Where science fails: livelihoods in the remote south of Bangladesh

DSC_0401-2.jpg

Nearly seven billion people inhabit the Earth, dispersing into every corner of the planet. With the emergence of new technologies, smart phones in our palms and the wider expanse of globalization, gaps are continuously filled by the exchange modern information. One contemporary phenomenon that is exchanged across the globe is the topic of climate change, a matter highly contested in society. This argument suggests that in the next century, every portion of humanity is likely to feel the impact of a changing climate no matter what space they occupy. Ironically, as groups argue against the science, the real victims remain disconnected. These individuals are the crutch of the debate, yet are absent in voice. They are misunderstood, misrepresented and at present, occupying a space which policy makers, academics, leaders and activists who oppose climate change could not understand without living and operating within it. A space where ‘climate change’ becomes just another shock to the already vulnerable and isolated system. 

From Australia, it is a plane ride of thirteen hours. The arrival in Dhaka, Bangladesh is indescribable as humid air, infinite crowds and pollution bombard you after landing. Bangladesh is not a hub for tourism, unlike its close neighbour India, and consequently, foreigners become a rare site even in the busy capital. Fast track an additional twenty-two hours via rickshaw, boat and motorbike to a rural village in Panpatti, in the remote south of Bangladesh and all global networks and connectivity collapses.

DSC_0222-1.jpg

Villagers do not realise that their existence is at the core of every climate change discussion, living in conditions which will be impacted by rising sea levels, erratic seasonal shifts, intensified coastal cyclones and further stress on dwindling natural resources. The coastal region hosts 28% of the Bangladesh’s population, which is more than double Australia’s population, dispersed across terrain less than 3m above sea level.  Moderate scenarios of sea level rise pose significant risk to Panpatti which is likely to experience 10-40cm inundation within the century. Consequently, whilst the world argues for and against the science of an impending climate shift, villagers in Panpatti are receptive to it. As noted by Mohammed Abud Hossain; 

‘The natural change is increasing. There are more droughts in March to May and even September is too dry when the monsoon ends. We cannot grow our crops and the agriculture is always affected. It is a factor that we cannot change or control.’

Upstream flooding immobilises villagers in their homes for months during the wet season, farmers struggle to grow their only means of food consumption in the dry season, cyclones tear houses apart and riverbank erosion renders whole portions of the village landless. To further complicate the conditions, villagers notice the absence of fishing stocks due to over exploitation, unaffordable purchase prices for agricultural land, a booming population and lack of economic opportunities to support community survival.

DSC_0465-3.jpg

For the majority, survival is constituted as ‘din ani din khai’, a local term meaning ‘hand to mouth’ by which daily income is spent the same day on putting food on the table. It is this boundary that separates the capability of a human to adapt and respond to predictions of a changing climate. Here, a country contributing minimal to global greenhouse gas emissions, suffers the greatest. Unlike communities in the developed world, the problem is not fixed with household assets or mere adjustments to daily living. Rather, adapting to a changing climate requires not only a shift in an environmental way of thinking, but one which considers the capacity of political, economic and social constructs to support vulnerable communities. At present, the village does not succeed. Villager Afghan Ali resonates;  

'Panpatti is not a place you can earn more.  You can only do agriculture or fishing and just live your life and somehow survive. It is ok, middle level living but you will never succeed in life.'

Such a concept has seen villagers migrating from the village to overpopulated slums of urban centres, to even further complicate the climate change debate. In this sense, forced migration away from climate stress does not always lessen a person’s vulnerable circumstance. This is echoed by villager Saleha;

‘…my whole family migrated to Dhaka when they lost their land to the erosion. It is the same condition for us in here or in Dhaka. They earn more but it’s more costly in Dhaka. No one is in a better position.’ 

Long-term options for these rural minorities are limited. Vulnerability never diminishes, particularly in the context of Panpatti, which exists as a metaphor of the change predicted to come. As the availability of secure, productive land disappears from climate stress, so too do the livelihoods living off the vulnerable terrain. Now, the argument is no longer scientific but social. Whilst science can be debated time and time again, the application of this science on humanity does not. Vulnerable individuals are waiting, without voice, without representation and with one of the most significant ‘global scientific’ opinions in the contemporary world. They live the real change while skeptics still question it.