© 2021
background_fid.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

PHOTOS: Cyclones and salty water are a threat. These women are finding solutions

Activist Sufian Khatun worries that more frequent cyclones, triggered by climate change, will make her community in Bangladesh uninhabitable. Storm surges bring saline water into the river in the southwest part of the country where she lives, taking a toll on agriculture and the drinking water supply.
Activist Sufian Khatun worries that more frequent cyclones, triggered by climate change, will make her community in Bangladesh uninhabitable. Storm surges bring saline water into the river in the southwest part of the country where she lives, taking a toll on agriculture and the drinking water supply.

Sufia Khatun says big cyclones used to hit her community of Morrelganj, in southwest Bangladesh, once every quarter-century or so. Now, she says, "we experience a big cyclone [every] two to three years, a smaller cyclone almost every year." The community needs stronger defenses from the assault of wind and water, she says; otherwise the region could become uninhabitable.

What's especially galling is the fact that it's an unnatural disaster. The storms are more intense, and the sea has risen, because richer countries far away have released enormous amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere by burning coal, oil and gas. "We [in Bangladesh] don't contribute even 1% of global [greenhouse gas] emissions," says Ashish Barua, a program manager for Helvetas, a Swiss development organization that works in Morrelganj. "I'm not making the problem, but I'm suffering. [It's] what we call climate injustice."

Scenes from the community of Morrelganj in southwest Bangladesh.
/ Mahmud Hossain Opu for NPR
Scenes from the community of Morrelganj in southwest Bangladesh.

This part of Bangladesh is a river delta, formed by a web of waterways that wind their way toward the Bay of Bengal. When the cyclones hit, the storms carry huge volumes of saline water upriver from the sea. The surge of water erodes levee-like structures known as embankments, flooding rice paddies and contaminating ponds that people have traditionally relied on for drinking water. "That saline water is impacting our crops, livelihood, fishing, everything," Khatun says through an interpreter on an early-morning Zoom call.

As a result, she says, rice paddies that once delivered three harvests annually now lie barren for most of the year. Household gardens also have been damaged, depriving people of home-grown food. Chronic illness is on the rise because of contaminated water.

With farming crippled, about 60% of the men in this community have left to find work elsewhere, she says. "Mainly they go to Dhaka, the capital city, or Chattogram. People even migrate to India, to Bangalore or Kolkata."

Rice paddies cultivated by the farmers of Morrelganj in Bangladesh. Climate change has led to more storms that drive saline water into their growing areas. Instead of harvesting three crops a year they might only be able to raise one.
/ Mahmud Hossain Opu for NPR
Rice paddies cultivated by the farmers of Morrelganj in Bangladesh. Climate change has led to more storms that drive saline water into their growing areas. Instead of harvesting three crops a year they might only be able to raise one.

Khatun helps lead an organization called Mothers Parliament, which is pushing for better water infrastructure in Bangladesh's coastal region. And if she had a chance to speak to the international climate summit currently taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, she knows what she'd say. Her demands don't focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions; she wants help dealing with the consequences of climate change that already are underway.

"There are two clear demands," she says, and they're directed both toward Bangladesh's government and international governments and charities. She wants help rebuilding embankments that are supposed to hold back the surge of saline water, preventing it from flooding fields and homes. Failing embankments are the root cause of the problem, she says. "If [they are] repaired and rightly maintained, then all other problems will be solved." In addition, she wants better infrastructure for providing safe drinking water.

A desalination plant treats water so it'll be drinkable in this community in Bangladesh.
/ Mahmud Hossain Opu for NPR
A desalination plant treats water so it'll be drinkable in this community in Bangladesh.

Her recipe for survival isn't universally accepted, at least for the long term. Water experts still debate the merits of embankments and whether they can be an enduring solution to the area's water problems. What's undisputed, though, is this region's need to adapt to a changing climate.

In many ways, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in adaptation. There's now a system that sends out warnings of impending cyclones, and a network of sturdy cyclone shelters where people can find shelter. "We have the most effective cyclone warning and shelter program in the world," says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka. "Tens of thousands of people lost their lives in previous years. Nowadays, we can give warnings and evacuate people in the millions."

Top left: Hasina Begum grows vegetables in plastic containers high enough to be safe from flooding. Top right: Parul Begum at her home close to the Panguchi River in Morrelganj. Bottom: Khadiza Begum captures as much rainwater as possible during the monsoon season. Other sources of drinking water have become contaminated with saline water.
/ Mahmud Hossain Opu for NPR
Top left: Hasina Begum grows vegetables in plastic containers high enough to be safe from flooding. Top right: Parul Begum at her home close to the Panguchi River in Morrelganj. Bottom: Khadiza Begum captures as much rainwater as possible during the monsoon season. Other sources of drinking water have become contaminated with saline water.

Researchers have developed new varieties of crops that are more suited to growing during seasons of the year when there's less risk of flooding, and some that can tolerate more saline water, although Khatun says that only a small minority of farmers have received these seeds so far. Some villagers are growing home vegetables in raised containers, rather than in saline-contaminated soil. During the monsoon season, many are capturing and using clean rainwater.

In fact, Bangladesh's entire economy is a recent success. It has been growing rapidly, fueled by a growing textile industry in the larger cities. Life expectancy is up, as are measures of educational opportunity, and child mortality is down. The World Bank reclassified the country from "low income" to "lower-middle-income."

A scene from Morrelganj shows the impact of erosion.
/ Mahmud Hossain Opu for NPR
A scene from Morrelganj shows the impact of erosion.

With that growth comes increased energy use and greenhouse emissions. In fact, Bangladesh recently told the United Nations that in a "business as usual scenario," the country's carbon dioxide emissions from energy would triple over the next ten years. The country still contributes only a tiny amount to global carbon emissions, but its share is growing.

As climate change accelerates, though, the fate of its coastal regions remains deeply uncertain. "If we cannot repair the embankments, in the future the Morrelganj area will be completely off the map," Sufia Khatun says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.