Before the flood

Global warming is threatening Bangladesh's coast. But the area's tens of millions of residents don't want to move.

By Emilie Raguso - Sandhya Somashekhar
April 21, 2006 2:00PM (UTC)
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In a wide clearing fringed with banana fronds, dusk brings the buzz of a thousand mosquitoes. Nearby, a generator's rumble splits the cool air. Eight musicians settle onto a brick stage in the village center, bringing with them the tapping of a dhol drum, the wheeze and drone of a harmonium, the shuffling of sandaled feet. The darkened platform bursts with light as a young woman begins to sing, drawing the villagers from their clay huts. Bundled in scarves and shawls, they press close as the drama begins.

There are no movie theaters in this remote village in southwestern Bangladesh, not far from the Indian border, and few families own a television. So theater, popular across South Asia, is a favorite entertainment. But the catchy tunes and high drama of this particular show, called "Environmental Thinking: Where Will We Go?" announce a grave warning. In the play, a community struggles to withstand floods, storms and saltwater intrusion caused by global warming -- a scenario that is unfolding, slowly, in this very village.


"If the flood comes, what will happen to us? There will be a shortage of drinking water. We'll suffer from ailment and disease," the opening song goes. "In starvation and malnutrition, all people will die. Ducks, chickens, cows and goats, none will exist anymore."

Beneath a canopy supported by bamboo poles, cast members speak into microphones hung with twine. They use wide sashes dyed marigold, red, turquoise or green to create scenes of boats and benches, tea stalls and carnivals.

Mohon Kumar Mondal watches from the front row, his broad face illuminated by the glow of the stage. Dressed in jeans and a gray sweater zipped to his chin, his Western clothes belie his roots, which are firmly planted in this verdant region a few miles inland from the Bay of Bengal. The cast members onstage, he says in his native Bengali, are not simply actors. They are fighters in a war against climate change. Their play is part of a regional education effort to alert southwestern Bangladeshis about how changing climate affects their lives. But, he fears, "the war will end before we can win."


He is most concerned about the residents of coastal communities. "In my case, since I am quite educated, I can go to Dhaka [the country's capital, roughly 130 miles inland] and live quite happily," he says. "But what will happen to my neighbors and relatives who are really uneducated, who don't even know what climate is, what weather is, not even what is going on in the outside world? For them the disaster will be unexpected, so they are going to die."

It is a despondent moment for Mondal, 29, who usually conveys a dogged optimism. As the head of a local environmental organization called Working for Coastal People, he spends much of his time trying to persuade people to stick by their ancestral homes. But as the planet warms at an alarming speed, optimism is becoming harder to muster. This is especially true with respect to Bangladesh -- a poor country the size of Wisconsin, bursting with a population nearly half that of the United States. On top of rampant illiteracy, poverty and disease, the country suffers year after year from devastating natural disasters.

Now they're also suffering from the effects of climate change. Experts say warmer global temperatures will increase the intensity of cyclones that form over the Bay of Bengal, sending more violent storm surges crashing into the coast. The saltwater front will crawl further inland, rendering farmland unusable and polluting much of the country's drinking water. The Sundarbans National Forest, a wild swath of mangroves that plays an important role in the nation's ecology, could be wiped out. Most alarmingly, as much as 18 percent of the land could slip into the bay in the next 100 years because of rising sea level, according to the World Bank. That would displace as many as 30 million people.


The country is scrambling to prepare for the impending disaster, but a lack of funding hampers their efforts. And because Bangladesh cannot independently finance its own climate-change preparations, it must rely on outside input and funding. Last year, with money from the United Nations and the United Kingdom, the Bangladeshi government set up a climate-change division within the Ministry of Environment, and a coalition of government officials and nongovernmental organizations recently completed a detailed study of the country's preparedness for the impact of global warming. These important steps could not have been accomplished without international assistance, but assistance comes with a price -- NGOs and foreign governments help direct much of the country's climate-change planning. As a result, preparedness planning in Bangladesh is a complex orchestration of local needs, government approval and aid agency agendas.

