A tourist sits outside a cafe in a flooded St. Mark Square during floods in Venice in 2012. Pic: AP.

Climate change becomes the great leveller as Italy’s Adriatic jewel and Bangladesh’s poverty-stricken deltas face surprisingly similar problems

What do Bangladesh and Venice have in common? Most would guess little or nothing and it is indeed hard to see a link between the lush, green mangroves of the Bay of Bengal and the wooden piers lined with gondolas of the Venetian lagoon. But the two places share a common challenge, and a vital one at that: they both are among the most vulnerable places to climate change in the world.

According to the Asian Development Bank, more than 100 million hectares of arable land in Bangladesh could be affected by sea level rise, with saline water intrusion threatening drinking water supply, agriculture, and aquaculture.

“You have 170 million people squeezed in a tiny territory at the end of large rivers with a lot of coastline and an immense amount of erosion,” said Scott Leckie, director at Displacement Solutions, a Geneva-based non-profit association which works with displaced communities.

“Bangladesh is one of the most affected places by climate change and by climate displacement. Estimates point to 10-30 million people that could be displaced.” In an effort to prevent the worst from happening, his organization has identified 190 acres of land in seven locations in Chittagong district which could be allocated to displaced families.

But rising sea levels are not the only concern, as Josh Galperin, associate director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, made clear in an email interview with Asian Correspondent: “All the dangers of climate change are interrelated, so when we say that rising seas are a danger, it is also true that loss of habitat, decreased agriculture productivity, and weakened infrastructure, for example, are threatened because of higher temperatures.”

Climate change is also believed to be behind increasingly extreme weather phenomena. “The change of climate is manifest in many ways,” Mr Leckie said. “The most obvious is the rising sea level due to melting ice at the poles, but you also have increasingly strong and more frequent storms pretty much everywhere. They often are out season, stronger, and harder to predict.”

Floodwaters flow to a lower area as villagers rebuild an embankment in Bangladesh. Pic: AP.

Bangladesh has experienced some of the strongest cyclones and tropical storms in history. Research published by the World Bank reports that between 1877 and 1995 the South Asian nation was hit by 154 cyclones. “On average,” reads the paper, “a severe cyclone strikes Bangladesh every three years.”

One such event occurred in 2007, when the country was ravaged by Cyclone Sidr. According to UNICEF, its winds – sweeping the land at 240 kilometers per hour – caused 3,363 deaths, damaged 1.5 million homes and wrecked 2.5 million acres of cropland.

The trend is likely to persist and possibly worsen. Another study by the World Bank points out that “potential impact hotspots such as Bangladesh are projected to be confronted by increasing challenges from extreme river floods, more intense tropical cyclones, rising sea-level and  very high temperatures.” According to Mr Galperin, a “sea level rise will impact the availability of drinking water, will destroy agriculture productivity, and will make Bangladesh’s rise from poverty even more difficult. Moreover, flooding will drown rare coastal forest habitats and all the vulnerable species that live there.”

Venice, occupying the northernmost point of the relatively benign Adriatic Sea, is not affected by such large scale calamities. However, being a city built right on the sea rather than close to it means that the threat of rising water is a serious headache.

The city is already experiencing an increasing number of flooding – what the locals call ‘acqua alta’ – when the ground floor of the city is submerged and shop owners are busy pushing the water out rather than working. In a particularly bad case in 2012, the Adriatic surged to 1.4 meters above its normal level, submerging 70 per cent of the city center.

Venetians have lived with this phenomenon for a long time, but further sea level rises could have nefarious consequences. “Venice is a developed urban area. There, flooding threatens to destroy centuries of history, architectural, and cultural treasures, and a substantial tourism industry. There may also be health impacts as the polluted waters of the Venice canals rise more regularly into contact with residents and visitors,” argued Mr Galperin.

Authorities have started fighting back against the sea by putting in place a system of 78 underwater barriers which should insulate the city against dangerous flooding. The massive construction, called MOSE, is worth over 5 billion euros (US$6.9 billion) and, according to the project’s official website, should protect the city against tides up to three meters high and a sea rise of up to 60 cm in the coming century.

The MOSE is an interesting case of adaptation to climate change, a process which is ever more important if the world is to escape the worst effects of rising temperatures. According to Katherine Watts, head of energy at think tank Green Alliance, in order to effectively prevent future disasters people need to learn how to live with climate change. The process should be highly specific. “A lot depends on the impacts you are likely to face. If you are in the Himalayas and glaciers are melting you have to think about how you can manage that, while if you are living on the coasts it is entirely different,” Dr Watts pointed out.

“It is critical to focus on climate change mitigation and pollution reduction, but it is equally important to address adaptation,” argued Mr Galperin. “No matter how fast we move, climate change will disrupt our way of life, and we need to become more resilient and adaptable.”