The Human Story of Transformation in Coastal Bangladesh
By Saleh Ahmed
A Life of Science: A Series by New Scientists
Most people in Bangladesh have experiences with natural hazards. I am not an exception. Since childhood, I can remember devastating floods, tropical cyclones, summer heat, and even low winter temperatures. I can particularly remember the flood of 1998, when 68 percent of total land area of the country was submerged for more than a month. It was one of the most devastating floods in Bangladesh’s history.
Our home also flooded during that period. I was 18 and lived in the capital city of Dhaka for my studies. My mother, with my two younger siblings, lived in Darsana, a small town in the southwest region of the country. It was hit hard by the upstream floods of the Ganges. Despite government warnings, residents had a difficult time understanding the intensity and scale of the flood. I rushed home, taking buses and river launches for the half-day journey. I saw how the rice paddies beside the roads were filling with water, creeping higher and higher. The next day the road was impassable.
When I arrived home I found the water was already nearly three feet high. The usually bustling town was empty. Not even a rickshaw could be seen as I made my way from the bus station to our apartment. Everything was silent. I saw people sitting helplessly beside the road. I struggled through the knee-high water, my feet constantly being sucked down by mud, watching carefully for venomous snakes. When I finally arrived, nobody was home.
We live on the ground floor of a three-story building. Our apartment, with its books and beds and chairs, was flooding. Next door, the same. I heard people on the roof and rushed up the inner stairwell to find more than two dozen people shoulder to shoulder. The flat concrete roof was the only place high enough for safety. Children were crying for not having enough food or water. The adults had brought what they could for two or three days—rice, eggs, bread, potato—but it would not last.
It rained every day for two weeks. Huge drops. Colder air. After a week, our hunger was intense. Stomach cramps. Though the children got quieter still they cried. We decided that five of us would go to the local market and check among the vendors if there was any food available. Even though I was skeptical, I joined them. We waded through chest-high water for hours to get to the market, always watching for snakes. Most of the local grocery shops were closed and some empty. But we found one small grocery owner who was opening his shop, though the prices were shockingly high. Still, we purchased some basic items like rice and kerosene. We knew the amount of our purchased food was limited. However, these new supplies helped us tremendously during the crisis.
The constant rain, flooding, lack of food, and fear of snake bites—all were part of our daily experience. News came of children drowning in other neighborhoods. After several weeks, we received some government food support by boat. Since the water was by then slowly receding, I joined others to see if anyone else needed help. We would help repair metal roofs or go fetch eggs or rice. After a month, life slowly started to return to normal.
That flood, now 20 years ago, has had a lasting impact on me, inspiring me to pursue a career of trying to understand and deal with disaster risks in a more systematic manner. That flood, of course, was not the last natural hazard for the people of Bangladesh. The country is now a global hotspot of natural hazards, including floods, cyclones, and unpredictably heavy monsoons. Major floods now occur on average every three years and in most of cases, children, women, ethnic minorities, and the elderly suffer the most.
Living under open sky, with little food and water, no electricity, and no government support, I realized a different side of natural disasters. People in resource-constrained societies are particularly challenged because they have limited financial or other forms of resources to confront crisis. Natural disasters force impoverished people further into poverty. Over the years, I have experienced several more natural hazards and seen how people are trapped into.
Often these disasters are the result of hydro-meteorological variability due to global environmental change. In recent years, cities, regions and countries around the world have become increasingly exposed to weather and climate anomalies linked to global environmental change. As a young environmental social scientist, I strive to advance our understanding of the impacts of natural disasters on human society and the use of climate science to cope with increasing weather and climate anomalies. My current research focuses on coastal Bangladesh, where farmers are at constant risk of sea-level rise, cyclones, salinity intrusion, coastal flooding, and erosion.
Getting to coastal Bangladesh is never easy. You must cross several rivers using local ferries and drive or ride on hundreds miles of poor roads. The local bus services are intermittent. You never know how long it will take to arrive at your destination. And there is always the weather, more and more unstable.
The day I arrived in Bangladesh last fall there was a depression in the Bay of Bengal, causing tremendous amounts of rain, fog, and wind in Kuakata, the southern-most small town in in Bangladesh’s south-central coastal region. I arrived late at the hotel where I had stayed the previous year for my preliminary fieldwork. However, I now found it closed, under construction. I realized I had no place to go. Fortunately my cell phone worked and I called one of my former field assistants, who came to my aid. By then it was completely dark and the roads were flooded. Eventually we found a safe and affordable place and I got my breath back. During my first few hours in rainy Kuakata, I was the lone person on the street, my raincoat and bag and backpack drenched.
Early the next morning, I went to the coast, with its chilling wind and fogs—surreal. Then I remembered what my field assistant told me the previous year: Next time I return I will find a different landscape—more land lost to the sea. He was right.
I found that high and strong tides were hitting the coastal shores consistently. Massive scale coastal erosion and sea-level rise was happening not in time scales of decades, but of years—months even. It became clear to me that people in Bangladesh’s coastal regions do not need to understand science or politics, however, to articulate this global change phenomena; they live it. Near the coastline in Kuakata, as another example, I saw massive-scale tree die-offs due to increased salinity intrusion and storm surge. Previously these trees acted as the natural defense system in times of major cyclones or storm surge. And rapid change in coastal geography likewise shapes human environment interactions by changing peoples’ livelihoods. Farmers are now afraid of losing farmland to seas or lower productivity due to salinity intrusion.
About the size of Iowa, Bangladesh’s population equals about half that of the U.S. It is a densely populated country. Any natural disasters or other climate impacts have implications for millions of people. In my study sites within Kalapara Upazilla, people are gradually losing their farmland and witnessing a decline in farm productivity. Likewise, people from outside are hesitant to invest in in coastal regions that are undergoing such comprehensive environmental change.
What will be the fate of these soon-to-be displaced populations from coastal Bangladesh? Will they be the textbook example of world’s first generation of “climate refugees?” And what would that mean? Increasingly people understand that global environmental change is not just a meteorological phenomenon. Climate change creates new forms of injustice and inequality. Poor and marginalized people will face the most severe impacts, yet have few if any resources to recover. What will it take to help the people of Bangladesh—and those around the globe who face a similar fate? It is now critical to invest in the generation of new knowledge, institutions, skills, tools, and practices so that we are much better equipped to confront climate challenges.
I am working now to understand how farmers can incorporate weather and climate information in their decision-making in coastal Bangladesh. Despite the challenges, working on behalf of climate-stressed populations is an extremely rewarding experience because it is a human story, a story that engages people’s suffering, struggles, and progress through transformation. As soon as we learn from the process, we can better prepare for a future where everyone has the opportunity for a dignified life and genuine prosperity, regardless of the climate.
The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program — A Life of Science — with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.
Saleh Ahmed is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona’s Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in arid lands resource sciences with a minor in global change. Prior to his doctoral studies, Saleh worked with the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as academia, in various parts of the world on understanding the complex interactions between climate and society and translating those insights to bridge the gaps between science, policy, and society.