The reality of climate change: floods, migration and nostalgia – guest blog from Bangladesh

December 9, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

What’s the point of running a blog if you can’t indulge in a little nepotism? Last year, I went with my son Finlay (18) to visit Bangladesh and look at the impact of climate change: rising sea levels are leading to ever-greater damage from the region’s cyclones, as we saw in the community of Koyra a few months after the last big cyclone, Aila. Now Finlay’s back in Bangladesh on his gap year, and returned to Koyra to see what had changed. Answer? Not much. As for nepotism, OK I’m biased, but I think he writes pretty well ……..

[Health warning: As so often with climate change, causality is tricky – the cyclone damage is also triggered by official corruption and illegal shrimp farms, which weakened the coastal embankments by inserting water pipes to channel saline water to the shrimps. But what is true is that what is happening in Koyra will become commonplace if temperatures continue to rise.]

Finlay Green is a British gap year student working as an intern at Oxfam Bangladesh

The district of Koyra is still unrecognizable, 18 months after Cyclone Aila. The storm surges that followed covered the land in saline water, devastating the lives and farms of those who live there. The destruction is everywhere – wilted palm trees dot the landscape in an isolated, irregular pattern, in a place more water than land. Everywhere you look is grey mud, dried and cracked from the salt in the sea, including the foundations of Bish Patni’s house.

Every morning, Bish wakes up at 5.30 to spend the hours before breakfast reapplying a mixture of cow dung, ash and

From Left to Right, Finlay, Champa, Bashmonti, Bish

From Left to Right, Finlay, Champa, Bashmonti, Bish

mud to the 3-foot base that will keep her home above the water come rainy season. Without this daily top up, her house will collapse. After seeing her husband off to work and children off to school, she spends the entire day fishing for wild shrimp and other fish, which penetrated their area along with the sea when Cyclone Aila destroyed the embankments. She works non-stop for six hours, without any food. There is simply not enough for lunch. She has to wait for dinner. She and her family depend entirely on the government for rice, their staple food. They receive twenty kilograms for the entire month. “It is nowhere near enough, but what can we do?” she tells me. “After Aila, this is our fate.”

The only work available for the women in Koyra comes from the government. This year, 100 days of paid work have been provided for the poorest people, at 150 TK (US$2.12) a day. For every village, the locally elected political leader had to draw up a list of the poorest 5 people in their community who could work. When the government grant for wages came through, the number was cut down to 2. In Bish’s village, there were 22 who applied for the job.
With their farmland destroyed by the salty water, Bish’s husband, like so many others, including those of her childhood friends, Bashmonti and Champa, has had to go to the city to find work. He regularly has to leave for 15 or 20 days at a time. There is neither the time nor the money to make the trip every day. She says the best part of her life these days is when she can hug her husband, for the short time he’s home. “You shouldn’t be talking about your husband!” jokes Bashmonti, while Champa doubles up with laughter. For Bashmonti, she most enjoys it when her 11-year-old son embraces her and sits on her lap. She also has two daughters, grown up and married. “Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of night, and think of my children. I get sad that they’re all grown up, and have left.”

But their children bring them a lot of pain, too. With their husbands gone so regularly, for so long, these women often have the sole responsibility of keeping the family afloat. The huge pressure is often unintentionally taken out on their children. “I get so lonely,” says Bish, “that sometimes I snap at my children, and slap them. They go to school, shocked and scared, and cannot concentrate on learning. When they come home, I can see they haven’t learnt anything, that they were confused and frightened, and that it is my fault. Then I cry.” 

The lives of Koyra’s women are racked with uncertainty. Their list of fears is endless: drinking water is scarce, and becoming scarcer; there is a permanent shortage of food, with the next meal never a sure thing; and, critically, cyclone warnings are becoming more and more frequent, eating away at their nerves. Since Aila, there have been two major warnings – two near misses. “Everyone who had relatives outside of Koyra left after Aila. But we cannot leave. Where will we go?” They long for the days of their childhood when the three of them would play the “fox hole game”: they’d toss a dash of chilli powder on the end of a few lengths of straw, lay it on one end of a fox hole, set it on fire, then chase the fox as it ran out the other end, its nose burning from the chilli smoke. “We’d chase it right up until it crossed the wetlands!” laughs Bish. Now the simple pleasure of that game, those carefree days, seem a lifetime away. “There is so little joy in our lives now,” says Champa.

The biggest change since their childhood is the loss of their freedom to use public resources. “Once, we would walk around the forest, picking bananas and mangos at will. It belonged to everyone, we all enjoyed it together.” However, as climate change took effect and sea levels rose, the land became more and more saline, day-by-day, until the forest was gone. Now, what little resources are left are owned privately or by the government. Access is limited.

The last real joy left in their lives is the Puja, the Hindu festival. Before Aila, they would sit under the trees, drinking local rice-wine and dancing with each other. They point out the spot where the trees used to be. There is nothing but mud, dried up, cracked and grey, like the lives and struggles of Bish and Champa.

December 9, 2010
Duncan Green