Wading through tidal salt water pouring across a rapidly eroding road in an area of the coast that had never previously seen anything on this scale, climate change has never seemed so immediate. In May, Cyclone Aila breached the embankments and produced a humanitarian disaster, killing hundreds and affecting some 5 million Bangladeshis. Three months on, 300,000 are still homeless and the communities around the town of Koyra seem stuck at day one, clinging on in the wreckage and collapsed homes (see pic) that have become islands, or in cramped tarpaulin and reed shacks alongside the raised roads (see pic – that’s the road they’re standing on). Every day, high tide brings in fresh inundations of salt water, poisoning the land. The trees are already dying. The people will have to wait a further two months before the rains stop, the water level drops, and the government can start to repair the embankments that keep out the water.
As with all climate change-related disasters, the causes are multiple and interlinked: corruption diverted money away from maintaining the embankments; shrimp farmers needed salt water and nibbled away at the embankments like termites to let it in; and the cyclone coincided with the high tide that accompanies the full moon. But everyone in the area attests to the inexorable rise of sea level, driven by climate change, as a key contributory factor.
Later we attend a ‘climate poverty hearing’ – a kind of people’s tribunal, held on high-prowed boats moored to what were once the goalposts of the local school soccer pitch (now under several feet of water). A woman testifies (see pic), beating the air with thin brown arms and shouting over and over ‘I want my old life back’. That may not be possible. As a local NGO leader comments, ‘if we can’t build good embankments, this area will be sea. People will have to migrate.’
Bangladesh is a land of 150 million people where millions live at (or in some cases below) sea level. Every centimetre of sea level rise (and it’s currently rising at 4-8 millimetres per year) has huge human consequences. Unsurprisingly, Bangladeshi activists and politicians speak with real anger about what is happening to their country, and the need for the polluting countries to pay compensation for the devastation that is already under way. More on this debate later.