Precarious Lives, Rising Threats

New York Times Weekly

May 25, 2013

Khulna, Bangladesh

On a recent hot spring morning, Israfil Gazi went alone into the Sunderbans, the mangrove forests in southwest Bangladesh, in search of wild honey though he knew man-eating tigers roam the area. Each year tigers kill at least 50 people who enter the Sunderbans to fish, harvest wood and palm leaves, and collect honey. Mr. Gazi has been stung by bees countless times and has come face to face with tigers.

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Wearing just a long-sleeved shirt and a scarf over his face, he climbed a six-meter-high tree to cut hunks of honeycomb and smoked bees from their hive. His wife “prays to almighty Allah,’’ said Mr. Gazi, for his safety. He emerged five hours later and returned to his thatch hut in Koyra, where he squeezed the honeycomb like big sponges over a battered metal pot. The two kilograms he harvested fetched 700 taka, about $9, enough to feed his family.

Life is precarious for families like the Gazis who live near the coastal Sunderbans, and the threat of climate change and rising sea levels makes their existence all the more vulnerable. Though a cyclone struck Bangladesh this month with just a glancing blow, nearly one million people were evacuated, and thousands of homes were damaged.

As a low-lying country on the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is vulnerable to natural disasters from rising rivers, flooding, erosion and erratic rain. The flooding seawater threatens farmland that feeds 152 million people in the world’s most densely populated country.

With recent measurements showing atmospheric carbon dioxide at levels not seen in millions of years, the reality of the resulting climate change will be felt most acutely by families like the Gazis who are too poor to pick up and move to higher ground.

 

Honey collector

Global warming also increases the likelihood of more violent and frequent storms. Scientists predict that cyclones like Aila, which struck in May 2009 and created a tidal surge that broke embankments, inundated farmland around Koyra and left Mr. Gazi and others with few ways to make a living, may become more common.
More than a million people in Bangladesh will be affected by rising sea levels, according to estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And by the end of the 21st century, rising sea levels are expected to affect 94 million people in low-lying parts of Asia.

Meanwhile, there are efforts to make life more sustainable in the Sunderbans and adapt to changing conditions. Nongovernment organizations are teaching people in threatened areas how to cultivate fish and shrimp and fatten crabs collected from the Sunderbans. New saline-resistant rice and other crops are being introduced. Relief International UK is training people to harvest honey sustainably, and has provided start-up capital to the poor to buy hens and bicycle carts or build small shops, among other ventures. These small measures can improve the lives of cyclone victims, but their survival is still tenuous.

Bainpura village in Dacope district in the Sunderbans was also devastated during Cyclone Aila, leaving thousands to live in thatch huts along the embankment. “I swam for my life,’’ said Yasin Alam, a carpenter in his mid-30s.

Bainpura is so remote that getting to a marketplace takes half a day by foot along a crumbling riverbank. There was no cyclone shelter when Aila hit, but Mr. Alam’s three children survived. In 2011, cyclone-resistant homes were built in Bainpura through a pilot program financed by European and Australian aid agencies and the United Nations Development Program, which focuses on storm recovery.

The one-room houses, designed by the Housing and Building Research Institute in Dhaka, have concrete foundations, and walls and roofs with small solar panels and provide some measure of comfort to subsistence families. On a recent day, as a sonorous call to prayer drifted over the village, a baby in one house slept peacefully under a large mosquito net as her mother bustled about.

With help from local N.G.O.’s financed by donors like the European Union, vegetable gardens are sprouting in Bainpura, a feat considering the sandy soil. Cyclone evacuees relied on relief agencies for drinking water for two years after ponds were flooded with salt water. New wells have been dug, and each house has a rainwater vat on a concrete foundation. A multistory cyclone shelter is nearly complete and though Bainpura is still vulnerable it is better prepared for the next storm.

Mr. Alam was lucky enough to move into one of the new cyclone-resistant homes. Yet he pointed beyond a rice field where hundreds of huts were visible atop a distant embankment. Many are still homeless four years after Cyclone Aila. “Others need help too,’’ he said simply.

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