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BANGLADESH: When climate change gives you a sinking feeling

Kutubdia, 23 October 2008 (IRIN) - The sea has crept almost 15km into Kutubdia, an island off the coastal town of Cox's Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, one of the world's most dangerous cyclone zones. "The sea has been coming closer and closer," said Abdul Mutalib, 75, whose mud hut was washed away 15 days ago.

"Allah jane ke hobe [God only knows what will happen]" he added wearily in Bengali, or Bangla, the national language, wiping beads of sweat off his weather-beaten face with the back of his hand. He knows the island will eventually disappear entirely, and then "Sabhi shesh ho jabe [everything will come to an end]."

F.M. Nurul Alam, a senior coordinator at the COAST trust, a social justice NGO working in southern Bangladesh, explained patiently: "Since the day they are born, the people of Kutubdia are waging a war with the sea."

Erosion as a result of stronger and higher tides, cyclones and storm surges is eating away the islands off Bangladesh's southern coast. Kutubdia, once a 250 sq km island, has been reduced to about 37 sq km within a century, but the islanders are convinced the sea level has also been rising.

Yet the largely fishing community of Kutubdia cannot live without the sea. "We only know how to catch fish," said British Jawaldas, a fisherman, who says he has observed the sea encroaching six kilometres inland over the last 10 years.

"We can't do anything else, which is why we think twice about migrating from here. We know the end is coming, but what work will we find to feed our families elsewhere?"

Global warming is sounding the death knell for low-lying coastal islands that are only five to eight metres above sea level, said local scientists. The rising sea will also strengthen tidal forces and exacerbate erosion, the COAST Trust pointed out.

"Factual information regarding the extent of sea level rise in Bangladesh is very limited," said Mohammed Shamsuddoha, general secretary of the Equity and Justice Working Group, a network of NGOs. "But the Khulna region in southwestern Bangladesh has recorded a 5.18mm per year sea level rise."

''Since the day they are born, the people of Kutubdia are waging a war with the sea''
Sea level rises at some tidal stations in the Bangladesh coast are: Hiron Point: 4mm per year; Char Changa: 6mm per year and Cox's Bazar: 7.8mm per year, as reported by the Meteorological Research Centre of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in the capital, Dhaka.

A rise of more than one metre, which could be reached in this century, means Bangladesh could lose 15 percent to 18 percent of its land area, turning 30 million people into "environmental refugees" by 2050 according to some estimates, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) noted.

On the other hand, new land is being created. After studying 32 years of satellite images, Bangladeshi scientists found the landmass was increasing by 20 sq km annually as a result of silt being deposited in the Bay of Bengal by big Himalayan rivers like the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, said Mohammed Abu Syed, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.


Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
The sea is eating away Kutubdia, an island off Bangladesh's southern coast
But the new silt islands, or "chars", only become habitable after a few years, and the country's existing landmass is being washed away faster than new land is being formed.

More than 60 percent of Kutubdia's population has migrated, and most of the remaining 150,000 are considering leaving. Atiqul Chowdhury, coordinator of the health, disaster management and coastal renewable energy section of the COAST Trust, said at the rate at which the island was shrinking, the Trust estimated that it would disappear within the next 70 years.

Diversifying

As the sea works its way inland, increasing salinity has also affected the ability of the island's farming community to grow paddy rice and vegetables.

"It was amazing - we used to dig a well in one spot and the water would be sweet, while another well only a few metres away would have salty water," recalled Saber Ahmed, 45, who now lives in a settlement for "environmental refugees" from Kutubdia.

He is among the fortunate 10,000 families from the island resettled by the government in Cox's Bazar in the 1980s, where they have continued fishing as a way of life and making a living.

Several farmers in Kutubdia have switched to producing salt, "but this seasonal, as it is possible only during the dry season", said the COAST Trust's Chowdhury.

The quantity of land in Bangladesh is limited, and even more so on an island like Kutubdia, so the COAST Trust has encouraged poor farmers to take up farming shrimps and mud crabs in floating nurseries or cages. The crustaceans are reared in floating plastic containers tied to a bamboo frame planted in the sea or river.

The COAST Trust has set up more than 200 cooperatives to help fishing communities market dried fish, and also provides microcredit to women to set up small-scale businesses to support their fishing families.

Disaster warning

Almost every month more families in Kutubdia lose their homes to the sea. "We provide livestock and building material to the families," said Chowdhury.

COAST, along with the NGO, CARE Bangladesh, has set up disaster committees in the communities to warn them of incoming cyclones or tidal surges. Committee members use megaphones to warn the community of impending disasters. COAST has also set up a radio link between at least eight islands along the southern coast to track potentially disastrous weather events.

"But the question remains, 'What will happen to the people? What is their future in a country where landlessness is a huge problem?'" said the COAST Trust's Nurul Alam. "They have no future to plan for."

Many Kutubdia residents who fled the 1991 cyclone, which claimed 22,000 lives, have been forced to build their homes on wetlands near the official settlement for refugees in Cox's Bazar; others have settled in cramped living conditions in neighbouring towns like Chittagong, where they work as day labourers.

"We are trying to campaign for the resettlement of environmental refugees with the government," said Nurul Alam. "Or the developed countries will have to take up the responsibility of resettling them."


Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Cooperatives help communities market dried fish
Kutubdia is one of a large number of islands off the southern coast of Bangladesh - with a combined population more than 2.5 million - and all of them are shrinking. Bhola, the biggest, has lost about 227 sq km of land in the last 50 years; Hatiya, which once covered 1,000 square km, has been reduced to 21 sq km over the last 350 years.

"We know all about the greenhouse gases being released into the air by the developed countries, which is why we are suffering," said Gopal Jaladas, the son of a fisherman who goes to college.

In the last two years he has seen his entire neighbourhood of 150 huts swept into the sea by tidal surges. "Why don't you tell them to stop?" he asked the IRIN reporter. "We are drowning here."

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Theme (s): Environment, Food Security, Migration, Natural Disasters, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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