Photos by MONTY.
World Refugee Day is celebrated every June 20: this UN initiative was set up to raise awareness about the situation of refugees worldwide. The media tends to focus on refugees displaced by dramatic violence or war, but in the coming decades by far the largest number will comprise ‘climate refugees.’ Meaning those fleeing natural disasters, and loss of land and livelihood due to climate change, water scarcity, drought and other calamities. And all of that is happening right now in Bangladesh, with a large contingent of climate refugees.
Bangladesh is Ground Zero for climate change. The nation is battered by flooding from melting glaciers in Tibet to the north, and saline intrusion from sea-level rise on the coast. Compounding this are storm surges and extreme weather patterns–particularly cyclones. These extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. What was a once-in-a-twenty-year mega-flooding event is now becoming a once-in-a-five-year event. Bangladesh is facing a perfect storm: climate change, population problems, and frequent disaster scenarios like landslides and land being washed away by rivers–both associated with the heavy annual downpours in the June-to-October monsoon season. As the rains spread, so does disease, as mosquito activity increases. One very sure result of climate-change chaos in Bangladesh will be refugees—millions of them. This situation has been recently exacerbated by a million Rohingya refugees crossing from Burma–most now in a massive camp of makeshift shelters at Cox’s Bazar.
Bangladesh is a nation of rivers, with three major river systems—the Padma (Ganges), Jamuna (Brahmaputra) and Meghna flowing together into the world’s biggest delta. So what better way to explore than by kayak? That is our goal, but right off the bat, our kayaks are confiscated on arrival in Dhaka–and only returned after a week of wrangling with officials, involving kickbacks. Corruption is rife: that gives the first clue why Bangladesh is ill-prepared to deal with a major catastrophe. The nation’s infrastructure is weak, and emergency back-up funds are hopelessly inadequate.
Our first target is a foray on the narrow Teesta River to the far north, followed by paddling partway down the very wide Brahmaputra river. We hire two local fixers, and set off in two tandem kayaks. Here are ten things I learned along the way about climate refugees: those displaced by disaster, degraded land, flooding–the list goes on.
River refugees face ‘sandquakes’: Kayaking gives us access to the most impoverished regions of Bangladesh—where people live on shifting sands. Along the river basins of Bangladesh, impoverished people eke out a living by farming ‘chars’—which are islands of sand, mud and sediment that pop up or disappear, at the mercy of the river flow and the monsoon rains. Upwards of five million people inhabit the lawless chars of the river basins. These are the forgotten people of Bangladesh—internal refugees with no government facilities and no electricity. The river supplies the running water. Kayaking along the Teesta River, we encounter people who have moved homes dozens of times as the sands shift or disappear beneath their feet. Sand erosion constantly eats away at the islands. Sometimes the sandy banks of the river completely collapse, a kind of “sandquake” that demolishes makeshift housingmade of mud-walls and thatched roof. And you can get stuck on sandbars when kayaking the Teesta. Why? Because of dam-construction upstream on the same river in India. The river is so low in places that even our kayaks runs aground—we have to pull them, or walk over sand.
Bangladesh has a serious population problem: Breakfast in Bangladesh: with 80 people gathered around our campsite. Breakfast is a startling introduction to Bangladesh’s top problem: people. There are far too many of them in this small nation. Too many mouths to feed, not enough resources. Not enough water to irrigate the fields of rice, the staple food of the nation. The population ballooned to 166 million by 2018, making Bangladesh one of the most densely populated nations on earth.
Cellphones are lifelines to avert disaster: The reason our camp got surrounded so quickly is that word got out via cellphone. The coverage is terrific in Bangladesh, because the nation is dead flat. I have never been on a trip to a remote area where cellphone reception is so good. We get lost on sandbars, lose our way along the river channels—and end up phoning between kayaks to trade news on the best direction and the deepest water. It’s like having a shortwave radio at our disposal. We can even phone for advice on logistics from a knowledgeable person in Dhaka. The cellphone network is being put to use for last-minute warning signals, giving alerts for cyclone or other calamity. The plan is to have warnings flash automatically on the phone screen without users having to push a button.
Ducks float, chickens don’t: Farmers are switching from keeping chickens to keeping ducks. Why? Because ducks float. Bangladesh sees devastating seasonal flooding: imagine 30 million of Bangladesh’s 166 million people under water and you get the picture. Water is a blessing—and a curse. Sooner or later, everything may need to float in Bangladesh to survive. Already in place are floating schools and floating hospitals. Aquaculture, with farming of fish in ponds or cages, is under development. An intriguing pilot project in southern cities is the development of freshwater floating gardens. A raft of bamboo slats is seated on car tires for flotation: mulch is then added as a floating seed bed to grow cucumber, tomatoes, pumpkin, and cabbage. Researchers are working to create new strains of rice, such as flood-tolerant rice and saline-resistant strains. The saline-resistant strains are supposed to combat salt-water intrusion on the coast.
Arsenic poisoning is a huge issue: Our guides warned us not to drink water from village wells. Why? Potential arsenic poisoning. A Human Rights Watch report from 2016 estimates that around 20 million people in impoverished parts of Bangladesh drink arsenic-laced water. Tube-wells sunk by NGOs tapped into naturally occurring arsenic deposits in the soil because the wells went too deep. The Bangladeshi government has been slow to respond to this horrific arsenic-contamination problem, discovered 20 years ago. It can take a decade for the crippling symptoms of arsenic poisoning to show up. It is estimated that over 40,000 Bangladeshis die each year due to chronic arsenic-related illness. Another source of drinking water contamination is sea-level rise, which brings contamination by salt.
A tidal surge can demolish houses overnight: Clear down the other end of the country, on the large island of Bola, in the Bay of Bengal, we come across villagers building a mud embankment outside their village, with their bare hands. Why? An attempt to block a potential tidal surge. Also known as a storm surge, a tidal surge is a tsunami-like phenomenon that can see a terrifying two-metre-plus rise in water level in a matter of hours. The surge is associated with low-pressure weather systems like cyclones. Coastal Bangladesh is prone to devastating cyclones. We pay a visit to a cyclone shelter–a three-storey building that is normally used as a primary school. It’s hard to imagine that this concrete structure holds thousands of villagers, staying several nights in times of danger. At the height of a cyclone, it is standing room only as people are packed in. When Cyclone Mora hit eastern Bangladesh in May 2017, around half a million people were evacuated to hundreds of storm shelters.
The Sundarbans region harbours man-eating tigers: Lying on the south coast of Bangladesh, the Sundarbans hosts the largest stand of mangroves on the planet. And it hosts an array of wildlife—including Royal Bengal tigers. The tigers normally prey on spotted deer, wild boar and other animals, but have developed a taste for human flesh during cyclone disasters, with numerous dead bodies scattered around. We were not permitted to kayak here—probably for this reason. But it would be an ideal place for paddling—with quiet canals lined with mangroves, and many exotic bird species inhabiting the region.
Dhaka has the craziest traffic in Asia: Climate refugees flood into cities—mainly Dhaka—to start anew. But life here is harsh—and highly polluted, with water sources contaminated by tanneries and clothing manufacturers. This chaotic city of 18 million is where we start and end our trip, running around to get paperwork and logistics completed. During one hellish tuk-tuk ride, we are rammed by other vehicles eight times along the route, and choke on deadly diesel fumes from bus exhaust pipes. Bumping into other vehicles and physically scratching them does not seem to faze drivers. Buses have battle-scar scratch-marks along their sides. The only cars in Dhaka without scratches are likely to be immaculate official cars or embassy vehicles.