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Sink or Swim: The Climate Crisis We Caused in Bangladesh

By Afiya Rahman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Afiya Rahman ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

When I recall the nation I was born in, my memories of the brief time I spent there are conjured through rose-tinted glasses. I recall lush fields of green rice paddies, ponds decorated with lily pads and frogs, and trees bursting with fruit. Besides myself, Bangladesh is home to 168 million people — yet the nation was only recently born through blood and struggle over 50 years ago. Now, Bangladesh faces great struggle again.

The majority of the nation sits on the largest river delta in the world, at the confluence of the mighty Ganges, Jamuna, and Meghna Rivers. These rivers are Bangladesh’s lifeblood; they are the waterways that produce the rich agricultural soil that dubs the nation the “Land of Rivers.”

My rose-tinted glasses are gone now. Where there were once rice paddies, there is now just water; where there were once ponds full of life, they are now buried under the currents; and where there was once beautiful agriculture, there is now only erosion and destruction.

The Land of Rivers is quickly becoming the sea, and no one is coming to save it.

Two-thirds of Bangladesh sits at less than 15 feet above sea level. By 2050, one in seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. This past summer, catastrophic flash floods — the worst in Bangladesh in over a hundred years — barreled through the northeastern region of Sylhet, wiping away towns and affecting around 7.2 million people. Bangladesh is accustomed to torrential downpours during monsoon seasons — yet the globe’s warming climate is quickly lengthening and intensifying the rains and floods, permanently altering the nation’s landscape. Nearly 75 percent of Bangladesh sits below sea level. Erosion from the Padma, Jamuna, and Meghna has engulfed 160,000 hectares of land, pushing 300,000 to 400,000 people each year to flee to Dhaka, the country’s capital.

Bangladesh, like many coastal nations, is ground zero for climate change, unjustly bearing the brunt of wealthy nations’ carbon emissions. Despite producing a mere 0.21 percent of global CO2 — leagues below China with 29.2 percent, the U.S. with 14 percent, and Japan with 3.5 percent — Bangladesh is paying the price for these nations in its own lands and livelihoods in what may only be considered an extreme climate injustice.

For wealthier nations, the luxuries of everyday life allow climate change to loom in the distant future. But for Bangladesh, and other nations such as Pakistan, climate change has already claimed the lives of their people, destroyed their homes, and created life-altering cycles of poverty. This year, unprecedented flooding submerged 94 percent of Bangladesh’s Sunamganj town and 84 percent of the surrounding Sylhet district — flooding so terrible it has never been seen in living memory.

My people are resilient and uniquely poised to tackle the issue of climate change with innovative solutions. However, they should not have to face this fight alone while we watch their nation sink from our dry vantage spots in Cambridge. Harvard, with its multibillion-dollar endowment, should publicly address and invest in resources for Bangladeshi flood relief. For Pakistan, student activists from Harvard College Pakistani Students Association have already risen to the fight by raising funds among students; Harvard should provide monetary support for and amplify these voices.

Academia is not apolitical. Harvard has been an architect and endorser of harmful policy and practice. Divestment from fossil fuels, while monumental and significant, was not the clean-cut end of Harvard’s muddy relationship with climate change — not while nations like Bangladesh and Pakistan still reap the effects of decades of fossil fuel pollution. Harvard’s student body is undeniably conscious of the climate crisis and humanitarian crises such as the one in Ukraine — and rightfully so. However, there is a clear bias in whom we choose to show solidarity to. Choosing to center victims who are white is a reflection of Western notions of humanity, and a broader symptom of a Western tendency to disregard Black and Brown bodies in favor of serving the West’s geopolitical interests.

I have a personal confession to make: I cannot swim. This is an oddity for someone born in a tropical country. Back home, my grandmother insisted on carrying all her grandchildren into the ponds, until each child learned the useful life skill of a butterfly or backstroke — all except for me. Instead, I was whisked away to this land, where I have comfortably lived without ever needing to know how to swim.

I still don’t know how to swim. It’s a forgivable privilege here. Students at Harvard swim for fun, to exercise, or in races against other schools — but not to scramble away from the waves consuming their home. Knowing how to swim is not an option for the people of Bangladesh, who must swim for their lives, away from lands wrecked by our ignorance.

Afiya Rahman ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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