New islands spell hope for Bangladesh

Land formed by silt could counter threat of rising sea levels to low-lying nation: Experts

DHAKA • Dozens of new islands have emerged from the waters around Bangladesh over the past decade, providing a possible solution to the existential threat that rising sea levels pose to the low-lying coastal nation.

The government said on Monday that 29 islands with a combined area of 507 sq km have emerged from the Bay of Bengal since 2007. In contrast, Singapore's land size is 720 sq km.

Every year, Himalayan rivers carry an estimated one billion tonnes of silt and deposit it in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Bangladesh, forming islands in the shallow waters.

Many of these islands, known as chars in Bangladesh, are already inhabited and experts told Agence France-Presse they could mitigate the threat posed by global warming.

"Every year Bangladesh has new land emerging and new land being devoured by rivers and sea," said Dr Maminul Haque Sarker, head of the Centre for Environment and Geographic Information Services.

He added that studies by the Dhaka research centre have shown a net gain of territory of around 12-14 sq km.

Most of the new land is located near the estuary of the Meghna River, which is the confluence of the main tributaries of the two main Himalayan rivers of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.

One of the islands has also controversially been earmarked as a possible temporary base for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who are currently living in squalid - and mostly makeshift - camps in southern Bangladesh.

The United Nations says 615,000 refugees from the Muslim minority have crossed into Bangladesh from its Buddhist neighbour since late August.

The influx has overwhelmed existing facilities in the densely populated country, and the authorities have struggled to find alternative land to house them.

A recent World Bank study projected that 40 per cent of productive land in southern Bangladesh would be submerged by the year 2080 due to a rise in sea levels.

A decade ago, the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said a 1m rise in sea levels would flood 17 per cent of Bangladesh and create 20 million refugees by 2050.

Local scientists, however, criticised the study for failing to take into account the silt islands, which are highly fertile.

Water expert Zahirul Haque Khan told AFP that dams could be set up to trap the vast amounts of sediment that flow from Bangladesh's rivers into the sea every year.

"Bangladesh can gain hundreds of square kilometres of new land by trapping silt through cross dams and engineering interventions," said Mr Khan, director of Institute of Water Modelling in Dhaka.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'New islands spell hope for Bangladesh'. Subscribe