Riverside houses in Kotalipara, Bangladesh, are built on stilts to keep them out of reach of monsoon flooding. Photo by Josiah Neufeld
Riverside houses in Kotalipara, Bangladesh, are built on stilts to keep them out of reach of monsoon flooding. Photo by Josiah Neufeld

Topics: Justice | Environment

Climate change is changing our ecosystems, this region is on the front lines

The writer visits the shifting shorelines of Bangladesh and discovers tens of millions of people on the brink of disaster


Ratna Aditto has lived her entire life on the clay banks of the Pasur River in southern Bangladesh. Chances are she’ll die here. The capricious river has eaten her house more times than she can recall. One year she rebuilt it six times.

Where was her last house? She points out into the mist that hangs low over the grey-green river, obscuring the far bank.

Seven years ago, Cyclone Aila struck in the mid-afternoon. Aditto was home with her husband and her adult daughter, Sonali, who has an intellectual disability. Aditto’s neighbours had heard the cyclone warning on the radio and fled to the shelter of nearby schools, mosques or churches. But Sonali was stubborn; she wouldn’t budge. That night inside her house, as the dark, swirling water rose up to Aditto’s waist, she pleaded with God to save her.

The family survived, but in the following days the sodden riverbank dissolved and their house slid into the river. Aditto, her husband and daughter patched together a tent with paper and plastic sheeting until the government provided them with a corrugated metal house near the port town of Mongla. Their new home is out of reach of the river, but not safe from future cyclones that will roar inland from the Bay of Bengal.

The one guarantee in Aditto’s life these days is that more storms will come, and they’ll probably be worse than Aila. Would she ever leave here? Standing on the riverbank next to her makeshift shop where she sells cigarettes, tea and toothbrushes, she answers my question with a swift shake of her head. She stares straight ahead, dignified, calm. Her forehead creases slightly. Her eyebrows pinch together. This is her home.

Last December, three days before I met Aditto, negotiators from Bangladesh were at a climate conference in Paris fighting alongside threatened island-nations like Kiribati and Vanuatu to keep 1.5 degrees Celsius in the final agreement as a goal for limiting climate change. Disputes over the final text dragged on past the deadline and into the next morning. To many wealthy nations, the difference between 1.5 degrees and two degrees represented units of political leverage, but to the delegates from Bangladesh, the half-a-degree gap represented the lives of millions of citizens.

Eight thousand kilometres from the conference rooms where sleep-starved men and women were wrangling over her future, Ratna Aditto sat cross-legged inside her shop and wished — not for a climate deal, not for a white Christmas, not to win the lottery — but simply to survive, with just enough money to provide for her family. Nothing more.

Bangladesh is among the nations most vulnerable to climate change. The country is a flood-prone delta governed by three mighty rivers and numberless tributaries that all drain into the Bay of Bengal. Every year during the monsoon, seasonal flooding inundates a fifth of its 148,000 square-kilometre landmass. In the south, the countryside resembles a giant waffle: low-lying fields crisscrossed by a grid of raised roads. Farmers build their homes on bamboo stilts or pedestals of clay, leaving gaps under the walls for drainage. Every household has a boat.

Last July, a deluge hit Dhaka, the capital, swamping drainage systems and turning roads into turgid rivers. Buses stalled. Rickshaw drivers toiled through knee-deep water with their lungis — the wraparound skirts men commonly wear in this part of the world — knotted at their thighs. Some passengers were stranded until the early hours of the morning.

While flooding and cyclones have always plagued Bangladesh, climate change is increasing their frequency and severity. Bangladesh-born Professor C. Emdad Haque of the University of Manitoba has spent years researching disaster preparedness in his native country. He hesitates to blame any single weather event solely on climate change. “But if you look at the overall pattern in the last 10 to 15 years we do see a change in environmental extremes,” he says. “Cyclones are coming with more vigour, more ferocity, more intensity.”

Seventy percent of Bangladesh is five metres or less above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control predicts a worst-case scenario of global sea levels rising nearly a metre by the end of this century. A recent study showed Bangladesh’s sea levels are already rising many times faster than the global average, partly because areas of the country are slowly sinking as underground aquifers are drained to irrigate crops.

