Bangladesh: An example of adapting to a harsh environment

(This article was originally published here)

We travel by car and speed-boat to the island of Kitubdia in the Bay of Bengal. From the ferry ghat, it is a bumpy 15-minute ride into town in the back of a jalopy. I’ve come to the island with Bangladeshi friends to research the impact of climate change on this community of fishermen and farmers.

Bangladesh, a country at sea level with three main rivers but over 700 in total criss-crossing the country, is the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change. In any given year, the country will face water shortages in winter, flooding in monsoon, and cyclones of varying intensity at different times of the year.

Communities along the Bay of Bengal are especially vulnerable. The cyclone of April 1991 smashed these communities with 250 km/h winds and six metre waves, killed more than 150,000 people and left 10 million homeless. I visited an impacted village a few weeks later in my capacity as the Director of Save the Children and was struck by the surreal scene of devastation and renewal as locals gathered debris from a wizened landscape of mud, sand and splintered palms, determined to rebuild their lives as best they could.

The cyclone of 91 was unusual in its ferocity. The general consensus among climate scientists is that the rise in air and sea temperatures resulting from climate change is likely to increase cyclone intensity, making events like 91 more common place.

Multistory concrete cyclone shelters scattered around the village double as community centres and schools. They give hope that if the direst predictions come true, the community of Kitubdia, at least, will be better prepared.

The encroaching sea 

Local lecturer Showkap leads us to a recently built embankment of concrete blocks funded by the World Bank. A dormant wind farm sits along the top of the embankment. The farm has the capacity to supply 1,500 homes with electricity — notoriously unreliable in Bangladesh — but the failure of the Bangladesh Power Development Board to provide meters so that houses can hook up to the grid means that families, six months on, are still waiting.

Since the cyclone of 91 the seawater has continued to rise and swallow up huge tracts of land. Showkap points to a spot 200 metres out to sea where he used to play. In another part of the village, the top section of the old lighthouse, bent over by the tidal waves of 91, juts out of the sea, a monument to the power of nature.

“When there was a beach here sea turtles used to breed. We used to farm the eggs and tourists used to come and watch the hatchlings head out to sea. Now all we get is dead turtles washing up onto the embankment,” he says.

Local fishermen explain that rising sea waters have turned once productive rice paddies into salt pans.

Abdu Sattar, bare torso with his lungi around his waist, became a fishermen when his paddy field was flooded. He used to earn 100,000 taka($1600) in six months as a farmer. This was adequate for his family of six children. In a good year as a fisherman he can earn $1,300 in nine months. But last year was a bad year.

“Big fishing trawlers in the Bay of Bengal have taken all the fish,” Abdu says.

Last year, he and the other fishermen earned less than $200 for 9 months’ work.

This has meant that many of them have been unable to repay the loans they took out with local moneylenders, at 30% interest, to buy their boats. “We now work on the boats we used to own for the person who lent us the money,” Abdu observes ruefully. “Can you stop the trawlers?” he asks.

Adaptation to climate change

The relentless push of the sea inland is helped by water management practices upstream in India. It is a perennial and seemingly intractable problem that the two respective governments have failed to resolve. During the dry winter months, when water upstream is diverted for irrigation in India, the rivers in Bangladesh are low and sluggish allowing the sea to encroach steadily inland.

This has presented opportunity to some. In coastal areas, farmers have adapted to the increasing salinity of water by harvesting salt and shrimp, which is now Bangladesh’s second largest export after garments.

“It is rich farmers who have benefited most from shrimp farming,” Saleemul Huq tells me. Huq is the Director of the Dhaka based International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). ICCCAD conducts research, builds capacity on climate change, and fosters the growth of networks working in climate change in Bangladesh and globally.

This rise of the shrimp industry exacerbates a historical tension between fishermen and farmers over where to locate embankments and how to manage water.

It is a tension that has implications not only for food security, but also for health. 

“There is some evidence that increasing water salinity in drinking water is linked to pre-eclampsia in pregnant women,” he adds.

This is in addition to the naturally occurring arsenic contamination of tube well water in many parts of Bangladesh.

There are signs the government of Bangladesh takes the threat of climate change seriously and is tackling the problem. The Bangladesh Climate Strategy and Action Plan receives annual funding of $100 million from the government.

But one strong lesson from Bangladesh is that government and donor-funded top down development projects can only, at best, be part of the solution.

Bangladeshis have never had the luxury of waiting for the government to solve their problems. They have had to take action in response to the threat of rising water. Villagers in flood-prone areas have traditionally built their houses on mud platforms and protected their communities with networks of embankments.

ICCCAD remains a strong advocate of local initiatives and supports the concept of Community Based Adaptation (CBA). Solutions developed at the local level have the best chance of being successful since it is the poorest living in areas prone to storms, floods, and droughts who are most vulnerable and best understand what needs to be done.  This approach seeks to give these communities a voice since it is powerlessness as much as location that makes these communities vulnerable to climate change. 

Huq gives the example of one new initiative where villagers in some areas have developed floating bamboo beds, the size of double beds, that can grow gourd type vegetables.

Investing money in developing suitable salt-tolerant rice varieties will be crucial to further protecting the food security of rice dependent Bangladesh.

Bangladesh — an exemplar of resilience

We squeeze onto a local launch for the trip back to the mainland. There are no life vests on this boat and locals sit precariously around the edge. One man cradles his infant. I’m terrified what might happen in the event of an unexpected lurching of the boat. But the father is unconcerned. He’s done this trip many times.

Bangladeshis have a different idea of risk. They have learned to cope with the  threat of floods and cyclones every year. They negotiate the chaos of the roads and the challenges of poverty every day.

Outsiders have often dismissed Bangladesh as a basket case. But it has always been an exemplar of adaptation to a harsh environment and a testimony to the resourcefulness and resilience of its people.

As climate change begins to impact coastal communities all around the world and pose questions of survival and adaptation, we might well be turning to Bangladesh for answers.

Written by: Phil Voysey, Co founder and Director of Cultural Connexions