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'Spiralling population strains Bangladesh sustainability'

Apr 28, 2009

Overpopulation in Bangladesh continues to increase the risks associated with global warming, says Professor Mahfuz R. Chowdhury from Long Island University, New York. With huge amount of landmass being lost to rising sea levels, the government needs to act more swiftly, he adds.

New York, United States: A perilous situation awaits Bangladesh due to rapid population growth. Unfortunately, the leaders of this poverty-stricken country of 150 million people seem unconcerned about the issue.

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In overpopulated Bangladesh, people virtually elbow each other in a land spanning 134,000 square kilometres with a population density of more than 1,100 people per square kilometre. While landmass is being lost to rising sea levels due to rains and floods, blamed on global warming, the population continues to increase at an unsustainable rate.

In 1971, when Bangladesh attained independence, its population was about 75 million. Since then it has doubled. The current growth rate varies from 1.5% to 2% a year according to different assessments.

Considering an annual average growth rate of 1.75% a year, Bangladesh’s population will double in the next 40 years; at the lowest growth rate it will double in 47 years.

This is like the current US population of 300 million living within the confines of the state of Wisconsin, which is close to the size of Bangladesh.

Despite such an ominous scenario, optimists point out that Bangladesh is improving in education and healthcare and has achieved a respectable economic growth rate of about 5% annually in recent decades. However, progress has had very little effect on overall poverty levels in the country. In fact, studies have revealed that poverty levels have risen and not decreased.

Reason for incongruity

In addition to massive corruption in the country, which has benefited few and slowed potential economic growth, the main reason for this incongruity is the rapid growth of the country’s underprivileged population, whose unemployment rate remains extremely high.

"Experts believe that the effects of climate change will severely impact Bangladesh’s population"

While population growth among the educated class has declined considerably, it has doubled among the underprivileged, who constitute a big majority. Since poor people have no steady income they customarily want more children as security and support in their old age.

They get married at an early age and produce children they are unable to support and educate. The irony is that children born in such a situation tend to breed more. This is the current situation in Bangladesh.

Experts believe that the effects of climate change will severely impact Bangladesh’s population, which is dependent on its limited natural resources. Given the spiralling population growth, depletion of vital resources such as fresh water, forests and farmland will strain the country’s sustainability.

Bad living conditions

The country is also experiencing an unusual rise in a mosquito population that has grown more resistant to pesticides, which in turn is spreading diseases like malaria and dengue fever with devastating effects.

Most of the country’s landmass is close to sea level and about 40% gets flooded during the monsoon season. The situation has further worsened since India started diverting water in the dry season, causing the country’s river system to be filled with silt and sediment, making it difficult to handle the water load during the monsoons.

In recent times, small shifts in weather patterns have intensified flooding, causing more deaths and rendering millions homeless. When coastal areas begin to submerge under water, people have no alternative but to migrate to higher land.

"Living conditions in Dhaka are in a continuous state of deterioration"

This process of migration to higher ground has already begun and will intensify as coastal areas are increasingly flooded. The pressure is on Dhaka, the capital city, as more people cram into this already overcrowded city each day.

Living conditions in Dhaka are in a continuous state of deterioration. People lack basic amenities like electricity and clean drinking water. Other cities fare no better and encroachment on government land even in rural areas is a common sight. This is likely to result in people migrating to neighbouring India.

Migration woes

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts exactly such a scenario. As sea levels rise, about 35 million people from Bangladesh will cross over into India by 2050, the panel estimates.

Climate change is likely to affect and impact the world’s food supply. Scientists predict that world harvests will drop 20 to 40% by the end of this century as a result of global warming. So the crucial issue is whether Bangladesh can meet its food requirements, given the anticipated massive food shortage, its growing population and the loss of farmland when world food supplies decline.

"Experts have advocated the concept of compact townships to avoid the congestion of people in major cities"

Some experts have advocated the concept of “compact townships” to avoid the congestion of people in major cities and limit the pressure on farmland. Others, however, believe that the country is growing by about 20 square kilometres annually. Dismissing the idea of land growth, Atiq Rahman, a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said, “The rate at which sediment is deposited and new land is created is much slower than the rate at which climate change and sea level rises are taking place.”

No meaning economic expansion possible

Without addressing population growth, Bangladesh cannot be expected to achieve meaningful economic expansion to avert large-scale poverty, which in turn can lead to anarchy.

In fact, constant rioting on university campuses, unrelenting deadly confrontations in the political arena, the rise of fundamentalism, terrorist activities and serious economic distress followed by general lawlessness and social unrest are indicators of such an eventuality.

The unprecedented uprising among the country’s border guards in February 2009, which resulted in the murder of nearly 60 senior army commanding officers, and the discovery of a huge arms cache in a religious school compound in a secluded coastal area, are glaring examples of how circumstances in Bangladesh are changing its social landscape for the worse. Social scientists believe such episodes will escalate as the situation further worsens.

To control its spiralling population, Bangladesh could draw important lessons from countries like China, which has taken the most drastic measure of restricting the number of children per family to just one. China is in a unique position to adopt such a policy.

Even though it has embraced a capitalist economy, its Communist Party continues to exercise total control over government policy. In pursuing its population policy, China has instituted a social security system for the elderly.

Population policy

At a recent meeting of the Bangladesh Population Council, local experts openly discussed and stressed the need for adopting a policy similar to the one implemented by China.

However, for a traditional society like Bangladesh with neither a viable social security system nor a strong authoritarian government, the Chinese policy of one child per family would be hard to implement.

The biggest hurdle would be the wrath of religious fundamentalists. Illiterate people are easily manipulated in the name of religion. Their argument that children are the gift of God and are cared for by God is still embraced by many underprivileged people.

India, in the past, tried to restrict its population growth through legislation but had to abandon such a policy due to tremendous social and religious pressures.

Bangladesh, in the past, vigorously advocated family planning measures to curb population growth. But its last elected government became ambivalent about it, probably pressured by a religious party that was one of its coalition partners. It remains to be seen how the newly elected government tackles this issue.

Setting the age limit for marriage

Bangladesh should also enforce a law stating the minimum age for marriage. It must discourage people from getting married without a steady income, mandate attending prescribed classes on family planning for both prospective brides and grooms, and institute some kind of social security system for the elderly.

Subjects such as birth control and contraception should be taught to the uneducated rural people in innovative ways, through simple video presentations on sexuality, health, hygiene, child bearing, family planning and birth control, followed by question-and-answer sessions.

Considering the overall poverty level, special emphasis should be given to inexpensive and relatively safe methods of birth control -- like the timely withdrawal method. This form of birth control may be more acceptable to religious leaders. Besides, traditional birth control pills are not free from side effects, which is an impediment.

Stabilising the population through mass education is a huge challenge for the Bangladeshi government as the country lacks resources for such a massive undertaking. The international community, however, can help Bangladesh tackle this problem.

"Bangladesh is an innocent victim of global warming caused mainly by carbon emissions of industrialised nations"

Bangladesh is an innocent victim of global warming caused mainly by carbon emissions of industrialised nations. From a humanitarian viewpoint, if uncontrolled population forces Bangladesh to become a failed state, it will negatively impact other economies as well.

Thousands of non-governmental organisations are currently operating in Bangladesh and influencing the lives of many poor people. By taking a unified stand and educating the public on family planning, NGOs can contribute more in advancing the cause of humanity.

Expatriate Bangladeshis are also morally obligated to come forward to help meet this great challenge in their own innovative ways.

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