Excluding small islands and city states, Bangladesh is the most densely populated nation on earth, with an average of 1,200 people per square kilometre. A visitor from Canada — a country with one square kilometre for every four people — may well feel a gasp of claustrophobia upon arriving in Dhaka, a megacity with a metropolitan population of more than 15 million, where people jostle literally for inches. Gesticulating pedestrians regularly traverse multiple lanes of traffic, dodging auto-rickshaws with shrieking horns and two-story buses whose metal hides have been scarred by a thousand fender-benders. Stoplights are merely suggestions. The real bosses of the streets are the uniformed traffic cops who bite their whistles and wade into knotted intersections to break up jams with their wooden batons.

Estimates vary widely, but a one-metre sea level rise would permanently inundate 15 percent of Bangladesh. In a country as crowded as this one, such a loss of land would be catastrophic. By 2050, when the sea level is expected to rise by a half metre, anywhere from eight million to 15 million people in Bangladesh could be on the move due climate change. Globally, climate change could drive the largest migration in human history.

Conversations about climate change in Bangladesh often begin with water, but they eventually eddy back to the stuff of life itself: soil. Bangladesh’s soil is a fecund blend of sand, silt and clay washed down from the Himalayas over millennia. The soil has attracted migrant farmers since the dawn of agriculture and today enables a nation with a footprint roughly the size of Canada’s Maritime provinces to grow nearly enough cereal grains for its population of 160 million.

But that soil is in danger. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that every year 8,000 hectares of farmland in Bangladesh are lost to urbanization and soil degradation. Rising sea levels will swallow even more.

Mongla is a swarming seaport city of 150,000 people about 100 kilometres upriver from the Bay of Bengal at the point where the wide Pasur River emerges from Bangladesh’s coastal mangrove forests. Brightly painted wooden fishing boats crowd the riverbanks, laundry strung up on their roofs, sailors stripped to the waist sluicing the decks. In the shops that line the town’s narrow streets, carpenters standing in piles of wood shavings carve ornate bedsteads, and fishmongers weigh out their merchandise in slippery silver piles.

In 2009, Cyclone Aila tore through Mongla with four-metre waves that washed away houses, submerged streets, contaminated wells and wiped out crops. Seven years later, the town has recovered, but the fields haven’t.

“At this moment, we are facing problems,” Abdullah Al-Mamun, the district agriculture officer, tells me when I arrive at his office. It’s an understatement. The soil around Mongla is poisoned with salt. Agronomists in Bangladesh have developed new salt-tolerant varieties of rice that can grow in soil that measures up to 12 deciseimens (a unit of electrical conductivity used to gauge salt levels) per centimetre. But most of the soil Al-Mamun has tested around Mongla clocks in at 15.

On the banks of the Pasur River, a boy plays on a swing at a place where a house once stood. Photo by Josiah Neufeld
On the banks of the Pasur River, a boy plays on a swing at a place where a house once stood. Photo by Josiah Neufeld

Al-Mamun regularly organizes workshops where farmers can learn adaptive vegetable cultivation strategies — double mulching, raised beds, rooftop gardening or floating seedbeds — but it’s tough going. Farmers in this area are losing interest in agriculture, he tells me. The other main livelihood is fishing, but recently a virus has been decimating the fish population.

At a noisy streetside breakfast eatery I meet George Gomes, who runs a project helping people adapt to climate change. I have to lean over my cup of milky black tea to hear him above the cacophony. At the front of the restaurant, two men are flipping parathas — fried flatbread — with lightning speed on a round iron griddle while servers holler instructions over our heads.

Gomes works for the Bangladesh Nazarene Mission, the development arm of the local Nazarene Church. He is eager to explain to me how his project is helping poor farmers prepare for cyclones, diversify their livelihoods and grow food in salty soil. Adapting to climate change is all about preparedness, he tells me — communities organizing themselves and making plans of action.

