Page last updated at 00:37 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Bangladesh waters: Too much, too little

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Bangladesh

Ganges Delta (BBC)
Climate change could have major impacts on the Ganges Delta

It is four months since I first travelled to Char Atra, a low-lying sand island of thatched huts, paddy fields and banana trees, in the middle of the Ganges.

It is in southern Bangladesh, one of the regions of the world considered most vulnerable to climate change.

I found that the people living there have a stark choice in front of them.

Either they begin adapting to their conditions and look for alternative ways to earn money and get food, or they pack their bags (unless they want to starve).

Of course, many choose to migrate; and they come to Dhaka, one of the world's fastest growing, most congested and least lovely cities. But the majority stay behind and try to eke out a living.

Mother and child (BBC)
Those that stay must learn to adapt

The original idea had been to visit the Char before monsoon rains had swollen the giant river, and then to return a few weeks later, after the land had flooded.

The plan was to see how people there (a farmer, a teacher, a pregnant woman, etc) prepare for the floods and then cope with life in waist-high water.

The latest research suggests that 20 million people in coastal Bangladesh may be affected by rising sea levels, while the whole population could be hit by changes to weather patterns.

Floods and cyclones are forecast to become more common and worse than before, while areas in the north could even start to experience droughts.

But "Plan A" had to be abandoned, because the monsoon, especially upstream in India, was much lighter than normal. Char Atra was, for a change, not flooded.

Duck (BBC)
Aid agencies are giving ducks to villagers in Char Atra

So when I went back, I expected to find people reasonably upbeat about life.

Perhaps they might even be making jokes about the plus side of global warming, like those in the UK who think it will result in hot, dry summers.

But no, this is a hard place to live, and the unusual weather has made things worse.

One of the first islanders I talked to was Nargis, who was heavily pregnant the last time I met her. She named her new baby boy Shagor, meaning sea.

She had expected to give birth to him on a small wooden platform built under the eaves of her hut, surrounded by a sea of Ganges flood water.


How villagers have dealt with the monsoon season

"It was really good for me that there were no floods as I was able to give birth in my dry home," she said. "But the little rain we've received has been bad for the farmers and the fishermen."

Her husband, like many other men in the area, has had to stop fishing. While the Char can suffer terribly from the floods, it also relies on them.

The next morning, at the crack of dawn, I went to Sureshar Ghat, a 40-minute crossing from the island, on the mainland, to find out why.

It is a sandy beach where the fishermen come to sell their catch to half-a-dozen traders who sit on wooden benches beside baskets and buckets, and talk loudly into their mobiles.

"The problem is that the low rainfall means that the river levels are low this year," one explained to me.

Field (BBC)
The soil is hard and dry, and this is the only way to break it up

"The fish have disappeared and business here is only one tenth of what it used to be."

The fishermen spend the night on the water of the three huge rivers which meet in southern Bangladesh - the Ganges, the Brahmaputra/Jamuna and the Meghna.

The area is so vast that it is hard to make out the other bank. A shushuk, a Ganges river dolphin, plays in the waves in front us.

The fishermen use giant nets, but this morning, most have only caught tiny fish and shrimps.

Anwar Hussein reckons that he and his seven crew-mates will each get paid only 50 taka, which is less than $1, for this night's work.

Fish market (BBC)
Fish traders complain that business is only a tenth of what it used to be

"It's very hard for us now to look after our families and our children. We don't want to do this work anymore because it is so difficult," he says.

It is not that farming is much easier. The fertility of fields relies on sediment that the floods carry with them all the way from the Himalayas. Otherwise, they are not much more than sand.

But there are efforts to help the poorest people here. A local aid agency, the Shariatpur Development Society, has teamed up with Oxfam to provide alternative sources of food and income.

I saw about 300 women, the wives of the fishermen, queue up in their colourful saris for vegetable seeds.

Village boy play cricket (BBC)
Difficult conditions but the children still know how to have fun

Earlier, they were given ducks, which are better suited to the wet weather than chickens.

The organiser of all of this, Nazma Akhtar, lives on the island and works from a tin shack. She goes everywhere on foot as there is not even a single bicycle there.

She says people are not getting enough food to eat as a result of the erratic rainfall.

Hers is one of thousands of small grassroot projects, being carried out by different aid agencies across Bangladesh. Elsewhere, for example, villages are experimenting with crab farms, and lots of work is being done on developing new varieties of rice.

The hope is that added up together, this country will be better able to cope with global warming.

But, however small each project might be, the overall cost will be enormous. The government wants rich nations to pledge billions of dollars in aid at next month's climate change summit in Copenhagen.

The money, like the fish in the Ganges, will be hard to net.

Print Sponsor

Learning to live with the floods
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