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In the Bay of Bengal sits an island where the effects of climate change are in motion. We meet its people


In the Bay of Bengal, the effects of climate change are in motion

Credit: Cris Tagupa

We travel by car and speedboat to the island of Kutubdia in the Bay of Bengal, off Bangladesh. It’s a bumpy 15-minute ride in the back of a jalopy from the ferry ghat into town, with palms and banana trees waving from the roadside and rickshaw wallahs cycling past. The impression is one of lushness, tranquillity and purpose yet, beyond the façade, saltpans that were once rice paddies stretch towards the sea, revealing the harshness of life in a Bangladeshi village and the impact of rising sea levels on this community.

I’ve come to the island with Bangladeshi friends to research the impact of climate change on this community of fishermen and farmers.   You see, Bangladesh — a country at sea level with three main rivers but a total of over 700 crisscrossing the territory — is the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change. In any given year, Bangladesh will experience water shortages during the dry winter months, flooding during the monsoon and cyclones of varying intensity at different times of the year.

I was struck by the surreal scene of devastation and renewal as locals gathered debris from a wizened landscape of baked mud, sand and splintered palms, determined to rebuild their lives as best they could.

Populations along the Bay of Bengal are especially vulnerable. The cyclone of April 1991 smashed these communities with 250km/h winds and 6m waves, killing more than 150,000 people and leaving 10 million homeless. I vividly remember the horrific sight on television of bloated orange corpses washed up on the beaches like plastic dolls.

A few weeks later, in my capacity as director of aid and development agency Save the Children, I visited the ravaged village of Banshkali on the mainland, trying to figure out what contribution we could make to disaster relief. I was struck by the surreal scene of devastation and renewal as locals gathered debris from a wizened landscape of baked mud, sand and splintered palms, determined to rebuild their lives as best they could. I met a man who’d lost 30 members of his extended family; a boy with beads of salt still oozing out of his body from the night he spent clinging to a tree immersed in seawater as the cyclone raged around him.

The cyclone of ‘91 was unusual in its ferocity. It’s uncertain whether the rise in air and sea temperatures resulting from climate change will increase the frequency of cyclones, but the general consensus among climate scientists is that climate change is likely to increase their intensity when they do occur, making extreme weather events like that of 1991 more commonplace.

The high death rates from past cyclones in Bangladesh were often the result of decisions by villagers to take their chances against the wind and water, choosing to protect their belongings and their homes against thieves rather than seek the safety of a cyclone shelter. In some cases, there were no cyclone shelters to flee to.

These days, multi-storey concrete cyclone shelters are a feature of coastal communities. As my taxi approaches the centre of town, school children are gathered in the bottom storey of one shelter, singing, emphasising that shelters are now multi-function facilities. They give hope that, if the direst predictions come true, this community at least will be better prepared.

The rising waters

Local lecturer Showkap leads my research team and me to a recently built embankment of concrete blocks funded by the World Bank. A dormant wind farm sits along the top of the embankment. The farm has the capacity to supply 1500 homes with electricity — notoriously unreliable in Bangladesh — but the failure of the Bangladesh Development Board to provide meters so houses can hook up to the grid means that families, six months on, are still waiting.

Since the cyclone of 1991, the seawater has continued to rise and swallow up huge tracts of land, affecting 25 per cent of the 200,000-strong population in Kitubdia. An additional 150,000 people, mainly from two districts that have been completely flooded, have migrated to the mainland owing to the rising waters.

It’s sobering to witness the tangible effects of such change. Showkap points to a spot 200 metres out to sea where, over 20 years ago now, he used to play cricket and soccer. In another part of the village, the top section of the old lighthouse, bent over by the tidal waves of ‘91, juts out of the sea, a monument to the power of nature.

“When there was a beach here sea turtles used to breed,” he recalls. “We used to farm the eggs and tourists used to come and watch the hatchlings head out to sea. Now all we get is dead turtles washing up onto the embankment.”

A group of eight local fishermen explain that rising seawaters have turned once-productive rice paddies and grazing land into hard, dry saltpans. Abdu Sattar, grey-haired and bearded, bare torso with a lungi (traditional sarong) around his waist, is the most senior among them. He became a fisherman when his paddy was flooded. He used to earn 100,000 taka (AU$1600) in six months as a farmer. This was adequate for his family of six children.

In coastal areas, farmers have adapted to the increasing salinity of water by harvesting salt and shrimp.

In a good year as a fisherman, Sattar can earn $1300 in nine months. But last year was a bad year. “Big fishing trawlers in the Bay of Bengal have taken all the fish,” he says. “There are 1200 of them.” Last year, he and the other fishermen earned less than AU$200 for nine months’ work.

To supplement this income during the three-month monsoon from June to late August, when they don’t fish, the men work as day labourers earning a little over AU$1 a day. Diminishing return means nutritionally poorer diets with more rice and fewer green vegetables and pulses, and fewer meals a day.

It has also meant that many of the fishermen in this group have been unable to repay the loans they took out with local moneylenders, at 30 per cent interest, to buy their boats. “We now work on the boats we used to own for the person who lent us the money,” Sattar observes ruefully. “Can you stop the trawlers?” he asks me hopefully, with a wry smile.