Gomes shows me a few raised-bed vegetable gardens where sugarcane, eggplants, beets and gourds are managing to grow in the saline soil. He then introduces me to a disaster management committee. We meet on the front porch of a plank house on the riverbank. Outside, a boy is playing on a rope swing, his feet swooping out over a gash in the clay bank where a house once stood. The committee members explain how they listen for cyclone warnings on radio or TV and then spread the word with rickshaw-mounted megaphones. They know how to shepherd pregnant women and the elderly to a nearby cyclone shelter, an angular concrete structure that looks like a Brutalist prison. They’ve also learned how to rescue people from water, splint broken limbs and pump water from lungs.

We leave the disaster management committee and proceed along a narrow brick road that follows the Pasur River. The far shore is obscured by the winter haze. A sharp-prowed boat comes muttering out of the mist, riding low. Its wake licks at the shore. The river is wide, powerful, ungoverned. In Bangladesh, rivers rule; they swell and shrink with the seasons, carve new channels in the soft soil, swallow shores here and spit out new islands there. Riverbank erosion claims 8,700 hectares of arable land each year. When new landmasses of sediment form in rivers — chars, they’re called — they’re quickly commandeered for rice fields or new settlements. I point out a cluster of stick-roofed houses balanced on a spit of mud jutting out from the shore. Gomes tells me it’s a colony of sex workers. Close enough to the port for business, far enough for privacy.

The threat climate changes poses to riverbanks and soil is worsened by local greed and international politics. Every year during the dry season, India closes the gates of the Farakka Barrage on the Ganges River, restricting the flow of one of Bangladesh’s largest rivers. When the water flow weakens, seawater surges back up the network of rivers, tributaries and irrigation canals, contaminating rice fields as far as 100 kilometres from the coast. Meanwhile wealthy investors from the cities are buying up chunks of coastal farmland and deliberately flooding them with saltwater for shrimp cultivation, degrading the farmland even further. Sometimes they cut through embankments built to protect farmers’ fields from seawater. The edge of the high salinity area is moving steadily inland. Over the next 85 years it’s expected to advance another 60 kilometres.    Finding fresh drinking water is another problem in the Mongla area. A university professor I met in Dhaka told me he was shocked when he visited a coastal village and saw people drinking whiskey in broad daylight (alcohol is illegal for Muslims in Bangladesh). Then he realized the liquid in their glasses was discoloured water — the only kind available.

A boy stands on a mountain of garbage at the edge of the Korail slum in Dhaka. Photo by Paul Plett
A boy stands on a mountain of garbage at the edge of the Korail slum in Dhaka. Photo by Paul Plett

A study published last year in the Journal of Water and Health found increased salt intake is affecting the health of 35 million people in coastal Bangladesh. Too much sodium is putting people at risk of hypertension and other chronic illnesses. Cows and goats have been known to die from drinking too much saline water. In a town near Mongla, Gomes’s organization tried drilling for fresh water but gave up at 300 metres. Instead, they organized projects to re-excavate old drainage canals and dig ponds where villagers could collect rainwater for drinking and feeding livestock.

It is while walking along the riverbank that Gomes and I meet Ratna Aditto, the woman who refused to leave her home amid Cyclone Aila. Sitting on the raised bamboo floor of her riverside shop, she tells us about her husband who’s too frail to fish, about the countless times her house has fallen into the river. About how all she hopes for these days is to survive with dignity.

By the time we leave Aditto’s store, Gomes’s enthusiasm is wearing thin. “We teach them adaptation. What will they do with adaptation? There is no way to adapt to this situation. They have to move from this place. They need mitigation.” When I ask what kind of mitigation, Gomes describes a series of high dikes that would fend off flooding and cyclones. Such barriers already exist in other parts of Bangladesh. The World Bank has committed US$400 million to raising hundreds of kilometres of coastal embankments in low-lying areas. But many people remain vulnerable, and some scientists say the embankments will actually make flooding worse by causing land to sink further. Embankments also tend to trap brackish water in farmers’ fields.

Gomes and I get into an auto-rickshaw and head back into town. Bouncing along on the brick-cobbled streets, we pass a row of two-storey buildings with cracked windowpanes and rusting wrought iron balconies. Mould streaks the walls. The courtyard is ankle-deep in lily pads. Abandoned government housing, Gomes shouts above the rickshaw’s rattle. Salt has weakened the concrete, making it unsafe. People are leaving the area, he says, heading to the city.

