A cyclone of difference
In the middle of the night, Atul Sur, a fisherman from Koyra, arrived at Dublarchar, an island in the Sundarbans, guarding in a small boat loaded with Batasha (sweets), candles, incense sticks and coconuts. Along with his neighbour Rofiqul Islam, he had to navigate 60 kilometres of narrow channels crisscrossed in the formidable forest to reach their destination.
They were giddy with joy, as this was one of their grandest celebrations in the Sundarban delta. Atul prepared offerings to the mother goddess Banabibi, the protector of human beings in the jungle, and Lord Krishna.
On the other hand, Rafiq arranged sweets to offer to his protectors in the jungle-- Banabibi, Gazi Kalu and Dakshin Ray. This unique celebration of Hindus and Muslims can only be seen deep inside the largest mangrove forest of Sundarbans.
Both of them had lost their homes in 2009, when the cyclone Aila had hit the costal belt of the country. Atul lost four acres of his cultivable land and home near Nalian Bazar of Dacope, Khulna near the Shibsha river.
Rafiq said, “Inside the deep jungle, people always remain alert, watching out for tigers, because here the tiger always sees you first. Interestingly after 2009, people started fearing natural disaster almost as much as a tiger.”
“No other deity but Banabibi can save you from the forest and the natural disaster in Sundarbans.” he intones.
After Aila hit the costal belt of Sundarbans, a helpless Rafiq had no other option but to change his profession from a farmer to a honey collector.
Honey gathering may sound like a normal job but it is one of the riskiest in the world. Honey gatherers risk getting mangled or killed by their deadly foe – the Royal Bengal tiger.
For a farmer like Rafiq this new profession is not easy to grapple with.
Climate change has changed his life and thousands like him, forever. It is a life that is precariously dependent on the moods of nature. Their so-called homes can, at any time, be washed away by a single tidal surge. In the jungle they meet deadly beasts and in water, the crocodiles. “Before cyclone Aila hit us, I never imagined of living such a risky life. But now, this is my reality,” he says.
The road to Rashmela in Dublarchar has undergone numerous transformations due to the rise in sea level. Every year the changing pattern of nature is taking a toll on the forest. You can see through naked eyes thousands of dead trees standing still on the shore of Dublarchar.
Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and Water and Flood Management Institute have jointly conducted a study on climate change in Sundarbans. The study has showed that if water level of the Bay of Bengal increases by one meter, around 3,930 square kilometers area of the country will go under water. And around six million people are likely to become homeless from that land area, which comprises 4% of the total mainland areas of the country.
Sea level rise and increase in temperature are two main reasons behind repeated natural disasters like cyclones and tidal surges. The country's geographical location has put it in an inescapable situation. As a result many locals have been forced to change their profession.
Like many others Atul is now a fisherman. “Fishing is not my profession. But I lost my lands to Aila. It was heart-wrenching to see my house gradually being eaten up by the Shibsha river.” He also said that after losing his land, he had tried his luck as a farm worker. But that didn’t work. So he started fishing with his brother in the Shibsha river.
Now Atul lives in Jhulonto Para, now a home to at least 10,000 displaced people. Jhulonto Para literally means a hanging community.
For the people living in this strip of land, they may not know the current usage of the term 'climate-induced migration' but they are very much a part of it. All they know is that they have lost their ancestral home, land and livelihood to it.
“We came to know about different government endeavours, which would rehabilitate us. But we've not been fortunate enough to reap the benefits of any of these endeavours,” Atul says.
Here houses are built on 'hanging' platforms made of bamboo that stand three-metres from the ground. They built the village against the soaring currents of Shibsha. “It was difficult but we made it,” says Rafiq. "Every month we change bamboos to make the houses stronger and to survive the tidal surges.”
They have even invented their own method of building houses to endure tidal surges. With the help of empty barrels, a few of the bamboo houses have been made to float. People collect water and preserve it using their own indigenous methods.
Collecting water is a woman's job here. They have to run their own boat, the only communication system remain in Jhulonto Para, against the deadly current of Shibsha. Nilu Bala travels long distances on boat to collect fresh water every day.
“Running a boat is not an easy work. My hands have turned into steel,” she says showing her palms which are now hardened by arduous rowing. Women from different villages come to Nolian to collect fresh water. It turns into a long queue of women waiting for a single drop of water.
After Aila hit the costal belt, there was a major increase in climate induced migration from affected areas. An International Organization for Migration's (IOM) estimate claims that about 100,000 people, primarily men looking for work, migrated from four Upazilas alone -- Koyra, Paikgacha, Dacope and Batiaghata.
Most of these people are among the thousands of devotees sitting on the shore of Dublarchar chanting hymns, upholding their humble trays with lamps, flowers, sweets, coconuts and other offerings. Once the waves wipe out the candles, the devotees bathe in the sea in a trance-like state to cleanse their souls, thus ending the grand festival of Rash in the Sundarbans with hopes to change their lives of despair.