Parul pulls her green and yellow scarf around her sad face as she tells me her story. Seven years ago, her husband Abdur Rob crossed the river with several others to cut wood and grass in the Sundarbans forest — one of the largest mangrove forests in the world and home to the last remaining Bengal tigers.
One of those tigers attacked Abdur and dragged him into the jungle.
“There was nothing they could do to help him,” Parul says. After three days they found “just a half portion” of her husband’s remains.
Tiger widows and climate change
Few countries are more vulnerable to climate change than Bangladesh (although new research says that the state of Louisiana faces the highest rate of sea level rise worldwide) and Parul’s family lives right on the frontline. Pakhimara is a low-lying and densely populated coastal area — surrounded by three rivers — that suffered enormous destruction when Cyclone Aila hit in 2009, and before that in Cyclone Sidr in 2007.
Villagers say cyclones and disasters are becoming more frequent. They used to grow rice and vegetables, but for the last four years villagers haven’t been able to produce anything because of the increased soil salinity since the floods. Many of the poorest are still waiting for help to reconstruct their houses.
With no other alternative, people are now forced to go deeper and deeper into the forest looking for mangrove to cut down or fish or honey to sell. But the Bengal tiger’s habitat is also severely threatened by climate change, and they have become much more aggressive since the cyclones. In Pakhimara alone, there are at least 20 tiger widows, and 14 villages in the area all report similar high casualties.
Responding to an “existential threat” — lessons for post-Sandy New York
“Climate change is an existential threat to Bangladesh,” says William Hanna, the European Union (EU) Ambassador in Dhaka. “If sea levels rise by one meter, a large chunk of the country will disappear and 20-30 million refugees will be created. So Bangladesh cannot wait, and is doing a lot to try and adapt, with our [EU] support, to the effects of climate change.”
As environmental expert Dr. Saleemul Huq explained last month at a conference entitled “Lessons from Bangladesh for a post Sandy New York,” the country has been encouraging a “people-centered” early warning system as well as what he calls social forestry, “where the people plant trees and mangroves themselves to act as storm buffers.”
The main message from the seminar in New York: preparation for climate change is not just about technology and engineering. It’s also necessary to invest in human and community awareness.
Building up reslience — especially among women
Further inland from Parul’s village, in the delta district of Satkhira, in a massive and heroic effort, thousands of local people are digging out silted-up canals — by hand — and building up embankments in an effort to reduce water-logging.
Most of the workers are women, as many of the men have been forced to migrate in search of seasonal labor elsewhere. They carry baskets full of gloppy grey mud from the silted canals to reinforce the embankments that will keep their fields from flooding.
“Resilience” is the buzzword here, and the approach is two-fold: strengthening embankments and buildings, and building individuals’ capacity to cope. In return for their labor, the women receive food as well as training in finding new sources of income. When the work is finished they receive a cash grant of 10,000 Taka (around U.S. $130) and are encouraged to buy a sewing machine, or start up a small business such as a shop.
EU Ambassador William Hanna says one of the joys of working in Bangladesh is that you see results. He regards Bangladesh’s Climate Change Resilience Fund as a model example of cooperation between international donors such as the EU, the World Food Programme, the World Bank and the Bangladeshi government. The 100 million Euro fund is managed by the World Bank with the EU paying in nearly a third of the total budget. The money is used to improve defensive infrastructures such as embankments, to pay for food, work schemes and building more cyclone shelters.
When Cyclone Aila hit Parul’s village in 2009, the system that transmit emergency announcements through the mosques didn’t work in time for people to take shelter. And even if it had, there would not have been enough places for people to go to. Now in addition to building more shelters, the authorities are working to improve early warning systems, thanks to the massive penetration of mobile phones, even amongst the poorest — there are a staggering 90 million phones in an adult population of 120 million.
Bangladesh’s growing confidence
Henry Kissinger once famously described Bangladesh as a “basket case.” But despite the climate change problems it faces, Bangladesh is now doing better economically, thanks to the growing garment industry which has created more than four million jobs, mostly for women, and huge remittances flowing back to the country. According to the World Bank, remittances from abroad were worth $14 billion in 2012 — five or six times the amount of international aid the country receives.
Bangladesh has ambitious plans to become a middle-income country by 2021. The birth rate is plummeting and many more children now attend school, even in the poorest areas. The country is growing in strategic importance. China is developing a deep-water port and the U.S. is keen to cultivate good relations with this (relatively) stable Islamic democracy: just last year former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a strategic partnership agreement during a visit to the country’s capital, Dhaka.
This growing self-confidence was in evidence during international climate negotiations in Durban and in Doha, where Bangladesh took a leading role amongst a group of least-developed countries demanding that the developed world take more responsibility for climate change and provide more financial and technical assistance for vulnerable nations.
“Climate change is an example where [Europe has] seen a common interest with this country” says EU Ambassador Hanna. “We all face this threat and it is just a question of when we get it. When you see floods in Europe — you get it. And when you see floods in the United States — you get it. It’s just a question of how soon we will realise this.”