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Did climate change contribute to the Rana Plaza disaster?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 29 Apr 2014 10:23 GMT
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Jesmine Akhter, who was rescued from the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, stands in front of her slum house with her daughter Zarin, in Savar, April 21, 2014. Akhter is unable to work due to a spinal injury sustained from the accident last year. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj
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Could climate change have contributed to the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster in Bangladesh a year ago?

The idea isn’t as far-fetched as you might think, says Shameem Siddiqi, who represents The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh.

Difficulties in growing food due to increasingly extreme weather that has worsened erosion and pushed seawater into fields and drinking water sources in coastal areas have driven a rising number of failed farmers to Bangladesh’s cities in search of work.

Many arrive in town “with no ability to negotiate conditions. They take any job they can find,” said Siddiqi, whose foundation works on development, peace and justice issues in Asia.

When cracks appeared in the Rana Plaza complex outside Dhaka last April, the discovery led to the evacuation of a bank and shops in the building. But the owners of the garment factory on the upper floors insisted its workers return to their sewing machines the following day, threatening the loss of a month’s pay if they didn’t.

The workers - many of them migrants struggling to make ends meet in the city - felt they had no option but to return to their machines, Siddiqi said. One called her mother before climbing the steps of the building, saying, “I have to go back. God knows what will happen,” Siddiqi remembers.

Just before 9 am, the building collapsed, killing 1,129 workers and injuring thousands more in the worst garment-factory accident in history.

UNABLE TO NEGOTIATE

“If these women had a better situation to negotiate for themselves, would they have worked there?” Siddiqi asked. If they had been less desperate for a wage, or had not had to leave their farms in the first place, how many would have entered the building that day?

“Climate change hits people’s ability to negotiate,” Siddiqi said.

One way to help women escape such terrible choices is to improve their ability to cope with the growing climate change-related problems they face at home, he said. That can mean anything from providing access to more salt-tolerant rice, to keeping drinking water clean and slowing down erosion.

Adaptations like these aren’t always easy, and finding the funds to pay for them – the focus of a conference this week in Nepal – can be a challenge. But giving people alternatives and choices is essential for their resilience – and not only to climate change.

“If we create more adaptation options back home, people will have more resources there and can avoid” this migration to dangerous work, Siddiqi believes.

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