‘We faced so many cyclones’: how people in Bangladesh are rebuilding after climate catastrophe

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘We faced so many cyclones’: how people in Bangladesh are rebuilding after climate catastrophe” was written by Kaamil Ahmed in Shyamnagar, for The Observer on Sunday 12th December 2021 08.15 UTC

The cyclones that repeatedly hit his village deep in Bangladesh’s south did not just bring waist-high water that washed everything away, they forced Shayma Kanta Mistri to make a choice about his future.

The salt waters that had surged in from the nearby Bay of Bengal ruined his paddy fields, which were already providing only a tenuous living that had to be supplemented by seasonal labouring for other farmers. Mistri needed to adapt or leave.

Everywhere in Shyamnagar, there are signs of people refusing to just accept that climate change will force them to move. This is the most south-western part of Satkhira district and one of the areas in Bangladesh most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Rice fields have been turned into ponds by owners who realise their land will not easily recover and so have begun farming crab and shrimp. People are fighting back to avoid the fate of thousands of others, who have had to leave for overcrowded cities, broken by the effects of global heating on their land and their lives.

“We faced so many cyclones – Sidr, Aila, Bulbul, Amphan – and they brought waters that came up to here on the street,” said Mistri, holding his hand at waist level. “When the waters left it was like a desert, all the plants and trees were dying from the salt and there was no clear water to drink either. There were only a few people with money who could survive these conditions.

“We could not live from farming any longer. We had to think about other ways to make our living.”

Mistri had planned to start a shrimp farm but was encouraged by Practical Action, a charity that helps smallholder farmers, and its local partner Shushilan, to move into crab farming because it had a low start-up cost and crabs were less vulnerable to white spot syndrome, a virus that plagues shrimp farms. Now he can make an average of 2,000 taka (£17.60) per day by selling 100kg of soft-shell crabs from 2kg of crablets that he buys from local fishermen. He had previously only run a nursery, rearing the crablets and then selling junior crabs to bigger crab farms, but taught himself the sensitive and valuable technique of harvesting the crab at the moment it sheds its hard shell.

“Now I’m more comfortable. We have a more secure income and both of my children are in school – my son has almost graduated from college,” said Mistri.

Aside from the profit, the quick turnaround means he earns throughout the year, softening the losses of the storms that can leave rice farmers without an income for months because of the crop damage and time it takes to prepare the land.

Satkhira and the south-west have borne the brunt of the weather changes, repeatedly being hit by major cyclones that have displaced millions and caused permanent changes to the land. During last year’s cyclone Amphan winds hit 151kmph and flooded a quarter of Satkhira, which the UN said was the worst-hit district.

According to a 2016 study from the University of Jessore (now Jashore), two-thirds of migrants from south-western Bangladesh moved because they had to give up farming. Most went to cities where they worked as day labourers, while some did seasonal agricultural work. Those who were able to stay were people who had diversified, especially crab and shrimp farmers.

Shayma Kanta Mistri has been helped by Practical Action to start a crab farm.
Shayma Kanta Mistri has been helped by Practical Action to start a crab farm. Photograph: Kamrul Hasan

Practical Action’s field coordinator, AJM Shafiqul Islam, said the charity’s work is about ensuring people are offered the most suitable solution and support to help build their resilience to the climate crisis.

“Since cyclone Sidr [in 2007], the people of this area have struggled with salinity in their soil but these methods are transforming lives. Shayma had very little before but now he has a poultry farm alongside the crabs that he built with the income. He no longer has to travel to sell his labour,” said Islam.

“This works for the farmers who have limited income. It helps them work with the change of their land and also hopefully it will stop them having to migrate. They will be able to live sustainably.”

The threat to Shyamnagar’s people is evident on Gabura, an island encircled by two rivers of the Sundarbans mangrove forest, which is frequently inundated during cyclones and is losing its coast to erosion. Locals live in fragile homes mounted on stilts, and say a quarter of people have now given up and moved elsewhere.

Those who remain are reliant on catching crabs or collecting honey from the forest but their income is curtailed by government limits to protect the forest’s resources.

Islam says Practical Action’s work is also about bringing balance. “These farmers look to wild sources like the river or the Sunderbans, which is vulnerable environmentally and needs to be protected. The government is also establishing crab hatcheries but someone has to raise them, so these crab nurseries for smallholder farmers can be the intermediaries,” said Islam.

That balance also applies to other methods being encouraged here, such as teaching farmers how to grow extra vegetables in the mud walkways between plots of land.

Archana Boyda, 24, provides farmers in her area with compost using dung from her two cows and earthworms she was given by the charity. Boyda has six vats of her compost in a tent outside her home.

She had been living in a leaking mud hut that was destroyed by a falling tree during cyclone Amphan. But Boyda had been saving the 3,000 taka she earned a month with her husband and they have built a new wooden house on a platform raised above any floodwaters.

“Amphan had a really big effect on us, the house was destroyed and we had nowhere to go so we just tried to cover the gaps with sheets. This house is still not finished but it is so much better and our life is becoming more secure, step by step,” she said.

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