If there is one organizing principle for the government's approach to climate change, it is that the country must focus on adapting to the changes rather than relocating substantial parts of the population. Rafiqul Islam, of the country's Integrated Coastal Zone Management department, manages the 360 miles of rugged coastline that runs along the Bay of Bengal, a densely populated region that is home to some of the country's poorest people. The coastline will be first to feel the effects of climate change, but Islam says evacuating the area is not an option. On average, about 2,594 people are crammed into each square mile of the country. Where, Islam asks with a wry chuckle, where would all those people go? "In the international community, one can talk about the displacement of millions of people, but we cannot think in that fashion," he says dismissively. "We need to adapt. Whatever resources we have, we have to play with that."


These adaptations, experts like Islam say, must combine science and the survival techniques developed by resourceful people in disaster-prone areas. For instance, an isolated group of farmers in the south have long relied on gardens that float on water, planted on beds of water hyacinth. By improving on this technology and spreading it in areas that are likely to see more floods, government officials and NGOs hope they will increase the country's resilience to the increased flooding that climate change will bring.

Some scientists, like Ainun Nishat, a water-resources expert and leading climate-change researcher in Bangladesh, believe predictions of large-scale inundation are overblown and that mass migration won't be necessary. Nishat refers to a network of embankments, built along the southern coast in the 1960s, that he believes will provide some measure of protection from the sea.

"The countries which do not have dikes already are thinking of constructing dikes, but we already have those dikes," he says. "Now, we need to do two things: raise the height of the dikes, because with the sea level rise, if the storm surge comes in, some of these dikes could be ineffective. And the drainage structures would have to be changed so that the rainfall falling inside could be drained out."


Climate scientists outside Bangladesh, however, are less hopeful.

"The picture for Bangladesh, if nothing is done to limit greenhouse gas emissions, is very bleak," says leading Princeton climatologist Michael Oppenheimer. "They can protect their citizens from an out-and-out, day-to-day disaster, but in the long term the land is going, going, gone for a good chunk of the country. The wealthy countries -- like the U.S., like Japan, like China and India -- that pump out large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions will have to start to act in a serious way to curtail those emissions. Otherwise, not just Bangladesh, but large sections of the developing world and ultimately countries like our own will succumb."

When outsiders predict the worst for their country, many Bangladeshis smile. Those with even a basic understanding of climate change note with bitterness that this problem was largely caused by the gas-spewing West -- Bangladesh emits less than 0.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 24 percent for the United States -- but they are the ones who will pay the price.


And besides, Bangladeshis like to tell foreigners, their country has weathered just about everything nature has hurled at them: famine, hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, drought. "Bangladesh has all the natural disasters except for volcanoes," says Mahfuz Ullah, a well-known journalist and environmental activist. "This is another natural disaster for us. We all want to survive, and this survival instinct will always keep people floating above the water."

Outside the capital, in Noakhali, prayer is more popular than optimism. Some Bangladeshis -- especially those in the mango- and mahogany-rich central region, where fields of bright-yellow mustard flowers dot the landscape -- say the climate has already begun to change. Farmers like Badsha Alal have witnessed the shifts. Alal, 69, lives in a flood-prone area east of the Meghna River. His brow is lined from squinting into the sun, his high cheeks hollowed by two deep dimples.

Alal has worked the land of West Chorjabbar since his youth, using techniques passed down by his ancestors to know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to expect rain. These days, he laments, the old ways don't seem to work.

"In the past, it rained in Ashar [mid-June] for about 10 days in a row. With this rain, farmers would start their cultivation. Then in Kartik [mid-October to mid-November], there was a period when the kaccha flowers would fall with rain," he says, stroking his trim white beard. "Later, there was bura burir daar, the time of death of the old people. This is a very small period when we expected rain. But in the last 10 to 12 years, the patterns have changed. We are following the same pattern, which does not match anymore, so we have suffered a lot of damage."


