Living in the shadow of climate change

Farmers in Bangladesh have no concept of global warming -- but are faced with scorching heat and rising waters that threaten their daily lives.

Published May 3, 2007 10:00AM (EDT)

Shahidul Mullah really doesn't have any time. Along with his friends from the island Char Bangla, he's perched on the bamboo frame of a roof that will eventually cover a new barn he is building for his cows and chickens. But time is a luxury Shahidul doesn't have. As he knows all too well, monsoon season is on its way -- and when it arrives, virtually the entire island will be flooded. The barn has to be ready by then, especially the thatched roof.

During the flood season, Shahidul and his family will hold out for weeks on the meter-high clay plateau on which his hut and new barn stand. Once the waters recede, they will then plant chili peppers and turnips in the fertile mud left behind. It's been like this as long as Shahidul Mullah has lived here. So he has to hurry.

The words "climate change" are ones that Shahidul -- who has no electricity, no television, and can't read -- has never heard before. Yet while the debate on global warming and its likely consequences rages across the globe, the 32-year-old farmer lives on the absolute front line of climate change. His "char," Bengali for "island," stretches out deep into the Bay of Bengal like a finger. Flowing past it is one of the 13 rivers that make Bangladesh into a giant delta, sandwiched between the glaciers of the Himalayas and the bay. Just 20 meters from his house, a glittering mass of water moves peacefully in the direction of the nearby ocean. Any rise in global ocean levels will hit Shahidul and his family first.

Indeed, southern Bangladesh, where Shahidul lives, is one of the places on Earth most vulnerable to creeping sea levels. "Even if people stopped emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, large regions of the South would soon be under water," says climate expert Atiq Rahman. Approximately 10 million people live in parts of Bangladesh lying less than a meter above current sea levels. The rivers add to the problem, providing rising sea waters easy access to the country's interior. If average sea levels rise by only a few centimeters, Shahidul Mullah's island will cease to exist -- and a rise of this magnitude is already regarded as a certainty.

Even without television and newspapers, Shahidul can sense that something just isn't right about the weather. "It gets warmer every year, there are more storms and the monsoon doesn't come on time," he says. The water level in front of his house also rises a little every year. "When I moved here, we still had three fields in front of the house. Now there are only two," Shahidul goes on. "I'm afraid the water will take another piece away from me this year." As a precautionary measure, he had the platform for his little barn built half a meter higher. "You never know what will happen."

Few people in southern Bangladesh know that there is such a thing as climate change. Even the local correspondent of the Daily Prothomalo, the region's largest newspaper with a circulation of around 300,000, describes reports on global warming as "rumors." Libtom, a well-groomed man in his mid-30s, says he heard something recently about a report on his transistor radio. What he's referring to is the most recent climate change assessment by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"Right now we're trying to find out more about it," says Libtom. Erratic weather is completely normal in the region, he says. People know how to deal with it. The government sees things similarly, having only just established a working group to look into the IPCC study.

The front line of climate change is long. Twelve hours on an overcrowded ferry takes you from the capital city of Dhaka to Patuakhali. From there, a four-wheel-drive jeep toils for hours to cover the few kilometers to Galachipa. Here, the roads end for good. Having arrived in the massive river delta, a tattered landscape of elongated islands, only a boat can take you closer to the bay. The helmsman of our speedboat rushes through the sometimes narrow canals for two hours. Occasionally, a kilometer-wide river opens up, its water brown like milky coffee. There are no maps of this area; each boat has its own names for the rivers.

We have to stop repeatedly to let hundreds of manatees cross from one bank to the other. Large flocks of birds fly overhead and fishing boats bob up and down wherever one looks -- little nutshells made of wood. Mostly, the lanky men wade through the tide with nets on the search for fish; sometimes they mount their nets on wooden posts. Even in this natural paradise, there is no lack of humans. About 150 million people are crammed into this overcrowded country, making for a density of 1,000 people for every square kilometer. The country is only 40 percent the size of Germany.

Shahidul Mullah came to Char Bangla 15 years ago. "I had no land; we found room to live here," he says simply. The unforgiving sun beats down upon him and the other villagers. It is a simple life the people lead here and they have adapted to the extreme weather. "We learned from older generations that it rains so hard in early May that the islands are completely underwater until June," says Shahidul Mullah. Consequently, he built his hut on a plateau and sows rice in the rainy season. When the water recedes, he switches to other crops.

It's a system that defines the entire area. And even if these simple farmers have never heard of greenhouse gases or the ozone layer, they have their own philosophy of life. "The water has always been our enemy but also a source of life," says Shahidul. Now, however, the bodies of water have changed. "The water just takes land away from me; it hardly gives me anything in exchange." Who is responsible he cannot say. In his view, only Allah is capable of such change.

Subject to nature's whims, the farmers have just been able to feed their families on the hard-earned returns of their work. It is enough for a daily bowl of dal -- a yellowish porridge of lentils -- onions and a little rice. A piece of meat or fish is added once a week. In the evenings, the exhausted farmer gets one or two packages of paan, a mixture of nutmeg and lime rolled up in a green leaf. This local drug is relaxing and has turned Shahidul's teeth blood red. Besides, he says, you forget your problems; as if on cue, his friends grin and show their own sets of red teeth.

Thanks to climate change, however, Shahidul's life is being derailed. Serious cyclones are becoming more frequent, says the farmer; this year, there was a severe cyclone even before the monsoon season began. Weather experts have in fact registered an increase in such storms in recent years -- from once every 20 years to once every five years. Shahidul is not familiar with this research; his only option is to pray every evening that no storm will roll in the following morning.

At the moment, however, Shahidul has other worries. Twelve days ago, his wife, Alea Becum, left the meager abode with their three children. She wanted to see a doctor, but since the ferries rarely come by the island, she still hasn't returned nor has he heard from them. The island has no electricity, and Shahidul has only heard of the existence of telephones. The father hopes she will come back before the monsoon; if she doesn't, he will have to spend the wet season without his family. The only thing he can do is wait.

Indeed, Shahidul and the other inhabitants of southern Bangladesh have no choice but to wait for the coming climate crisis as well. Shahidul Mullah would like for his children to have the opportunity to live elsewhere someday. But their chances aren't promising. The island's little school, built by an aid organization, is only open in the dry season -- not enough for a real education, much less for a life in the capital Dhaka.

"We have no future; we can only hope for better times," says the father as he starts working on the roof again. Only God can help him out of this situation and hold the weather at bay.

Shahidul Mullah intends to pray for exactly that later this evening.

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Matthias Gebauer

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