Saber Hossain Chowdhury has been a member of the Bangladesh Parliament since 1996. He is known for championing human rights and individual liberties in Bangladesh and around the world. He is also Chair of the Bangladesh Parliament’s All Party Group on Climate Change and Environment, First Vice President of Inter Parliamentary Union’s Standing Committee on Peace and International Security, an active member of Parliaments for Non Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) and a Member of the Commonwealth Parliamentarians Association (CPA) Task Force on Climate Change.
PN: What are the current security challenges in Bangladesh?
SC: First and foremost, we’re still fighting poverty and trying to provide the basic necessities such as shelter, food, health services to the vast majority of the population of Bangladesh. So food security is a very important challenge for us. We’re very well aware of the Millennium Development Goals and the attainment of these goals is not easy.
From a regional perspective, one of the greatest positive developments in the South Asia is that we have democratically elected governments in almost all the countries. Another challenge is to preserve and build on the peace that we’ve finally reached, for instance, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh and also in Sri Lanka after years of insurgency. And we should also keep in mind a possibility of a nuclear threat; we have two nuclear powers - India and Pakistan - in the region.
But the most formidable challenge, that Bangladesh faces is how to deal with the impact of climate change, which I consider to be our number one national security challenge.
PN: How does climate change affect Bangladesh?
SC: The effects are multi-dimensional and of such a magnitude that may not apply to any other country. The most obvious threat is a sea-level rise. If you take a look at the map of Bangladesh, you will see that we have the largest river delta (the Ganges delta) in the south of Bangladesh. And the estimates are that if the water level rises by one meter, 17 percent of our land in the Ganges Delta will submerge. It will cause the displacement of around 30 million people. The map of Bangladesh will change dramatically because of the sea level rise.
We also have a threat from the North, which comes from the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas, which serve as the water towers for a large part of the South Asia. The glaciers in the Himalayas are melting at an alarming rate, leading to increased flooding in the immediate future. And in the long-term perspective, we might experience water shortages, because the glaciers are the sources of fresh water.
Therefore, the problem becomeshow to share the limited resources with other countries. This makes the wise management of water resources in the Himalayasa major challenge for regional security.
Another problem is migration. There are people who are already migrating from coastal areas to Dhaka City because of the sea-level rise. This problem is likely to aggravate as the number of internally displaced people and families grow.
The frequency of extreme weather events has also increased. In the past we used to have big cyclones once in a decade, now we’re having a major cyclone every two to three years. And if we bear in mind that food security is our primary problem, then you see that the cyclones damage crops and disrupt food supplies
This is quite a grim scenario and confirms that climate change poses formidable challenges for security and governance in Bangladesh. Climate change is both a threat multiplier and a threat accelerator. What I would like to emphasize is that climate change is not a distant possibility but a reality in Bangladesh.
PN: Are there any regional initiatives among parliamentarians to tackle these security threats in the region?
SC: There is an organization in South Asia called SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) which provides a framework for joint actions. But, frankly speaking, we haven’t achieved as much progress in this framework. Bilateral tensions have limited the cooperation.
Hopefully, now that we have democratically elected governments, there will be a qualitative change and we can move forward. Terrorism is a major security concern in the region and Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has proposed the formation of a regional task force to combat terrorism.
In Bangladesh, we’re trying to overcome this problem by creating an All Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change and Environment. No matter how different our political programs are, we need a consensus as far as climate change is concerned. I think it’s first necessary to achieve a consensus within each particular country and then see if we can extend this accord in a regional perspective.
PN: Are you satisfied with the level of the international community’s recognition of your security problems?
SC: I must say that there is a lot of talk but not enough action. The Copenhagen conference was not a success. We are still far away from concluding a legally binding agreement. There are no commitments to cut emissions substantially and there are fears that the process will become irreversible.
What we desperately need is money for adaptation funds. Adaptation is the main task for Bangladesh. I think technology transfer is going to be challenging because it can infringe on intellectual property rights, so technology should be made much more easily available. It was agreed in Copenhagen to allocate $30 billion over the next 3 years for immediate mitigation and adaptation needs of the most vulnerable countries but we haven’t seen a cent from this fund flowing into Bangladesh yet.
This sum, however, is not enough to solve the problems. So the Bangladesh government has showed its commitment to adapt to climate change by creating its own fund. $150 million have already been made available by the government to strengthen the country’s resilience. We’re not just asking other countries for help, but we’re trying to contribute to solving the problem ourselves. I think the message from Bangladesh is loud and clear – we are not just victims but also leaders in terms of adaptation.
PN: Speaking about national security problems in Bangladesh, what is the most troublesome region in the country?
SC: I would not pick a certain region in the country. We did have some insurgency in the past in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, whichis peaceful now, the implementation of the Peace Accord remains a challenge for us. The current Government’s zero tolerance policy on terrorism seems to yield good results, which leaves the development agenda and adapting to climate change impacts as the the major concerns.
PN: If we speak about purely military security issues, are there any parliamentary initiatives on the regional level to deal with them?
SC: There is still no official framework for that so far but there is an ongoing discussion to engage more parliamentarians on a regional basis. Since we didn’t have much of parliamentary democracy before and the institution of democracy is relatively new, this process is going slowly. But we hope that we will be able to network more frequently with parliamentarians and people’s representatives from other South Asian countries in the next couple of years.
PN: Is there any official committee within the Bangladesh Parliament that deals specifically with conflict prevention?
SC: We don’t have a committee that is directly involved in conflict prevention. But as I’ve mentioned before, our number one security problem is climate change, so we discuss security issues in the All-Party Group on Climate Change. Since it’s an all-party group, we are trying to reach a certain level of consistency in implementing the relevant policy no matter what reshuffling occurs in the government. The Bangladesh Parliament has supported the UN SG’s Five Point Plan on Non Proliferation and Disarmament through a unanimous resolution, making Bangladesh the first country to have made the important linkage between disarmament, development and climate change.
PN: Is this All Party Group involved in any joint actions with other parliaments?
SC: We have been cooperating with the UK’s House of Commons. We combined our resources to produce a Joint Report on climate change, which was launched in Copenhagen during COP15. We have also been active in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Task force on Climate Change. We plan to keep on working with the British parliament in the future. The European Union is also actively involved in a climate security agenda, so we hope to be able to get in touch with MPs from the European Parliament on this issue as well.
PN: You’re familiar with the scope of activities of the Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention. How do you think the Network can help Bangladesh to tackle its security problems?
SC: I think it’s just very important to get together and begin networking and discussing. And it’s very important to engage parliamentarians as elected representatives of the people, not just the representatives of the executive branch.
Besides, parliamentarians exercise an important function of supervising the allocation of resources. Once the adaptation fund, for example, is available for Bangladesh, the MPs will have to make sure that the money allocated will reach people that need it most. And speaking more generally, MPs in all countries, from Bangladesh to the U.S., are responsible to ensure that funds are spent properly.
More interaction, dialogue and networking amongst parliamentarians can thus only be positive, constructive and beneficial for all.
PN: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Chowdhury.