Extreme measures in Bangladesh

No stranger to natural disasters, the country is also on the frontline of climate change. Working together, the nation and the UK are helping beleaguered communities to adapt and survive. John Vidal reports.

We found Fajila and Sirajul tending tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables, but they were in no ordinary garden. This one had no soil; their plants were growing out of what looked like balls of dung, and the bed they were growing them in was a 12-metre-long, 1.2-metre-wide plot of tangled water hyacinths floating on land that is flooded most of the year. Fajila and Sirajul were waist deep in water, practising hydroponic farming

These weren’t ordinary people, either. Until a few months ago, they were landless peasants from Deara, a village in the coastal area of southern Bangladesh, one of the poorest and most vulnerable places on earth. People there face regular environmental hazards, including cyclones, floods, water-logged land, silting rivers, arsenic in the drinking water, river erosion and the intrusion of salt water. But now they have to cope with climate change, too. Their imaginative use of hyacinths as new “land” to grow crops is part of a concerted attempt by the governments of Bangladesh and the United Kingdom to prepare vulnerable communities for present and future disaster.

No one doubts that climate change is happening in Bangladesh. Government meteorologists report 10%-increased intensity and frequency in cyclones hitting the country, and in the last three years there have been two of the largest storms ever recorded. Peasant farmers report increased rainfall and chaotic seasons, and everyone says it is warmer.

“We are learning about climate change,” says Anawarul Islam, chair of the Deara district of about 2,500 people. “We are experiencing more rainfall every year. The water level in the sea is definitely rising. Every year, we have to increase the heights of the embankments, and the amount of water-logging is growing. It has led to more homeless people, more social conflict and more quarrels between neighbours. There is more poverty and less food security.”

“It’s far warmer now,” says Selina, from the fishing village of Jelepara. “We do not feel cold in the rainy season. We used to need blankets, but now we don’t. Last year, there were heavy rains even in summer. There is extreme uncertainty of weather. It makes it very hard to farm. We cannot plan. We have to be more reactive. The storms are increasing and the tides now come right up to our houses.”

About 160 kilometres away, Julian Francis, a UK development worker with communities living in the chars — the large islands that form in all of Bangladesh’s vast rivers — is seeing river erosion increasing, almost certainly because of greater flows of water. Recently, in torrential monsoon rains, he went out on the mighty Jamuna river. “I visited an area of Kulkandi where four villages with 571 families have been eroded,” he says. “People said the river had come about 1,200 feet [365 metres] inland last year and another 1,000 feet [about 300 metres] this year.”

“Last year,” he added, “528 grants were made to families in one district by the Chars Livelihood Project. But since April this year, 518 grants have been made, and there is now a waiting list of more than 300. I was told the river had not been seen in such a furious state since 1988. [It seems] a new island char had formed in the middle of the river and this has caused the river to change its course … and this is the cause of the increased river erosion.”

Climate change may not be directly responsible for Bangladesh’s water-logged land, the intrusion of salt water or its river erosion, but it is turning a bad situation into a potential catastrophe, driving people such as Fajila and Sirajul to absolute poverty. Cyclone Sidr, one of the most powerful storms ever to have hit Bangladesh, made three million people homeless last November. Meanwhile, food-price inflation has left four million extra people in absolute poverty this year, according to a World Bank official in August.

“There has to be preparation for climate change,” says Raja Debashish Roy, a government environment official. “We are experiencing many changes; some are coming very quickly and others will over years. There is a rise in salinity, more intense tidal waves, floods, droughts and cyclones. We are getting too much water in the rainy season and too little in the dry season. All this has implications for food security. We have to be coping with all these problems, some simultaneously.”

Roy was in London on September 10 for the UK-Bangladesh Climate Change Conference, at which Bangladesh made public its strategy to cope with climate change over the next 10 years. Britain will commit £75 million (US$135 million) to a new international fund for the country to adapt, and Bangladesh itself will contribute US$50 million a year. Other countries and global institutions, including Denmark and the World Bank, also are expected to chip in.

This is the first attempt by any major least developed country (LDC) to methodically address the threat of climate change, and is expected to become a model for others as more global money becomes available after a post-Kyoto agreement is in place.

“Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country in the world in terms of the scale of the impacts expected,” says Islam Faisal, climate-change advisor in Bangladesh for the UK Department for International Development (DfID). “It is the first to develop a strategy and an action plan. The money is not enough in itself to cover the costs of adaptation, but it should kick-start the process and allow the [Bangladeshi] government to access global money.”

That is where Fajila and Sirajul come in. Their hydroponic garden, developed under a DfID-funded disaster-management plan, includes raising houses about one metre above the present high-water line, introducing salt-tolerant crops, encouraging crab and duck farming, and rainwater harvesting.

“More than 70 [adaptation] initiatives have been identified,” says Mamunur Rashid, director of the Bangladeshi government’s disaster management programme.

One of the most successful is an education programme. A local non-governmental organisation, Shushilan, employs a full-time theatre troupe to travel to festivals and villages, informing people about climate change and how to adapt to it. Another sends volunteers to communities, with educational “flip charts”.

The initiatives are popular. “Growing food like this is labour intensive, but we don’t need fertiliser or pesticides, and the food quality is better than food grown in soil,” says Fajila. “At the start, we were very unsure whether it would work, but now we think we can live on what we grow.”

Rashid says: “What was a scientific debate has become a practical one about development. Without actions like this, Bangladesh would be plunged deeper into extreme poverty. It’s about climate change, but also about poverty reduction. It doesn’t need new ideas to adapt to climate change so much as developing what is already there. Climate change comes on top of multiple hazards and difficulties. It could tip people over the edge or, if countries respond, it could help them.”

Roy is optimistic, too. He says: “Bangladesh has always had floods, cyclones and disasters. People are used to dealing with such changes. We have a history of dealing with challenges. We are mentally equipped for climate change, but we do need support to prepare for it.”

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
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