by Sandhya Somashekhar and Emilie Raguso

Actors in the play, “Environmental Thinking: Where will we go?” dance and wail to bring the message of climate change to hundreds of villagers in southwest Bangladesh. Photo: Emilie Raguso

It’s sunset in the jungle, and four musicians are tuning a drum and harmonium on stage.

People gather in the clearing, scarves wrapped around their heads and ears against the chill of dusk. There are hundreds of them – old men wrapped in shawls, women in saris, a little boy in his father’s overcoat. As the play opens, a dozen performers in red-and-white-checkered costumes act out a happy village scene. They collect lotus flowers and tend to their chickens and goats. Suddenly, a storm hits, flooding the entire village. The play, called “Environmental Thinking: Where will we go?” is about the dangers of climate change. Floods, droughts, cyclones and saltwater pollution of farmland all appear in this show, just as they may someday in this very village.

“To the village people, plays and dramas are a great source of entertainment and joy, because they don’t really have access to cinema. So whatever you say in a drama or a play, people remember it better,” says Mohon Kumar Mondal, an environmental activist with the local group Working for Coastal People. He helped to bring this play to southwest Bangladesh, where he grew up working the rice paddies with his father. Already, the ocean has begun to seep into the freshwater supply here. As a result, crops fail and people now walk miles for drinking water. So far, the main causes of this problem are massive dams built upriver in India and other man-made factors. But climate change will worsen the situation.

“In my case, since I am quite educated,” says Mondal, “I can go to Dhaka and live quite happily. But what will happen to my neighbors and relatives who are really uneducated, who don’t even know what climate is, not even what is going on in the outside world? For them the disaster will be unexpected, so they are going to die.”

Mohon Kumar Mondal talks with CARE officials about climate change awareness programs in southwestern Bangladesh. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Few doubt that global warming will bring disaster for Bangladesh, where 144 million people live in a space the size of Wisconsin. And the country is plagued year after year by natural disasters. Now comes climate change. Warmer temperatures will increase the intensity of cyclones that churn up over the Bay of Bengal and make the weather more unpredictable. Researchers have noticed that floods along the country’s three major rivers are happening more frequently, a trend that will worsen. But the most alarming effect of climate change is sea level rise. Within the next 100 years, the oceans could rise by a meter or more, inundating the coastal areas and devastating prime agricultural land.

“Firstly, it is a low-lying deltaic country, with large parts of the country just within one meter of the mean sea level,” says Saleemul Huq, a plant scientist and founder of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, the country’s top climate change research and policy organization. “And if sea levels rise by a meter, that means that a large part of the country, something like 10 percent, will go under water. The numbers of people that will probably have to be relocated, will have to move, will certainly have to change their livelihoods to survive, are in the tens of millions.”

One of those people at risk is Ismail Hossain, a rural farmer living on the banks of the Kabadakshya River. He knows nothing about melting glaciers or carbon emissions, but he is intimately familiar with nature’s ferocity. Though his small village seems an oasis of palm trees and thatched huts, the river often spills over during the rainy season, flooding homes and turning emerald fields of rice into pools of mud.

Like many village dwellers in this country, Mr. Hossain isn’t quite sure of his age, but estimates he’s around 50. He tells the story of the great flood of 2000, when the water gushed into his property and stayed there for months.

“At first I thought that the water will never go and that everything has been destroyed forever,” says Hossain. “Everything you are seeing was underwater. If I wanted to go anywhere else I had to call a boat and go everywhere through boats.”

Ismail Hossain attends his floating gardens, built on bamboo and water hyacinth. The gardens give him more room to grow fresh crops, like red spinach and tomatoes. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The international aid agency CARE has been trying to teach people like Mr. Hossain to build stronger houses, carve moats around their homes and switch to salt-resistant crops, all in anticipation of climate change. He learned to build gardens that literally float on the water, an indigenous technique that he improved upon himself.

“I first placed bamboos on the water and then pulled some of the water hyacinth on the bamboos,” explains Hossain. “Then I collected the mud and put the seeds in the mud. Within four or five days, the seed came up and there was a beautiful tree coming out of the seed. Many people came here to see such an amazing thing.”

Mr. Hossain now has 13 vegetable gardens resting on the surface of the river, oblong beds overflowing with tomatoes and pale green bottle gourds. Still, he senses the worst is yet to come.

“In the rainy season,” he says, “the rain isn’t coming in due time, and in the winter it isn’t as cold as it used to be. I realize that the seasons are changing as the time goes on. I fear that something like this can happen in the future. But if such things happen and I can’t grow vegetables anymore, I will find a way to survive.”

Then he said something you often hear here. “When there is trouble, there is a way.”

It would be foolish to underestimate Bangladeshi ingenuity, or the technological advances that could unfold in the coming years. But there is more than ever at stake for this drenched and downstream place, where so many people live at nature’s whim.

See a slideshow of the effects of climate change in Bangladesh.
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