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Bangladesh Coastal Diary

Sumaiya S Kabir

People speculate about climate change. Throughout history there were recurring debates about whether it is a real phenomenon or not. Now that the general masses of people have accepted that human-induced climate change is happening, I wonder what is it really? If the weather is supposed to get warmer why was this last winter so cold? Regardless of what is happening with the temperature, we know the ice caps are melting and the rising seas will eat away the land at the coast.

Communities living off the sea will be the first to disappear. They are the poorest of the poor. Unable to afford much else, they live in the most vulnerable areas of the world. They battle against the raging seas and winds to earn enough to feed their aching stomachs.

Bangladesh Coastal Diary is about a journey around the southernmost parts of the country to see how people live and survive, and how their surroundings have changed through the years. The Diary is divided into parts representing the different areas of Bangladesh's coast: western, eastern and central.

The Diary was selected by the British Council in Dhaka as one of the fourteen projects under their International Climate Champions programme. This batch of fourteen is the ICC's first in Bangladesh; currently it is running in around 60 different countries worldwide. Bangladesh and Nepal begun the programme together in 2009, strategically partnered with the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. The fourteen Champions in Bangladesh and ten in Nepal will present their results this March.

Cox's Bazar
We headed out for Cox's Bazar on Wednesday night, February 18th, 2010. I chose the wrong weekend to start the Diary, it was the weekend of February 21st, every room in every hotel in town was booked by holidaymakers. I almost called it off an hour before the bus was scheduled to leave. But then at the last minute, I managed just the one room at Uni Resort for the one night. The rest we would have to figure out when we got there.

February 18th, 2010: Rakhain Para, Cox's Bazar
We reached Cox's Bazar the morning of the 18th, dumped our bags in the hotel room and headed out after a quick breakfast. We had arranged a CNG to take us to Khurushkul Union right next to the Moheshkhali Channel and stay with us the whole day. We were heading towards Rakhain Para, a village with around sixty households, a temple, five tube wells and no landowners. The people were of non-Bengali origin and had been settled there for decades.

We had reached at a time when the guide who was supposed to have shown us around was called away in an emergency. We took that chance to go around and talk to people that understood our language, who were few in number.

The CNG was parked at the main dirt-road entrance and near it were a few girls sitting on the ground and rolling dough onto individual peanuts and setting it to dry in the sun. They were making the crunchy-peanut snacks sold at the markets in town. And barely ten yards off the ground rose and we knew it was shielding the village from the momentous tides. Involuntarily, we walked towards it.

Cement slabs made up the embankment that protects the area from regular storm surges. Far off boats were dotted in the distance and men were walking towards the shore knee-deep in water. Boys were skimming the close waters with blue mosquito nets tied to large bamboos, catching baby shrimp. Men and women were sitting on the ground in a group working through piles of fish and then hanging them in lines to dry into shutki.

Rakhain Para's main source of livelihood is the shutki. They work on trawlers and boats owned by the rich businessmen catching fish. Then the fish are brought ashore where others work on sorting them, salting them and hanging them to dry. Others who don't depend on the sea either sew or make the peanut-snacks.

Shoilo Probat litter.

The sea that provides these people with the means of survival keeps rising year by year. There was more land beyond the limits of the embankment; once there was even another Rakhain village two miles off in the direction of the waters. They lost their homes to the water, eventually moving to live close to relatives, bigger cities and even to Burma. The remaining Rakhain village faces problems now. Constantly in fear of strong winds, they only have one place to go. The cement-built temple situated in the centre is their closest safe haven. The last cyclone to hit brought a surge almost up to the second storey. Salt water has been coming out of the five tube wells for the last five years. The people walk one and a half miles to the next village to get water to drink; they bathe and cook with what they have. Even then, they are better off than other communities along the coast.

February 19th, 2010: Poshchim Para, Sonadia
The next day we planned to make our way to the island of Sonadia. To do that we had to get to Moheshkhali by speedboat from Cox's Bazar's ghat, through it by CNG on its broken roads and then by boat to Sonadia.

Poshchim Para in Sonadia was stunning. One of two villages on the island we travelled through khals (small channels) to get to, covered with mangroves on both sides and populated by so many kinds of birds. I never knew kingfishers were so blue. We glided up to a grassy moor with children playing, their hair and clothes entwined by the salty wind. We walked past a few houses and hit sandy floors; my feet would have burned on the island while the inhabitants walk barefoot.

Behind the dunes was the turquoise water stretching for miles on end. Here too people say the ground once stretched out for a mile. A man told me a large chunk of the island's mass blew away with Sidr's wind. A young boy was counting the thread-like shrimp larvae he caught from the sea. His illegal catch will be sold at the Moheshkhali market to large shrimp farms so his family can buy rice to eat. His mother can grow watermelon, spinach and butternut squash on their small piece of land, enough for the family to eat.

This island is known for the turtle hatchery. If you stay up at night, you can see turtles digging out of the sand and struggling to the water. Plastics that wash up to the shore from other places are put into a dumping ground the turtles tend to choke on them and die.

Like an old lady at Rakhain Para, seventy-year- old Badiur Rahman said that there was no change in the temperature. “Maybe the cold is less, but the heat is the same as before.” He said the people could grow rice on Sonadia once, and when you would dig a hole, fresh water would come out but now they must use the tube wells. There are no cyclone shelters on this island. The only school is in the next village except for a non-government primary for the few children in Poshchim Para. There are trees now on this island, they came with the people.

Another spot where people have left garbage.

February 20th, 2010: Moheshkhalia Para, Teknaf
How we made it back from Sonadia, through Moheshkhali after sunset (we were on the very last speedboat), to Cox's Bazar and then by local bus to Teknaf was a dream. It was a risky journey that I would advise people against. I would not have done it if not for the slight push from my team members, and of course no rooms were available for the next three nights in Cox's Bazar.

We slept the night at a guest house situated very near the entrance to the Teknaf Nature Park and went to visit Moheshkhalia Para located a mile or two away from Teknaf's main beach. Like Cox's Bazar, the entire landscape was covered with salt pans. That seems to be the main source of income on land. Comparatively, Teknaf can boast of quite a few vegetable patches as well, and betel leaf plots.

I found ten-year-old Jesmine watering her mother's green chillies, beans and spinach with water from a dug up hole. Nurul Alam, her eight- year-old brother, helps her every morning before they go to school. Her mother keeps most of the vegetables to feed the family, selling the excess off. She keeps all her chillies to use all year round. Her father is a fisherman working on a boat with five others. They sell their catch and give half of it to the boat owner and divide the rest between themselves, making barely more than a hundred taka a day. Sometimes, maybe more depending on the season. But over the years, the number of fish in the sea has decreased.

My companions, moon and Tanim met with a group of men at the tea stall and ended up having a great discussion about business, politics and the weather. The men felt there were less rains in the recent years, but when it rains, it rains heavily causing rapid flooding in the area. Compared to just six years ago, the rainy season hits much later. “It would rain in Boishakh and Jaishto but now it rains in Ashar and Srabon.”

That night we left Teknaf and Cox's Bazar's sandy beaches and salt pans and made our way back to Dhaka. The principal difference about this part of the country's coastline is the sandy beaches. I found that the rapid development of the tourist industry plays a major role in the relatively better situation the population here finds itself in. Recent cyclones did not make landfall in this area hence no noticeable damages were seen. The next destination would be Koyera and Chadpai in Bangladesh's western coast, which of course is a wholly new environment to Cox's Bazar.

Sumaiya S Kabir, International Climate Champion, British Council

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