Climate refugees aren’t figments of dystopian fiction; in Dhaka you pass them daily without knowing it: a woman travelling from her home in the Korail slum to work as a maid in the ritzy Gulshan district; a man riding a rickshaw in the early hours of the morning to his job stoking coal fires in a brick factory.

Mohammad Abdul Jalil gets up at 3 a.m. to head to his workplace, one of hundreds of brick factories on Dhaka’s outskirts, where smokestacks exhale plumes of coal smoke day and night. Six months ago, Jalil left his wife and three children behind in his village near the coast to look for work in the city. With no farmland of his own, Jalil had supported his family as a day labourer in other people’s fields until the soil got too salty and the work dried up. Now he works 16-hour days hauling mud on a two-wheeled cart and sends his earnings home to his family. When he thinks of his two-and-a-half-year-old son whom he hasn’t seen in two months, he picks a clod of mud from his knuckles and begins to weep. Then he wipes his eyes with his forearm and reminds himself that at least his family has food to eat. Maybe one day he’ll have enough money to bring them to Dhaka.

Rowshan Ara lives in Korail, a warren of tin shacks built so close together she has to turn sideways to pass someone in the street. She makes a little money collecting scraps of paper and selling them to recyclers, barely enough to pay rent for a house the size of a Canadian bathroom. Eleven years ago, she and her family left her home in the Barisal district after their house was eaten by the river. Her husband eventually found work as a security guard, but then died of a stroke. Ara blames the stress of struggling to provide for a wife, three daughters and a son in this jobless city. Now she dreams of saving enough money to buy a patch of land in her village and moving back home.

Dhaka is full of climate refugees like Ara and Jalil, says A.S. Moniruzzaman Khan, an affable professor with a bush of black hair and a salt-and-pepper moustache. Khan directs the climate change research centre at BRAC University, founded in 2001 to help foster national development. Half a million people migrate to Dhaka every year, many of them refugees from flooding and climate-related disasters. Khan studied rural migration patterns in two regions near the coast and found that one in 10 people there had moved to cities — mostly Dhaka — mainly because of the scarcity of fresh water.

The government of Bangladesh is well aware of the life-and-death threat of climate change. Because it has decades of experience dealing with floods and tropical storms, Bangladesh is better prepared to respond than many developing countries. In 2005, the government released a 63-page national adaptation plan to cope with climate change that includes plans to plant more trees on the coast as a buffer against storms, train communities in disaster preparedness, construct flood shelters and pour research money into drought-resistant and saline-tolerant crops. Many of these initiatives are under way.

Working with the United Nations Development Programme, Bangladesh’s ministry of finance developed a system to track its climate-related spending. A 2012 review of the costs revealed that Bangladesh was spending about US$1 billion per year on climate change adaptation — about seven percent of its annual budget. Only about a quarter of that money came from international donors; the rest came from within the country. The World Bank estimates that figure will climb to US$5.7 billion by 2050.

Local NGOs, with which Bangladesh is awash, have also been working hard in recent years to build climate change adaptation into their poverty alleviation work. Among the innovations are gardens planted on floating beds of water hyacinth that enable farmers to grow vegetables on flooded land.

“The people of Bangladesh are very resilient,” Khan tells me.

I’ve seen enough to believe him.

Ratna Aditto sells cigarettes, tea and toothbrushes from her shop on the banks of the Pasur River near the city of Mongla. Photo by Josiah Neufeld
Ratna Aditto sells cigarettes, tea and toothbrushes from her shop on the banks of the Pasur River near the city of Mongla. Photo by Josiah Neufeld

The glowing tips of incense sticks fill the air with fragrant haze. We’re sitting cross-legged around a candle poised atop a three-foot mound of wax drippings. A chilly fog is draped over the building and the older members of our group tug cotton shawls around their shoulders. The young ones wear hoodies. A man with a jutting white beard intones a melancholy hymn on a hand-pumped harmonium. Everyone but me knows the words. Later I receive a translation: “Come with me as I take the cattle out to pasture. Put bells on your ankles. A beautiful hat. Put it on. Follow me with your flute. The saint says: I am a beggar for your company.” The song was written by Lalon Shah, a 19th-century Bengali mystic and social reformer who left behind a collection of hymns to nature and exhortations of religious tolerance.

