Casaubon's Book

Bangladeshi Adapting In Place

As part of their ongoing series on population, National Geographic has a fascinating, and typically visually brilliant article about how the Bangladeshi population is using strategies of adaptation to deal with climate change. This isn’t the kind of adaptation most of us are prepared for, but as the authors point out, it may be the kind of adaptation we need:


Ibrahim Khalilullah has lost track of how many times he’s moved. “Thirty? Forty?” he asks. “Does it matter?” Actually those figures might be a bit low, as he estimates he’s moved about once a year his whole life, and he’s now over 60. Somehow, between all that moving, he and his wife raised seven children who “never missed a meal,” he says proudly. He’s a warm, good-natured man, with gray hair cut short and a longish gray beard, and everything he says has a note of joy in it.

Khalilullah is a char dweller, one of the hundreds of thousands of people who inhabit the constantly changing islands, or chars, on the floodplains of Bangladesh’s three major rivers–the Padma, Jamuna, and Meghna. These islands, many covering less than a square mile, appear and vanish constantly, rising and falling with the tide, the season, the phase of the moon, the rainfall, and the flow of rivers upstream. Char dwellers will set out by boat to visit friends on another char, only to find that it’s completely disappeared. Later they will hear through the grapevine that their friends moved to a new char that had popped up a few miles downstream, built their house in a day, and planted a garden by nightfall. Making a life on the chars–growing crops, building a home, raising a family–is like winning an Olympic medal in adaptation. Char dwellers may be the most resilient people on Earth.

There are tricks to living on a char, Khalilullah says. He builds his house in sections that can be dismantled, moved, and reassembled in a matter of a few hours. He always builds on a raised platform of earth at least six feet high. He uses sheets of corrugated metal for the outside walls and panels of thatch for the roof. He keeps the family suitcases stacked neatly next to the bed in case they’re needed on short notice. And he has documents, passed down from his father, that establish his right to settle on new islands when they emerge–part of an intricate system of laws and customs that would prevent a million migrants from the south, say, from ever squatting on the chars. His real secret, he says, is not to think too much. “We’re all under pressure, but there’s really no point to worry. This is our only option, to move from place to place to place. We farm this land for as long as we can, and then the river washes it away. No matter how much we worry, the ending is always the same.”

Even in the best of times, it’s a precarious way of life. And these are not the best of times. In Bangladesh climate change threatens not just the coast but also inland communities like Khalilullah’s. It could disrupt natural cycles of precipitation, including monsoon rains and the Tibetan Plateau snowfall, both of which feed the major rivers that eventually braid their way through the delta.

But precisely because the country’s geography is prone to floods and cyclones, Bangladeshis have gotten a head start on preparing for a climate-changed future. For decades they have been developing more salt-resistant strains of rice and building dikes to keep low-lying farms from being flooded with seawater. As a result, the country has actually doubled its production of rice since the early 1970s. Similarly its frequent cyclones have prompted it to build cyclone shelters and develop early-warning systems for natural disasters. More recently various NGOs have set up floating schools, hospitals, and libraries that keep right on functioning through monsoon season.

“Let me tell you about Bangladeshis,” says Zakir Kibria, 37, a political scientist who serves as a policy analyst at Uttaran, an NGO devoted to environmental justice and poverty eradication. “We may be poor and appear disorganized, but we are not victims. And when things get tough, people here do what they’ve always done–they find a way to adapt and survive. We’re masters of ‘climate resilience.'”

My favorite image is the one of a group of volunteers moving their mosque to dry land. Seriously, read the whole thing.

Comments

  1. #1 dreamer
    April 25, 2011

    If each of his seven children has seven children, we’re all doomed.

    Survival skills are great and so is the willingness to live simply.

    But having seven natural, non-adopted, children is simply not sustainable if all humans want this many children. When will we learn that if we love children, we MUST reduce / keep population levels to an estimated 3 or so billion, even if consumption patterns change.

