Rebecca Sultan’s life has been shattered twice in a few years. First, the 140mph winds of Cyclone Sidr ripped through her village, Gazipara, flattening houses, killing 6,000 people and devastating the lives of millions as it slammed into southern Bangladesh in 2007.
Then, 18 months later, as Sultan was recovering, Cyclone Aila tore in from the Bay of Bengal with torrential rains, breaching the coastal embankments and flooding her fields with salt water.
Storms of this intensity historically happen in Bangladesh once every 20 to 30 years. But two “super-cyclones” in two years, followed by a narrow escape when super-cyclone Nargis killed 100,000 people in nearby Burma a year later, convinced Sultan and her village, as well as many sceptics in government, that climate change was happening and Bangladesh’s very survival was at stake.
Gazipara, like thousands of other villages in coastal Bangladesh, is now racing to adapt to the increased flooding, erosion and salt-water intrusion.
Sultan and 30 other women have raised their small houses and toilets several feet up on to earth plinths. Others are growing more salt-tolerant crops and fruit trees, and most families are trying different ways to grow vegetables. “We know we must live with climate change and are trying to adapt,” said Sultan.
Elsewhere in Bangladesh, hundreds of communities are strengthening embankments, planting protective shelter belts, digging new ponds and wells and collecting fresh water. Some want to build bunkers to store their valuables, others want cyclone shelters.
“I am quite amazed at how people are grappling with climate change and are adapting,” said Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist who is head of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London and an adviser to the Bangladesh government on how to adapt to climate change.
“It’s by far the most aware society on climate change in the world,” Huq said. “It has seen the enemy and is arming itself to deal with it. The country is now on a war footing against climate change. They are grappling with solutions. They don’t have them all yet but they will. I see Bangladesh as a pioneer. It has adapted more than any other country to the extremes of weather that climate change is expected to bring.”
With the latest research showing more droughts in the country’s north and rising sea levels, more than 30 million Bangladeshis are liable to lose everything from climate change in the next 30 to 50 years, said Atiq Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report.
“It’s extreme events, like super-cyclones and the droughts, that will dominate in future, not the mean [average],” Rahman said. “It’s the extra days of heat or cold or the intensity of the cyclones that will affect life most. Poor people cannot wait for global leadership on climate change – they are acting now. They are paying with their own lives, their own resources, their own efforts. They cannot wait. It is not a question of choice.”
The trouble, Rahman told a conference on community adaptation last week in Dhaka, is that traditional knowledge about when to plant which crops, or to harvest, may not be sufficient. “Government recognises it is a very real threat. But what happens in the future will not be indicated by what has happened in the past. There is a new knowledge challenge,” he says.
“Many know to plant more tolerant crops in hard years, but lack the drought-tolerant or salt-resistant seeds now needed to deal with worsening conditions. We need new technologies, funds and knowledge.”
But, said the foreign minister, Dipu Moni, rich countries had not given the money they had pledged to help Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries adapt. “Climate change is real and happening,” Moni said. “A 1C rise in temperatures for Bangladesh equates to a 10% loss of GDP. One event like Sidr can take 10 to 20 years to recover from and cost us billions of dollars. But we don’t see the money coming.
“The people being affected are not the big banks but the poor. Our plight goes quite unnoticed. It does not make the rich countries produce trillions of dollars overnight. It’s a shame, but we keep trying.”
According to her ministry, Bangladesh has received $125m (£78m) so far, including $75mfrom the Department for International Development (DfID). “But [countries] have refused to [say] if the climate change money is taken out of [the existing] aid basket,” said a senior civil servant. “We want clear guarantees that this money will be on top of official development assistance money. DfID has not clarified this is additional to ODA.”
On the coast, Sultan pondered the changes. “The difference we’ve all seen in the weather in just a few years is great. Now we are getting sudden rains, we don’t know when to expect them; the water levels rise faster, the erosion is greater and we are getting more salinity. We used to know when the seasons would change; now they are temperamental. We are resilient and determined to adapt to whatever happens, but it is hard.”
[Bangladesh fishing village via Swapan / Shutterstock]