I’m visiting UBINIG, an organization of farmers, botanists and scholars and policy analysts who have been on a mission to reform agriculture in Bangladesh since the mid-1980s. The founders of UBINIG wanted their movement to have a spiritual expression, a ritual that would transcend the religious differences that are so conspicuous in this part of the world. They found a patron-saint in Lalon Shah, and unofficial anthems in his songs.

UBINIG works with farmers all over Bangladesh using a mixture of traditional knowledge and modern research to grow food and nurture healthy soil without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Farmers learn how to make vermicompost and bio-pesticides with natural ingredients. They plant crops together that protect each other from pests and weather. They call their approach Nyakrishi, which means “new agriculture” even though many of the practices they espouse are ancient. Returning to these old ways may be one of Bangladesh’s best hopes for surviving the perils of the future.

Since the 1980s, the agricultural technologies of the Green Revolution — high-yield cereal grains coupled with irrigation and the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides — have helped Bangladesh steadily increase its food production to keep pace with a growing population and stave off the kind of catastrophic famine it experienced in the mid-1970s. But those same technologies brought new woes. Chemicals were making the land and the people sick. Initially high yields began to drop as the soil was depleted of nutrients. Biodiversity deteriorated.

Bangladeshi farmers once grew thousands of varieties of rice. “The women used to keep so many varieties,” says Farida Akhter, the executive director of UBINIG. She’s a slight woman with wide glasses who speaks in a straightforward manner that makes everything she says seem like common sense. “We used to name them, like our children.” Now only two or three kinds of rice dominate the country. But many of the forgotten varieties are specially suited to drought, flooding and soil salinization. Now, with extreme weather on the rise, Nyakrishi farmers are bringing them back.

Mariam Begum shows me a glimpse of Nyakrishi farming in action. She safeguards the seeds for her village in a “seed wealth hut,” a square structure of thatch and bamboo with a tin roof. Inside its cool, dim interior she shows me bamboo shelves crowded with painted clay pots and glass bottles, each one labelled. She opens a bottle and pours a pile of seeds into her palm, cupping them like gold dust. The clay pots hold 90 varieties of rice, she explains. The bottles contain seeds of 45 different vegetables along with dozens of spices and medicinal plants. Begum keeps a ledger where she writes down the names of villagers who borrow seeds. Everyone is welcome to them, so long as they promise two things: that they will replace the seed after harvest and practise Nyakrishi farming.

Since most of her village started practising Nyakrishi 15 years ago, Begum — who is also a midwife — says she’s seen marked improvement in the health of mothers and babies. Fish and insects are returning to seasonally flooded fields once poisoned by pesticides, and farmers are able to grow enough food for their families without spending money on expensive chemicals. Across Bangladesh, 300,000 farmer families have joined the Nyakrishi movement.

Akhter is convinced that the more farmers who join the movement, the better Bangladesh’s chances of feeding its people and protecting its soil from the ravages of climate change. “Farmers in our areas have been dealing with climate-change related weather for years,” says Akhter. “We found they have resilient capacities to do that. So I am not worried about climate change. . . . If we are allowed, we can at least take care of ourselves.”

Whether or not Akhter is right — and I hope she is — I leave Mariam Begum’s village with a renewed realization that the people of Bangladesh have centuries of experience in figuring out how to sustain themselves on their fertile, fragile patch of the planet. They hold their future in their hands.

At least, to a degree. Before I leave, I ask Akhter the question that’s still on my mind: what can Canada do to help? She laughs before she replies: “Developed countries can do only one thing. That is reduce carbon emissions. I think that would be helpful.”

Josiah Neufeld travelled to Bangladesh last December on a trip funded by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

This story originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of The Observer with the title “Hell or high water.”


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