  2. #2 Sharon Astyk
    April 25, 2011

    I assume you read the article and the discussion of the demographic transition going on much more rapidly in Bangladesh than almost anywhere else in the world – his 7 children almost certainlyl won’t. That said, however, consumption comes *FIRST* – partly because it is faster, but also because absolute resource limits depend more on consumption – the average Bangladeshi consumes 1/22nd of an American child – so even if he has 20 kids he’s still using less than 1 American child. That doesn’t mean population doesn’t matter, it means consumption does.

    Sharon

  3. #3 dreamer
    April 25, 2011

    from the NG article, a positive outlook:

    And believe it or not, it’s a population success story as well. To whittle its high birthrate, Bangladesh developed a grassroots family-planning program in the 1970s that has lowered its fertility rate from 6.6 children per woman in 1977 to about 2.4 today—a historic record for a country with so much poverty and illiteracy.

    Working in partnership with dozens of NGOs, Bangladesh has made huge strides in educating women and providing them with economic opportunities; female work-participation rates have doubled since 1995. Its economy is growing, helped by its garment-export industry. And Bangladesh has managed to meet an important UN Millennium Development Goal: Infant mortality dropped dramatically between 1990 and 2008, from 100 deaths per 1,000 births to 43—one of the highest improvement rates among low-income countries.

  4. #4 clew
    April 25, 2011

    Wow, it’s especially impressive that the infant mortality dropped while they were dealing with the accidental mass arsenic poisoning (good idea for providing clean-water wells met unusual geology: result, arsenic everywhere).

  5. #5 Brad K.
    April 25, 2011

    @ dreamer,

    I wonder at which of the datum you quote is really a success, in terms of Peak Oil. I mean, female work-participation can take many forms. Occupying all adults in commercial enterprises, though, smacks of unsustainable dependence on cheap energy. Making garments for export makes the community a resource for world-spanning multinational trade, again affluence based on cheap energy for transport.

    At least some of the modern “advances” cited show signs of achieving industrial-style ‘efficiency’. For instance, I wonder at how those nifty floating schools enable children to live in their community – and how many of the children follow school teachings to pursue ‘a better life’ – the way American agriculture faces a disastrous ‘graying out’. So few Americans stay with their farm family roots that it appears anyone critical of any modern farming practice is wasting their effort. Wait 15 more years, and the number of people *capable* of farming in America will be decimated.

    Let that get started among the Bangladeshis and you can laud the ‘better’ (consumer oriented) life of the next generation at the same time you wonder why the food raising has gone industrial and climate resilience will be a folk tale told by gray-haired elders.

    Much of modern education, at least in America, was hijacked in the 1960s to create a stream of youngsters readied for and interested in careers in science and engineering. Traditional crafts and skills were denigrated, considered lower in value – they didn’t seem to lead to putting a man on the moon. Since then the modern industrial business environment needs schools turning out graduates ready to make profits for corporations (that is, a ‘contributing’ member of society). A modern education becomes ever more a mixed blessing, with unwarranted biases, questionable social engineering motives, and political game playing.

    Unless someone breaks away and returns to the skills of pre-industrial life, our neighbors and our children will be left with even fewer resources to try to respond to that second-story fall, if/when/as the collapse comes home to roost.

  6. #6 dreamer
    April 26, 2011

    Yes, consumption matters.

    So do those skills, now lost, on how to survive ( and have a good, decent life) as a sustainable, small community.

    I grew up in a place/time when I had occasion to live in such a community. If it were not for political / religious oppression, rural life would have been wonderful .. and 100% sustainable. The village I knew imported only nails, glass, iron, salt and pepper. They had no medicines to speak of at the time, had to travel 12 miles by oxcart to the nearest clinic.

    I do see more young Americans drawn to organic farming and your blog is inspiring, Sharon.

    A concern: make sure our laws and the fake concern for 100% percent that makes up the “nanny” state as well as misplaced “animal rights” do not stand in the way of good quality farm life.

    Thinking of (stupid) laws like the foster children not being allowed to drink well water or fresh farm milk! Well there are risks in everything we do, buy, eat etc. Same with the laws restricting sales of milk, meat etc directly from small farm to consumer without the big corporations, steel milking barns, and the nanny state. Consumers too need to take responsibility for choices and hygiene and not go for mega-lawsuits unless it’s true negligence.

    Btw, wonderful that your family is taking on foster children.

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