The story of Rahima and Kalam:
Climate change and the coastal peoples of Bangladesh
By IEF Member Zobayer Raihan
When I met a local couple, Rahima and Kalam, on the banks of the Meghna River, the morning sun had just begun to spread its heat. Local boatman and passengers were starting their journeys to various destinations; traders were opening their shops near the landing platforms.
Kalam was building a new small house on the banks of the Meghna River. Only two days before, all of their belongings including cattle and crops had succumbed to the Meghna due to erosion. Kalam begged for some bamboo from a local businessman so they could erect a small shelter over their heads. Rahima, Kalam’s wife, was helping her husband interrupting her cooking. The house would be constructed from raw, unfinished bamboo planks. It hopefully would be a temporary shelter for them. But who knows? This house might also be entombed in the womb of the Meghna, and then they would have to make another shelter. At 30 years of age, Kalam could not remember how many times he had made a shelter like the one he was working on today. He lamented,
“I have been watching river erosion since childhood; it has been a regular occurrence for me. Houses break down and we rebuild them. But river erosion has been going out of control for the last few years, and the river water level is increasing day by day.”
I try to draw out their story. Sitting closer, I ask how they and their four-year old baby will survive. Do they feel they are in danger? Kalam asked me, “What will you do after hearing our story?” Then he related the following:
”Our life is as uncertain as the Meghna River. A few years ago, we had a home, crop fields, and cattle. Then river erosion began and went out of control. With this, a new problem has emerged; the saltwater level is increasing day by day. Many localities around the coastal area are submerged when the tide comes in. The scenario was different a few years ago. Vast fields of watermelons, paddy rice, and wheat were all cultivated around the area. There was a smile on the farmer's face. My father had four acres of cultivated land. But gradually, as the amount of saltwater increased, all of our cropland became submerged under saltwater. Now farmlands are abandoned; they no longer produce crops. We have become destitute. Presently, I work as a day laborer at the river basin. Sadly, I cannot procure three meals a day for my family.”
Kalam said that agricultural production was decreasing even in the region where saltwater had not entered because the underground freshwater level was being replaced by saltwater. As a result, agricultural lands far from the sea and river were not producing the same crops as before. Asking Kalam how does the future look, he replied, “We have no future at all. The river banks are eroding, saltwater is coming in from the sea, and cyclones and tidal waves are increasing day by day. We do not know what is going to happen or when this danger will be relieved.”
Rahima also talked about her problems. “The biggest problem for me is collecting drinking and cooking water. As the seawater level rises, saltwater, which is not drinkable, is coming out of almost every tube well. This saltwater cannot even be used for daily household activities. To collect drinking water, I must go to the local primary school, about two kilometers away, where freshwater is available in a deep tube well.
However, it is not possible to bring water every day from such a distance. So often we drink saltwater from the nearest tube well. As a result, our children are getting weaker day by day. Moreover, the production of crops and vegetables is gradually decreasing here. So, we have had to reduce the vegetables in our daily diet.”
Nearby, some fishermen are fishing on the river with a small boat and a net. I ask them about their catch today. Abdul Hakim, an elder fisherman brings his boat in to the riverbank and opens his fish basket. There is about one kilogram of fish in the basket, which is all he has caught for the whole morning.
Hakim related, “In earlier days, two hours of fishing would have filled my basket, but now after the entire morning, we are fortunate if we even catch one kilogram of fish. The freshwater fishes are gradually disappearing due to the day by day increases in saltwater. Fishing has been our profession since the days of our ancestors. It is not possible to change professions because we do not know any other work. The saltwater has made our lives very difficult. We do not have a big boat to fish on the open sea, so this freshwater river is the main source of our livelihood.”
These stories are not only typical for Rahima, Kalam, and Hakim. They are also the story of about 40 million people in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. The lives of the marginalized people in the coastal areas of Noakhali in Bangladesh have become very difficult due to the direct effects of climate change. Researchers are saying that by 2050, not only Noakhali, but also at least four million people in 15 coastal districts of Bangladesh could be directly affected by climate change.
According to a recently published research report, in Bangladesh the seawater level is rising at a rate of 1.6 millimeters per year. As a result there has been an increase in soil salinity, which has begun to directly affect agriculture and fish farming productivity. The report also says that about 1.5 million hectares of agricultural land, which is about 40% of the total coastal area of Bangladesh, have been affected by different levels of salinity.
Mr. Delwar Hossain, a Local Agriculture Officer told me, “Due to increasing temperature and increasing salinity in the land, the varieties of high yield paddy rice are decreasing and the onslaught of wheat diseases is increasing. In Bangladesh, if the temperature increases by two degrees Celsius, wheat cultivation will not be possible. Climate change is the cause of the increasing onslaught of insects and various plant diseases. Now, attacks of millebagh, aphids, and bacterial and fungal diseases are more prevalent in different crops. In the last few years, around 50,000 people have left Noakhali to find work due to inadequate agricultural production.”
Biodiversity in coastal areas has been mostly affected by global warming. More than 50 species of fish and animals have become extinct in the forest and rivers along the southern coast. The Sundarbans, which UNESCO has recognized as the largest mangrove forest in the world, has fewer trees in the forest due to increased salinity, and this has directly affected the ecology. As a result, the Royal Bengal Tiger is now at the door of extinction. Zoologists fear that, with the present conditions, this tiger will soon be completely extinct from the Sundarbans.
Returning to the story of Rahima and Kalam, they started building their house in the morning. At noon, the work was not yet finished. Their temporary home has been made of bamboo and plastic and will look like a tent. Kalam could not go to work today as he was building the home.
Kalam, at thirty years of age, is physically weak. Their four-year-old son also suffers from malnutrition. Now is not the typical storm season, so maybe their house will survive a few months. However, when the rains come, there will be danger. The water level will rise, and the family will probably be subjected to cyclones. During these monsoons it is not possible to stay in this vulnerable house with their baby. They will have to shelter on the primary school porch two kilometers away. There they may be joined by some other homeless families who have endured unbearable months of rain and been in indescribable misery. There is no pure water, not enough food, no work, and saltwater all around.
“We do not think about ourselves anymore,” Rahima says. “Our lives are almost over! How many more days will I live! Not many. But where will my son find shelter? Seeing nothing but an unsafe and terrifying future for him is my biggest fear.”
Last updated 21 May 2020