CFTM learning visit
On the 12th of May 2019, thirteen students from five different Universities packed their bags, boarded the bus and headed to Satkhira for a week out of the bustle of Dhaka City. A team of researchers from ICCCAD accompanied the students. Their destination was Shyamnagar, a coastal region on the outskirts of Sundarbans, well known for its vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. In the course of the following five days, they wanted to know two things. Firstly, what were the pre and post-disaster events when cyclone Fani hit the region. Secondly, how people are surviving extreme climatic events like cyclones, flooding and salinity intrusion, living with poverty, superstitions and fear of tigers at the same time.
Are safe Shelters not safe for all genders?
On the first day of the learning visit, students went to see a newly constructed cyclone shelter/primary school with the local youth volunteers of CSRL in Datinakhali village. It was a two-storied building with an open ground floor. A water tank which harvested rainwater connects with a hand pump on the first floor. Ramps are installed on the ground floor for the mobility of people with disabilities. However, the ramps only gave access to enter the shelter, as if they were never meant to go to the upper floors (which are only accessible by stairs). There were segregated toilets, but no designated separate rooms for male and female. After a while, when the students interviewed the locals in the vicinity, the men did not bother about the situation, as for them, keeping their family together is their most significant concern when a cyclone is imminent. However, when the females were interviewed separately, they told a different story. They feel really embarrassed in front of hundreds of people in the shelter to express their needs out loud. Even if they are drenched by flood/rain at the critical moment and need a change of clothing, they could not do it to save themselves from rude mutterings and stares. Shelters may withstand the storms to come, but people's stigma towards gender and the disabled will not change without proper education.
The Tale of Gabura
Gabura is an island union at the outskirt of Sundarbans. For hundreds of years, people of Gabura worshipped their forest gods to protect themselves from tigers and natural disasters. All their worship is now coming short in front of climate change. Severely affected by Cyclone Aila in 2009, the union has lost all its fresh water sources. They are facing salinity intrusion which they have not faced before. They are experiencing extreme disasters which they have not seen before. The devastation of Aila left them in despair for years. Aklima Begum (35) is a "Bagh Bidhoba" (widow of a tiger victim) in Gabura. Financed by Oxfam, she traveled to more than five countries to tell her story and her struggles during Aila and how she managed to adapt to the adverse situation being a widow in a conservative, superstitious community. According to her, "When you ask people how many children they have, they will only count their sons, not the girls. Because girls are only a burden to them".
In Gabura, devoid of any livelihood options, people are migrating seasonally to different labour jobs and brickfields of Dhaka, Barisal and other major cities. A system of 'middlemen' has grown over the years surrounding these labour movements. Also, when they come back, they search for work in crab farms. As crab farming is growing day by day in the locality, people returning are reluctant to bring their old way of livelihood, making it almost impossible to restore the ecosystem.
However, there is still hope for these people. Children in the islands go to school, even if it means crossing the river every day. Some of the children even tried to talk to the students and shared what they thought about their village. Unlike their parents, they do not want to end up being farmers and fishermen. Instead, they want to become teachers, doctors or visit countries they have not been to before.
Talking with the locals
In two separate focus group sessions, students tried to understand the living condition of the local villagers and the power relation between male and female. In the female group, all the women were facing severe levels of anxiety, sexual and reproductive health issues. The village has only one doctor appointed to them (for all matters). In the male group, participants were ignorant about the health issues of their female households. "Safe Water" was their most crucial problem. Women and children walk two kilometres every day to fetch water from the neighbouring village. Some of them use drums to store rainwater, which is expensive, and most of them cannot afford it. They sometimes access microfinance to try alternative livelihood options, but most of their initiatives failed for lack of knowledge. During Cyclone Fani, even when people from the village were getting text messages periodically about the situation of the storm, they only resorted to the shelter at the last moment. When there was no space for people to get into the shelter, they tried to reach the embankment to find high ground, unknowing of the fact that a lightning strike can be fatal. However, in all of these, even if they are illiterate, they did not forget to educate their children. One of the participant's son was an undergraduate student at Dhaka University, which shows how much they care about their children's education. Engaging Stu
Meeting the Young Climate Volunteers of Shyamnagar
On the third day, students visited the Jalabayu Parishad office of CSRL to meet the climate youth volunteers of Shyamnagar. It was amazing to see a diverse set of youths working together without any monetary incentive to become the voice of their community. One of the volunteers worked under UNICEF as a young journalist, and another was a village police volunteer (raising her voice in child marriage issues). They told stories of how they execute social media campaigns, raise awareness of youth and women on the importance of women education, disaster management and sanitation through cultural programs and utilize print media to spread both concerns and positive news of their locality. Although they are young, they regularly face climate-induced disasters in their locality. In cyclone Fani, they played an active part in organizing volunteers, receiving and delivering early warning signals and taking people to the shelters. In this interactive session with the youth, students learned that even the youth from the disaster-prone areas could play a significant part in climate advocacy and campaigning.
Engaging Students with Local Politicians
One of the significant activities of the learning visit was to engage the students with the local mayors and government officials. Students met with the Satkhira municipality mayor and the chairman of Burigoalini union. Local level politicians have in-depth knowledge about the problems and opportunities of their locality. Students saw how enthusiastic they are to make a master plan for their union and seek funding from the climate change trust fund. In the face of these problems, they want to promote tourism, health and income opportunities to promote climate resilience and better livelihood opportunities. The recently developed Satkhira Medical and the construction of Padma bridge will make Satkhira town an economic focal point in the southern region, which will promote income generating activities for the youth and the overall economy.
Are we compromising the environment for development?
Development is necessary to improve the condition of the people who are facing the adverse impacts of climate change, but obviously, we need to consider the environment while developing our economy. Students felt concerned that both the politicians promoted crab farming as a vital source of employment in the vulnerable region of Satkhira. Nevertheless, it is generating income for the poor in the locality.
The next step for the students is to share their learnings in policy dialogue with the national level politicians and policy makers of Bangladesh and learn about national policy issues and development agenda to reduce climate vulnerability of Bangladesh.
Faisal Bin Islam is a researcher at the International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). He research interest lies in environmental planning and policy.