEL: What is going on here on the bed of the sea, is sediment is moving also, along the coast, either in this direction in one season and then another opposite direction in another season. So I have to know how they behave, and then I can catch them here, and immobilize them and then concentrate them on one location to create an island.

HINOJOSA: So create an island?


HINOJOSA: Out of sediment?

PICHEL: Out of sediment. Because nature is depositing and adding all the time, extra sediment on this small island, and I can enhance it by building some obstructions underwater. And then nature will do its work by adding more and more sediment every day. The potential is very big for the future to reclaim all this area here even.

HINOJOSA: But all of Bangladesh's efforts to adapt to their world of water may not be enough or come soon enough to save it's land and its people. Just a few miles from the area decimated by the recent cyclone, climate change has spawned another deadly consequence.

POLICE OFFICER: It appears that a tiger came in from the forest and attacked this woman.

HINOJOSA: The islands just to the south are home to one of the world's largest populations of Bengal tigers. Now, rising tides are swallowing their habitat, and reducing their prey. The hungry tigers have taken to the sea, crossing the channels in search of a new food supply.

POLICE OFFICER: Since the floods, the tigers have been coming more often. It's only a small river to cross, they're able to come here quite easily.

HINOJOSA: This latest attack happened just a few steps away from a populated village.

RASHEDA So many people have been taken away by tigers, I have never seen anything like this before. It makes me scared.

HINOJOSA: This too, is what climate change looks like in Bangladesh...

RAHMAN: It does make you angry...these are the people who have not caused any of the problem of climate change, who are the victims of climate change.

HINOJOSA: Scientists like Dr. Rahman believe the only hope for Bangladesh—and for the entire planet—is what they call mitigation: aggressively reducing harmful emissions, and our impact on the climate.

RAHMAN: Adaptation is not a solution to the problem. This can buy you a little time. What we say is mitigation, which is reduction of greenhouse gases is the best form of adaptation.

HINOJOSA: And when you hear an American say, "I'm very sorry that that's happening to Bangladesh, but it's not happening to the United States, so I see no relationship." What do you say when you hear somebody say that to you?

RAHMAN: Very soon, those who are creating the problem will start suffering the problem. It's not a question of time. It's not that distant. Florida will go under water. New York will go under water. Yes, Bangladesh is on the forefront. We are paying the first price. That doesn't mean others are going to have a good time.

BRANCACCIO: From Bangladesh to Baltimore there is a lot at stake in that forthcoming summit in Copenhagen about climate change. Will the needs and requirements of the most vulnerable countries, like Bangladesh, be heard? You can drill down on what is really happening in the run up to the summit. You'll find it only on our website. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Water World

Slideshow: Coastal Crisis

Interview: Bill McKibben

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