Elsewhere in the village, we walk several hundred metres across dried-out saltpans to another embankment. We meet Nasir Hussein, a local government member of Bangladesh’s governing party, Awami League, who’s dressed in lungi and long shirt to protect himself from the searing heat. He bemoans the diminishing bird population: “The saltwater kills the trees and there are no birds.”

Some farmers have adapted to the change by farming salt. But too much saltwater, ironically, can destroy a salt harvest. “Can’t you use your government connections to have better embankments built?” I ask. Hussein looks at me bemused, questioning my sanity, and doesn’t answer the question. He’s a humble farmer. And, in a country where connections count for much, his don’t reach far enough to make things happen.

How to manage a precious resource?

The relentless push of the sea inland is made worse by water management practices upstream in India. It’s a perennial and seemingly intractable problem that the two respective governments have failed to resolve. During the dry winter months, when water upstream is diverted for irrigation in India, the rivers in Bangladesh are low and sluggish, allowing the sea to encroach steadily inland.

This has presented opportunity to some. In coastal areas, farmers have adapted to the increasing salinity of water by harvesting salt and shrimp (prawns), which is now Bangladesh’s second largest export after garments.

“It is rich farmers who have benefited most from shrimp farming, not the poorest of the poor,” shares Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). ICCCAD conducts research, builds capacity on climate change and fosters the growth of networks in Bangladesh and globally.

The rise of the export shrimp industry means less land for local food production. This brings the need for export dollars into sharp conflict with the need for food security. And it exacerbates the historical tension between fishermen and farmers over where to locate embankments and how to manage water.

Allowing water to flood a parcel of land may suit a fisherman or shrimp farmer but destroy the crop of a farmer. There are many stories of fishermen clandestinely digging holes in embankments in the dead of night to let water onto a parcel of farming land.

Rising sea levels are also directly impacting on people’s health. “There is some evidence that increasing water salinity in drinking water has been linked to pre-eclampsia in pregnant women,” Huq tells me.

Bangladesh has always been an exemplar of adaptation to harsh environmental circumstances and a testimony to the resourcefulness and resilience of its people.

Pre-eclampsia produces a sharp rise in blood pressure and swelling in the face, hands and feet. If left untreated, the mother can go into a coma and die. High blood pressure in pregnancy can, in turn, affect the cognitive development of the child.

Iodine deficiency resulting from a diet lacking in green vegetables has also contributed to high rates of cretinism in Bangladesh and may become more of a problem as water salinity increases.

This increase in salinity adds to the naturally occurring arsenic contamination of tube-well water in many parts of Bangladesh. This problem, with wells that were dug across the country as part of a well-intentioned but ill-planned internationally funded aid strategy, was discovered in the 1990s, causing outbreaks of arsenic poisoning and placing further strain on access to clean water.

All this highlights the challenges of water management in Bangladesh and the need for the Bangladesh government to take climate change seriously. So far the signs are positive: the Bangladesh Climate Strategy and Action Plan receives annual funding of $100 million from the government.

One strong lesson from Bangladesh, however, is that government and donor-funded top-down development projects can only, at best, be part of the solution.

The now defunct Flood Action Plan of 1991 failed, in large part because technical plans didn’t take into account the complex social dynamics of Bangladeshi villages. This failure highlights the need for effective community engagement in any strategic response to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters.

Besides, Bangladeshis have never had the luxury of waiting for government to solve their problems. They have had to take action in response to the threat of rising water. Villagers in flood-prone areas have traditionally built their houses on mud platforms and protected their communities with networks of embankments.

ICCCAD remains a strong advocate for local initiatives and supports the concept of Community Based Adaptation (CBA). Solutions developed at the local level have the best chance of being successful: it is the poorest living in areas prone to storms, floods and droughts who are most vulnerable and best understand what needs to be done. This bottom-up approach seeks to give these communities a voice; after all, it’s powerlessness as much as location that makes them vulnerable to climate change.

Huq gives the example of one new initiative whereby villagers in some areas have developed floating bamboo beds the size of double mattresses that can grow gourd-type vegetables.

Investing money in developing suitable salt-tolerant rice varieties, he tells me, will be crucial to further protecting the food security of rice-dependent Bangladesh.

Resourcefulness and resilience

We squeeze onto a local launch for the trip back to the mainland. There are no life-vests on this boat and locals sit precariously around the edge. One man cradles his infant. I’m terrified what might happen in the event of an unexpected lurching of the boat. But the father is unconcerned; he has done this trip many times.

Bangladeshis have a different idea of risk. They have learned to cope with the threat of floods and cyclones every year. They negotiate the chaos of the roads, where traffic lights are ornamental and traffic lanes incidental, and the challenges of poverty every day.

Outsiders have often dismissed Bangladesh as a basket case. But it has always been an exemplar of adaptation to harsh environmental circumstances and a testimony to the resourcefulness and resilience of its people.

As climate change begins to impact on coastal communities all around the world, and pose questions of survival and adaptation, we might well be turning to Bangladesh for answers.