Carol Thiessen’s Reflections on Bangladesh
Monjila Begum has become the face of climate change for me. Three years ago Cyclone Aila ravaged southern Bangladesh causing massive flooding and mudslides. Rivers battled their way through embankments swamping whole villages, salt water inundated fields and hundreds of people died. Hundreds of thousands more lost their homes and livestock.
Cyclone Aila destroyed Monjila’s home. But she lost much more than that. Her husband now suffers from the trauma of the storm and can’t work. So she moved her family to her father’s village of Gabura, a river island near the Bay of Bengal, hoping for a better future. She hasn’t found it yet. “Day by day we are becoming poorer,” she told me through an interpreter.
I met Monjila on a recent trip to Bangladesh. I wanted to better understand how a changing climate is affecting people in some of the poorest places in the world. The Foodgrains Bank is committed to reducing hunger and helping people climb out of poverty, yet our partner organizations in Bangladesh have been telling us that climate change is making this much more difficult. So I visited some of the villages where they work to learn more.
The 40-year-old mother of four showed me her small home constructed from mud and sticks. What struck me most was its location—mere steps from the powerful river, and on the wrong side of the mud embankment protecting much of the community. “If any storm happens my house could be washed away again,” she said.
Monjila and her 17-year-old son eke out a dollar or two a day when they can find work. They often eat just one meal per day—and only rice. Koinonia*, a Christian agency in Bangladesh, is helping people in Gabura get clean drinking water and sanitation facilities and Monjila is able to get clean water at least.
It’s hard for me to imagine living as Monjila does—constantly worried about her next meal, the security of her home, and the future of her children.
The story of the whole country is also harrowing. Some 150 million people are packed into a low-lying country less than a quarter the size of Manitoba. Three mighty rivers flow through the country, branching into hundreds of tributaries that surge into the Indian Ocean. It’s hard to tell where earth ends and sea begins. Up to 70 percent of the country gets flooded during heavy monsoons.
Bangladesh has made huge strides in fighting poverty in recent decades, but this is now being threatened. Beyond the challenge of geography, there are disputes with India over water and concerns over shrimp farms that damage nearby properties.
Now throw in risks from climate change. Bangladeshis are already noticing higher temperatures and rising sea levels. More severe storms are hitting, and storm surges mean fields get inundated with salty water. That increased soil salinity is making it harder for farmers to grow their crops.
It’s no wonder Bangladesh is seen as one of the frontlines of climate change.
While it is still difficult to directly attribute one weather event, such as Cyclone Aila, to climate change, scientists are increasingly able to link the increasingly weird and violent weather experienced around the world to climate change.
“When I see these people, it really hurts me how vulnerable they are,” said Milton Bonik, a program manager for Koinonia, as we puttered down the river towards Gabura in a small fishing boat. “In some places we have droughts and flooding,” he continued. “So we are very vulnerable to climate change.” (Koinonia is a partner of Foodgrains Bank member, World Relief Canada, this particular project was funded by British and Australian charities.)
Others in Gabura tell us their stories too.
“Now the total weather has changed,” said Mohammad Mujibur Rahman, 52, through an interpreter. “When I was young there were storms, but it was not so strong. Now we see it is becoming stronger. The water level is rising day by day.”
Mohammad used to grow rice on two acres of land near the village. After Cyclone Aila swept away his home and inundated his field with salt water, he struggled to get back on his feet. He had to sell his field to a distant relative. He lives hand to mouth. “In this area many people are just sitting idle. What should we do?”
“Before Aila I had a boat and nets. With that I could fish and earn my livelihood,” says Ziad Ali, 24, also through an interpreter. “I could go in the deeper seas and sell fish to market.” He lost the boat, the nets and his house in the storm, but says, even if he still had them, he wouldn’t risk the more lucrative fishing in deep seas. He’s afraid of worsening storms.
The Foodgrains Bank and other international development organizations are calling on the Canadian government, and other developed countries, to give more money to help developing countries like Bangladesh adapt to these changes.
Milton Bonik agrees adaptation is their priority. “You can help by giving us support to help people adapt,” he said. “We have no choice but to adapt.”
It’s raining in Bangladesh now as the summer monsoon season progresses. There are torrents of rain in some parts of the country, feeble sprinkles in others. Milton writes that there are concerns that in many parts of the country the rains aren’t sufficient to grow the food the country needs. But he sends word that for now Monjila and her home are safe. She will remain in my heart and prayers.
Carol Thiessen is a senior policy advisor for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. She travelled to India and Bangladesh in March. To learn more about policy changes that would help Bangladesh adapt to climate change, simply click here.
*More mages from Carol’s trip to Bangladesh are available here.