Kutubdia’s islanders don’t have much of a carbon footprint – most don’t have regular electricity. But they are facing the reality of a changing climate, and soon tens of millions of their fellow Bangladeshis will be at risk
January 20, 2017 — A row of mangrove trees sticking out of the sand, exposed by low tide off Kutubdia island in the Bay of Bengal, is all that remains of a coastal village that for generations was home to 250 families. The villagers were forced to flee as their land, which had been slowly eroding for decades, was finally engulfed by the ever-rising tide five years ago.
For the embattled people of Ali Akbar Dial, a collection of disappearing villages on the southern tip of the island in Bangladesh, the distant trees serve as a bittersweet reminder of what they have lost and a warning of what is come. The low-lying island of Kutubdia has one of the fastest-ever sea level rises recorded in the world, placing it bang on the frontline of climate change, and the islanders are fighting a battle they fear is already lost.
“I was born there, so were my parents and grandparents,” said Onu Das, 25, standing on a sandy coastal path atop a concrete embankment, pointing to a forest of mangroves. “There were mango, betel nut and coconut trees. Now we are landless and it is very difficult. We do not get food regularly. We fish. Somehow we are trying to survive.”
“The ocean is torturing us,” said Pushpo Rani Das, 28, a mother of three who has had to move her home four times to escape storm surges. “We can’t stop it. Water enters my house in every high tide, especially in the rainy season.”
Rani fears that soon her family will have to leave the island altogether. A 100 yards from where she lives, a half-built brick mosque lies abandoned, its cement foundations washed away.
UN scientists predict some of the worst impacts of climate change will occur in south-east Asia, and that more than 25 million people in Bangladesh will be at risk from sea level rise by 2050. It is well known that many of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are among those who contribute to it the least, and here that’s certainly true. The carbon footprint of Kutubdia’s 100,000 islanders is small – most do not even have access to a regular electricity supply. But they fear that for them, time is already running out.
Tides that once stopped short of the three-metre-high concrete embankment, built by the government to protect the island, now flood over it and the embankment is damaged in many places. While no scientific monitoring is done here, sea level rise of 8mm a year over 20 years has been recorded at Cox’s Bazar, 50 miles away on the mainland. This is nearly three times the level for Bangladesh as a whole and up to five times the world average.
So far, members of the fishing community of Ali Akbar Dail, perched precariously on a strip of coast next to the embankment, have learned to adapt to the many natural disasters thrown at them. When the cyclones hit, they hoist their children onto their shoulders and head for the network of cyclone shelters, which, along with the country’s early warning system, have dramatically reduced fatalities.
However, after a year that they say has brought more – and more powerful – storms than before, the fishermen are engaged in a battle for survival against their only asset: the ocean.
They say the climate is changing too fast for them to adapt. “For me, it is the increase in signals [storm warnings], that they are coming in winter,” said Jogot Hari Jala Das, 70, a village elder, squinting against the hot sun. “It is hot now and it is supposed to be winter.”
The fishermen no longer fish in the shallow waters around the island because of a decrease in catches, which they believe is linked to the water warming, Hari said. Now, they travel 10 to 15 hours to the deep sea. But this year, they have seen an increase in signals, forcing them back to land and cutting their earnings further.
“Around 15 to 20 years back, signals were not as frequent as they are now,” Hari said. “When the signal comes you can’t go to the deep sea because it could change at any time.”
Asked what they would do if they could not fish, Hari laughed. “We can’t do anything. When we catch fish, we eat. Our only asset is the ocean.”
It is a dangerous life. Last month, 89 fishermen who left for the deep sea did not return.
In Cox’s Bazar, meteorologists confirmed the fishermen’s observations. Last year, there were four cyclones – Roanu, Kyant, Nada and Vardah – in the Bay of Bengal. Usually there is only one.
Nazmul Huque, an assistant meteorologist, said: “This year, the quantity of signals was more than any other year in the Bay of Bengal. Two or three depressions occur normally, but this year there were seven or eight, and four cyclones.”
Huque also confirmed a change in the pattern of the seasons. The monsoon, which runs from June to October, began later last year, he said, and the year before. “We see the pattern changing,” said Huque. “But I’m not a researcher and this is a subject that needs research. Whether it is climate change, I’m not sure.”
Scientists say the sinking of islands in the Bay in Bengal is due to natural and possibly man-made climate change. Erosion linked to storm surges, for instance, predate global warming. But sea surface temperatures, linked to sea level rise, have risen in the Bay of Bengal. In a report published last month, scientists said they believed the higher surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean were causing cyclones to increase their frequency and intensity.
Moqbul Ahmed, project coordinator of Coast, an organisation working with climate-affected communities and migrants on Kutubdia and elsewhere, believes the villagers are victims of climate change.
“High tides never used to enter the villages before,” said Ahmed. “One portion of the island has already been washed away. I’m quite convinced it is happening because of climate change.
“There are too many challenges. People are losing their ancestral land, and they are having to migrate to other places. There, they have to adapt to a new environment. There are families from Kutubdia who were once rich, with land and cows and boats, and now are living in slums and are beggars. There is no money for the migrated people and no government policy to help them.”
Tens of thousands of islanders from Kutubdia have already fled to the mainland, many of them resettled by the government after 20 villages were swamped when a massive cyclone hit the island in 1991.
Most live in makeshift corrugated iron and bamboo huts in a shanty town called Kutubdia para (meaning “neighbourhood”), behind the airport in Cox’s Bazar, the longest stretch of sandy beach in the world and a popular resort for middle-class Bangladeshi tourists. But they, too, are anxious and uncertain about the future. The local government wants them to move elsewhere so it can build a bigger airport to service the growing tourist industry.
Outside the shanty town’s primary school, where children are learning English, Didarul Islam Rubel 29, spoke of his father’s heartbreak on leaving the island with nothing.
“My father had four fishing boats but he lost most of [them] and a lot of land during the 1991 cyclone,” said Islam. “He had to go back to being a day labourer and fish with nets. It was a huge shift. My father’s generation lost their way of life. If the government drive us out, another generation will lose theirs.”
The question of whether the weather extremes in Bangladesh are down to climate change is difficult to answer: more difficult still is whether those who have lost land like those in Kutubdia can be deemed climate change or environment migrants.
Saleemul Huq, the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development and a senior fellow of the International Institute for Environment and Development, said: “You can’t ignore the fact that what climate change will do is exacerbate what is happening. Erosion because of storm surges precedes climate change. But if people are talking about king tides and queen tides getting bigger, and observing that it is getting worse, then you shouldn’t discount it. Our former environment minister, who is from Chittagong, has talked about it.”
Huq said the term “climate change refugee or migrant” was disputed, because it is very difficult to disentangle the reasons why someone might migrate. “But you can make a very strong prediction: that tens of millions of people living in coastal areas of Bangladesh will definitely have to move because they will be unable to pursue the livelihoods that their forefathers have done.
“Climate change migration is an issue of the future that we will have to think about and plan for.”