The Earth is getting warmer; the Antarctic ice is melting.
Scientists expect that by the end of this century, many low-lying districts of Bangladesh will be permanently inundated; the agricultural lands in these districts will be lost. In “The Unfolding Tragedy of Climate Change in Bangladesh” (published on the Scientific American website) Robert Glennon writes:
“A three-foot rise in sea level would submerge almost 20% of the entire country and displace more than 30 million people. Some scientists project a five-to-six foot rise by 2100, which would displace perhaps 50 million people … Already, the intruding sea has contaminated groundwater, which supplies drinking water for coastal regions, and degraded farmland, rendering it less fertile and eventually barren.”
When millions of people lose their homes and their farms, they will move to cities in search of work. As cities expand to accommodate millions of migrants, they will swallow up even more agricultural land.
At some point, Bangladesh will become permanently dependent on imported food; self-sufficiency in rice production is no longer a realistic long-term goal. A more realistic long-term goal would be to create enough industrial jobs to ensure that the poor are employed, and can afford to buy imported rice. This is possible, but will require careful planning.
The crux of the problem is that Dhaka and Chittagong, the traditional destinations for migrants from the countryside, cannot accommodate millions of more migrants. The slums which house the working class in Dhaka are unliveable; many of them occupy low-lying areas of the cities which periodically flood with rainwater and raw sewage.
Chittagong has already expanded to risky hillsides, whose residents live with the danger of fatal landslides. We simply cannot allow the unplanned growth of these two cities to continue.
We need to create at least 20 industrial cities which will eventually house and employ a total population of 50 million
SEZs show the way
Fortunately, the government has already taken the first step, which will create alternative destinations for migrants: Several Special Economic Zones (SEZs) have been created in different districts. As factories and mills are set up in these SEZs, they will tend to grow into industrial cities; the government should encourage this growth by investing in the towns and villages near each SEZ.
The employees of each SEZ will need government schools, universities, hospitals, magistrate courts, and of course infrastructure like roads, sewage, railways, and power distribution.
If the government makes all these investments, a well-planned industrial city can grow around each SEZ.
As climate change and population growth will probably create 50 million migrants, we need to create at least 20 industrial cities which will eventually house and employ a total population of 50 million people. The infrastructure required for 20 industrial towns will probably require the government to invest about $20 billion.
Fortunately, the government can finance this by taxing fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal). Burning fossil fuels is what caused the crisis of rising sea levels, so it makes sense that fossil fuels should be taxed to raise money for adaptation to rising sea levels.
Creating industrial cities is not just a matter of building infrastructure; private capital will be required to set up factories in the new cities.
The private sector will probably require about $20bn to set up 10,000 factories (at an average investment of $2m per factory).
Let the taka float
The best way to ensure that these investments are made is to allow private banks in Bangladesh to borrow money from abroad (where interest rates are very low), so they can lend to industrial companies at low interest rates.
In the past, the private sector in Bangladesh has been forced to borrow money at high interest rates; other countries which have convertible, floating currencies are easily able to attract large amounts of capital from abroad.
It is time to make the taka a freely floating currency, and to make it convertible for capital account transactions (transfers of assets). Foreign financial institutions will then have the confidence to lend large amounts of money to Bangladeshi banks.
Only private banks should be allowed to borrow money from abroad; massive fraud and loan default have illustrated that the state-owned banks are thoroughly corrupt, and should not be allowed to expand their lending business. State-owned banks should only be allowed to lend their deposits to private banks.
Once industrial cities have been created, and foreign capital has been attracted to Bangladesh to finance new factories, Bangladeshis who lose their land to rising sea levels will naturally move to the new industrial cities to find employment.
Bangladesh will have successfully transformed into an industrial economy; preventing hunger will then be a simple matter of adjusting the minimum wage to ensure that the average working family can afford imported rice.
Zahin Hasan is a businessman, and a member of the board of directors of the Dhaka Tribune.