Alal considers himself lucky, he says, as he pours sweet milky tea from his cup into his saucer to cool it before tipping the saucer to his lips. He owns eight acres of land where he grows assorted rice varieties, soybeans, peanuts and potatoes. Last year, when floods devastated the village harvest, he rented out a room in his house for extra money, took bank loans, and simply bought less at the market to survive. His voice gets smaller when he recalls his poorer neighbors' hardships -- when they lost their crops, they were forced to become day laborers or rickshaw pullers to feed their families.

"Among ourselves we discuss the irregular pattern of rain, but so far we haven't found any solution," he says. "Basically we depend on Allah and our fate for our good harvest. If there is a bad harvest, what can you do? We can only do what our parents did. But when there is drought and too much rain, we go to the mosque and arrange for special prayers so Allah will forgive us and fix the climate. We don't ask the government to fix it. There is no point in doing this. Would the government be able to give us rain? Never."

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Southwestern Bangladesh is densely forested, etched into islands and peninsulas by the nine rivers that pass through it en route to the Bay of Bengal. It is home to about 15 million people, both Hindu and Muslim, most of whom survive by growing jute, rice and other crops, or by working in one of Bangladesh's approximately 37,000 shrimp farms. In the Sundarbans, man-eating royal Bengal tigers stalk through thick mangroves, and herds of delicate spotted deer cross paths with crocodiles and nomadic fishermen. At times, the smell of molasses smoke drifts across the area's sugarcane fields and tickles the nostrils.


Despite the lush appearance, development projects and shifting ideas about land use have scarred the southwestern landscape over the past few decades. Huge tree trunks from the Sundarbans are chopped down, pirated through the tidal waterways, and sold illegally at roadside markets. Many farmers have traded in their barren plots -- where salinization has made it impossible to grow traditional crops -- for low-paying jobs tending shrimp. Others, like Alal's neighbors, move to the cities to pull rickshaws.

"If you look at the writings of the historians, anywhere between 800 years ago and 1,200 years ago, people who visited this area said, 'This is one of the most prosperous regions in the world,'" says scientist and policy researcher Ahsan Uddin Ahmed. "Why? Because the population was much less, the land was the same, and very fertile. And people were having beautiful life other than from suffering from cholera and waterborne diseases. That was the only problem that our ancestors used to face.

"What has gone wrong? In 1951, the population was one-fourth what we have today. In 1971, Bangladesh emerged as an independent country. Our population was half what we have today. So in a very short span of time, man-to-resource ratio has changed completely."

Mondal, the climate-change organizer, has heard stories of those days of plenty. His grandfather settled on the outskirts of the Sundarbans back when the rivers swam thick with fish and the forest provided for all the people's needs. By the time he was born, the region had become crowded with families, and nature wasn't so generous. Still, it provided. "Before, when it was time to harvest rice, the water in the rice fields would be released to the ocean," he recalls. "When water was released, we held a fish-catching festival in the village to see who could catch the most. Any given day we would catch four to five kilograms."


Today, Mondal describes his region as a paradise turned prison. Families are divided as men seek jobs far from home, and women must walk many kilometers to fetch drinking water. Rumors about the ill health effects of drinking salty water have turned his people into pariahs; men from other parts of the country, he says, no longer want to marry women from Satkhira. And the men don't fare much better. "I think we should not have come here, because what we came for is gone."

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It is impossible -- even pointless, many in Bangladesh say -- to separate the environmental and social problems caused by climate change from those that stem from other natural and manmade evils. "Isolating one thing from the whole thing is very difficult," says Ansarul Karim, a former university professor who now works as an environmental consultant in Dhaka. "It's not just a scientific experiment in the laboratory."

