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 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.
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.
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.