The Sky is Bad Today

Bodal bathing. A storm surge of over 5 meters destroyed the dam wall that protected Podma, 9 of Badol‘s relatives died including his wife. He built a make shift house from debris he found lying around. His rice paddy was destroyed so now he delivers wood to earn money. 14 of his cattle disappeared, somehow amazingly 3 returned many months after. Podma village, Barguna District, Barisal Division, southern-central Bangladesh. Cyclone Sidr struck in November 2007, Save the Children estimate that around 10 000 people died. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that 22 million people in Bangladesh will become climate refugees by 2050.

Text & photos Rodney Dekker

Recurring natural disasters threaten traditional ways of life.

On the evening of November 15, 2007, a fierce Category 4 cyclone – with peak winds of 250km/h – approached the coast of Bangladesh from the Bay
of Bengal.

“I was roused from my sleep by the cyclone shaking my house,” says Abdul Kuddus Munshi, a small-scale rice farmer in Padma. Abdul describes how his house, livestock and rice field were decimated by the cyclone. Two years on, he is still living in what he describes as “a sorry state”, forced to survive on the goodwill of others.

“After Cyclone Sidr, saltwater subsumes the (rice) field and the soil absorbs the salt. During the dry season the salt rises to the topsoil and we can’t produce anything… We don’t get the same yields we used to,” he says.

Dublar Island: An islander carries a bag of fish. The catch is dried and shipped to market in Dhaka.

Like most farmers in southern Bangladesh, Abdul is a subsistence farmer, struggling to provide food for his family from one season to the next. When possible, he sells surplus food on the market. When times are tough, they go hungry.

Abdul’s lifestyle is not unique. It is estimated that subsistence farmers make up more than half the population of Bangladesh are. And for many, life has always been tough. But with the increased frequency of floods, cyclones and tidal surges, together with rising sea levels in the south and droughts in the north, the country has reached crisis point. It is critically vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which has become inextricably linked to poverty.

Shelters save lives

Memories of the tragedy still echo through the rebuilding efforts taking place. Across the district of Borguna, in south central Bangladesh, 17 Cyclone Emergency Centres are being built in an effort to provide shelter when the next cyclone, inevitably, hits. A shelter is being constructed at Padma and will provide a safe haven for around 1,000 people. For most of the year, the shelter will actually be used as the new primary school.

Praying at Dublar Island, situated in remote southern Bangladesh, is nearly uninhabited most of the year. Then, from mid-October to mid-February, thousands of fishermen and Hindu pilgrims arrive from all parts of Bangladesh. The religious worshipers come for the Rash Mela, an annual three-day festival with a 200-year history. They are aware that climate change is a threat to their livelihoods and traditions, They pray for their souls to be cleansed and for the seas not to swallow them. Honorable Mention - International Photography Awards - 2009

Over the past two decades, schools that double as shelters have been built across southern Bangladesh, saving countless lives. Unfortunately for 23 primary students that perished when the embankment collapsed in Padma, the shelter will arrive too late. To meet demand for such reconstruction, a brickyard began operations near Patharghata, one hour away from Abdul’s home.

Fishermen threatened

These shelters obviously can’t be built at sea, so a high percentage of fishermen are still threatened. And fishermen like Gaupadha Bis are very aware of the dangers caused by the increasingly volatile climate.

Abdul Kuddus Munshi in his rice paddy

Gaupadha was fishing near Dublar Char, a remote island that sits at the southern end of the Sunderbans, facing the Bay of Bengal, when Sidr first swept into the coast. He had heard the warning signal and retreated to safety. He was one of the lucky ones. Many fishermen were lost at sea, their bodies never to be recovered.

Gaupadha and his son fish during the winter months, traditionally the safest time on the water. However, he has noticed some alarming changes in the weather. “We see the storms in winter and not many in summer…” says Gaupadha. “The storms are more frequent now. I have been doing this for 22 years, but it was never as frequent as it is now. It affects us even if there’s a little danger. The other day, I asked my son if he wanted to go out to work, but he said ‘No, the sky is bad today’.”

For the rest of this article (Asian Geographic No.74 Issue 5 /2010 ) and other stories, check out our past issues here or download a digital copy here

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