Sheffield, 24 August 2014 (Alochonaa):
The Bengal Delta has always been prone to unpredictable and extreme weather, a place where people live on a constantly shifting boundary between land and water. The country was placed first in the recent UNISDR Mortality Risk Index, which judges which populations are most at risk from earthquakes, floods, tropical cyclones and landslides. All of these types of disasters are set to increase in severity and frequency as a result of climate change.
The southern coast of Bangladesh is far and away the most vulnerable region of an already vulnerable country. In the future, it is set to suffer most from all four key types of hazard (flood, drought, cyclonic storm surge and salinity ingress).
Map of Bangladesh (Google images).
The key vulnerable group when it comes to the impacts of climate change, a group far too often over-looked in international agreements and negotiations, is women. Thus, the aim of this report is to identify what problems women living in Bangladesh’s most vulnerable region face, and how they are already adapting and coping. They largely take responsibility for providing the food, fuel, water and care that the family needs (all for no pay), as well as contributing to earnings.
Climate change greatly increases the pressure on women to deliver these daily essentials, while also undermining the natural resources they depend on to do so. When floods and cyclones hit, women – like men – lose their crops, belongings and livelihoods. But as the whole community tries to recover, women like Monowara have to spend much more time each day fetching water that isn’t contaminated with salt. Often, with their land wiped out, their husbands have to go the city to find work for weeks on end, leaving women like Bish to shoulder the burden of the family completely on their own, often in extremely tough circumstances: Anima had to carry her son to school on her shoulders for eighteen months until the embankments surrounding her village were repaired, allowing the water that destroyed their lives when cyclone Aila struck in May 2009 to recede back into the sea.
The impacts of climate change eat away at the family too. With money and food so scarce, women like Lakchunhar are being subjected to violence at the hands of their husbands. All of these problems are further exacerbated by the other key issues on Barguna’s south coast, namely the recent and vast expansion of the shrimp farming industry, and the inability of many farmers, particularly female farmers, to get a fair price for their products.
There is no doubt about it: women in agriculture on Bangladesh’s southern coast are on the frontline of the global battle against climate change.
The tiger-widows of Gabura island
The link between shrimp farming and man-eating tigers is not obvious until you travel to Gabura, a slowly eroding island on Bangladesh’s southern coast. The many cases of tiger attacks are but one more symptom of the collapse of natural resources and the livelihoods that depend on them. “Fifteen, twenty years ago, we were happy,” recalls one woman. They and their husbands could provide for themselves and their children, keep livestock and sell their milk or meat, and work the paddy fields. Their fall from a sustainable livelihood is remarkable.
With the viral growth of the shrimp farming industry along Bangladesh’s coast, traditional forms of agriculture, namely the cultivation of paddy, have experienced massive decline, much to the detriment of those small farmers they support. The list of problems brought by the shrimp business is a long one. One of the most serious is its use of saline water. The shrimp farms bring in salt water from the coast, which pollutes the fresh water of the surrounding land, forcing those landowners to sell it. The salinity contaminates the fresh water ponds too, forcing women to spend the best part of their day walking several kilometres to the nearest water supply. “We usually have to walk around three kilometers to get there,” says one such woman, Amirunnnesa. Cyclone Aila further contaminated their land with salt, its effects worsened by the fact that, in order to bring salt water into their coastal farms, shrimp farmers make illegal channels in the embankments, greatly diminishing their effectiveness. The other big problem is the amount of labour they use; a hundred Bighas of paddy farmland employs more than a hundred people. But the same amount of shrimp land employs only one or two. Unemployment is soaring.
Thus, local people lose their land, their income, and their time. As a result, more and more people have begun to depend on the Sundarbans mangrove forest and its natural resources, a place already experiencing the impact of climate change: rising sea levels, constant erosion and increasingly salty waters have made life much harder for the life it supports. This pressure on one of the world’s most unique ecosystems has had unplanned and deadly consequences. With their natural resources in the Sundarbans depleting at an alarming rate, more and more tigers have been forced to eat the humans that are now in abundance in this massive mangrove forest. “Fifteen years ago, there might be only one or two tiger deaths a year. Now, there are more than a hundred,” says Monuwara Katun, one of Gabura’s two hundred ninety-one ‘tiger widows’. These women blame the shrimp farming industry for their husbands’ deaths.
Monuwara (author’s image).
Fifteen years ago, Monuwara’s husband went out into the Sundarbans to collect honey, only to be mauled to death by a Bengali Tiger. “The men refused to carry his body back. It was a waste of time, they said. But my brother-in-law forced them. He demanded he be brought home. When I saw his body, I just cried and cried.” Life was a struggle for their family even when he was alive. After his death, their world darkened still further. Her husband was the only male in the family; Monuwara has four daughters, with two now married off. She and her remaining 2 children sometimes go for three days without food. Most days, they eat nothing but rice, split into two small meals. Despite this, “we live harmonious lives” she says. One thing she is thankful for: two of her daughters are safely married off, “to gentlemen” she says – they did not demand a dowry.
Despite how bad the past ten years have been, she sees her decline deepening in the decade to come. “There is nothing good in my life. I have nothing to say. I am hopeless about what will happen in the future. Totally hopeless.” Being fifty years old, she knows she is coming to the point when she will no longer be able to work. She hopes she will be able to really on her daughters, but she doesn’t know if they’ll have the resources to take her in. “What will I do then?” she asks.
The increase in tiger attacks in the Sundarbans is a harrowing symptom of an underlying crisis; the unchecked growth of the shrimp farming industry and the increasing dependence of those living in and around the Sundarbans on the mangrove forest’s natural resources.
*Finlay Green recently graduated from the University of Sheffield with a First Class Bachelor of Arts degree in Economic and Politics. This fall he will begin a Master of Science in Social Policy Research at the London School of Economics. In 2010, prior to his time at Sheffield, he spent three months as an intern at the Dhaka office of Oxfam GB in Bangladesh.
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