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.