Take saltwater inundation. Experts say water-diversion projects in India and Nepal have choked off freshwater, causing saltwater to creep inland. Shrimp-farm owners, who raise their shrimp in brackish water, have prospered as a result. But shrimp farmers also accelerate the saltwater creep by channeling the salty coastal water inland. A steady loss of "sweet water" is one of the major impacts of global warming that members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other experts predict. But there's no telling how much of the current salinization comes from climate change and how much is the result of other factors. Regardless of the cause, community advocates like Mondal must explain the basics to people living in vulnerable areas so they can begin to understand the gravity of their situation.

It isn't easy. Mondal says that few of the people in his village ever complete primary school and only about a third of the population is literate, a rate far below the national average of 53 percent. So Mondal's environmental nonprofit has developed other ways to teach people about environmental hazards. First, they introduce the concept of weather and seasons. In a large, colorful flipchart, familiar illustrations convey his message: Storms destroy villages. Smoke-spewing factories pollute. Rice paddies become parched earth.

Until recently, Mondal's work took place under the auspices of a nationally touted project to prepare rural southwestern people for climate change. The three-year plan, which ended in February, was run by CARE Bangladesh and funded by CARE Canada. Under the project, organizers such as Mondal taught villagers to cope with their increasingly volatile environment by changing cultivation patterns, increasing vegetable varieties, and planting the floating gardens.

When teaching, Mondal describes the science using images. He explains carbon dioxide as a poisonous black smoke. He says it makes a layer in the sky and thus causes problems such as pollution and climate change. Since they have seen pollution grow -- as a result of brick-firing fields, pesticide use and increasing fleets of trucks and buses -- Mondal says that these ideas sink in when he presents the concepts slowly.

"It is really difficult to make people understand this type of scientific subject. For example, I have to at least explain that climate change is happening because of greenhouse gas. But even the word 'gas' is in English. People will say, 'What is gas?' Then there are words and concepts like 'industry,' 'automobile emission,' 'air conditioner,' 'refrigerator' -- these are all English words. Regular people are not familiar with these English words. When these new subjects or words are introduced, people are a little surprised, and many think they are dreaming."

The climate-change drama Mondal helped organize is another part of the education campaign. Theater groups began performing these shows around southwestern Bangladesh less than two years ago. By CARE's count, more than 2 million people have watched the environmental plays.

Sixteen-year-old Jasuna -- with long black lashes and a proud, square jaw -- is an actor in the drama. She knew nothing of climate change before joining the production. Afterward, though, she rehearsed with the cast for three hours each day, after classes and homework. The actors receive no pay for their participation. There is only one benefit, Jasuna says: To raise awareness among the people. In the play, villagers discuss how storms and flooding force many country folk into the cities.

Princeton climatologist Oppenheimer sees this migration as a likely scenario.

"A global sea level rise of about half a meter -- the average expected over this century -- could cause an area of Bangladesh where about 10 million people now live to be permanently submerged. If even a modest chunk of the Greenland ice sheet or the west Antarctic ice sheet goes, the sea level would rise past the capital of Dhaka -- which is in the center of the country -- and untold tens of millions of people live between Dhaka and the sea right now."

But Jasuna says that, for her, migration is not an option.

"I'm committed that I will not leave this area. I love Bangladesh and I especially love Shyamnagar. No matter what happens with the climate, if life is in my body, if I haven't died -- even if the roads are covered with water, and the houses are covered with water -- I will never leave. I would rather die here."

Read other articles in the Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet directory.

Emilie Raguso

Emilie Raguso and Sandhya Somashekhar are freelance journalists. This story was reported in a joint production of Salon, NPR's Living on Earth and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

MORE FROM Emilie Raguso

Sandhya Somashekhar

Sandhya Somashekhar is a freelance journalist. This story was reported in a joint production of Salon, NPRs Living on Earth and U.C. Berkeleys Graduate School of Journalism.

MORE FROM Sandhya Somashekhar

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