Under a calm azure sky I step into the sea, warm as bathwater. My toes sink into a slimy, muddy bottom. Soon others in the group are smearing the crab-gray mud on their chests and faces like war paint.
I think about a textile factory I visited on the outskirts of Dhaka a week before. It is one of the Bangladesh’s biggest makers of cotton fabric and garments and has the resources and foresight to build a multi-million dollar wastewater treatment plant. Each day the factory uses 900,000 gallons of water – 1.5 Olympic swimming pools – to make the vibrant hues we wear every day: my favorite teal T-shirt and those skinny dark denim jeans. Before it built the effluent treatment plant it did what most Bangladeshi factories do – dump the black bruise-colored water full of dyes and chemicals into nearby rivers that eventually flow into the sea.
Later that night our boat turns and starts to nose its way north for our return journey to Khulna. I take a seat on the boat’s top deck. Next to me is an older, white-haired Canadian man based in Singapore, visiting his nephew who is studying in Bangladesh. He is a zealous bird-watcher who wears binoculars around his neck and calls out species by sight during our morning boat ride through the creek: magpie robins, gray malkohas, green leaf birds with golden foreheads. He travels the world for his hobby and meticulously logs all birds sighted into a notebook.
When I ask what brings him to Singapore, he replies, ‘’Looking for buried treasure.’’ He is a geophysicist for an oil company prospecting across Asia. I ask him about fracking, the controversial new method of oil and gas extraction, and he confirms that no one fully understands the risks. That hasn’t stopped an energy gold rush in North America.
The Canadian regretfully adds that fracking kills any hope of curbing carbon emissions. With this new wealth of oil and gas, there is little incentive to invest more heavily in solar, wind, biofuel, biomass, hydrogen or geothermal – alternative energy within our reach but that requires effort to pluck. The geophysicist waves his hand out over the dark river toward the leafy mass of the Sundarbans, a thriving bird habitat that made him swoon for the last couple days. “In a hundred years this will all be under water.”
A few days later, I am on a much smaller boat heading to Bainpura village on another river in the Sundarbans. Bainpura is home to development projects to help locals recover and rebuild after violent storms, and I want to see the progress. We ride in a traditional wooden vessel painted turquoise with red trim whose engine makes a chopper-like ruckus. A young man in a lungi who calls me “sister” steers. His 12-year-old assistant holds a black umbrella to shade us from the scorching sun. I sit cross-legged on top of the cabin for a front-row seat to life in the Sundarbans. Men on the riverbank fling cast nets into the water. Women bathe while wearing salwar kameez tunics and squeeze suds from their wet hair. Bare-skinned children splash and laugh.
The boat hugs the shoreline close to a riverbank crumbling into the water in wet chunks. Slender trees are already half immersed in water, not waving but drowning, and enormous parrot-hued leaves of nipa palm grow like seven-foot tall feathers in the water. When dried, these leaves will make thatch roofs that last for years while regular palm leaves disintegrate after months.
We arrive at Bainpura around noon when the sun is a hot white disc overhead. There are no real roads here, just sand and gravel paths between 55 small houses. The nearest marketplace is half a day’s walk along a dirt road on the disintegrating riverbank.
Bangladesh lacks the resources to fortify itself against rising water
Bainpura was badly affected by Cyclone Aila in 2009. Most people in this remote village were too poor to move after homes and belongings were washed away. Thousands lived on the embankment for more than a year. They relied on handouts of water and food from relief agencies after crops were destroyed and freshwater ponds contaminated with salt water.
As global temparatures climb and sea levels rise, millions more could be similarly affected around the world. Bangladesh lacks the resources to fortify itself against rising water, more storms and floods, unlike rich countries like low-lying Netherlands. By the end of the 21st century, rising sea levels are expected to affect 94 million people in low-lying parts of Asia—including one million in Bangladesh, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course, the Sundarbans is highly vulnerable.
Countless people must adapt to climate change as best they can. Bainpura is fortunate. It is the site of a 2011 pilot program funded by a bevy of European and Australian aid agencies and the United Nations Development Program. After villagers were trained to grow crops other than rice, vegetable plots are flourishing, and lush creeping vines sprout gourds on rooftops. All this seems rather miraculous considering the gritty sand underfoot.
New concrete homes stand in neat rows on thick foundations. These one-room cyclone-resistant houses were designed by the Housing and Building Research Institute in Dhaka to withstand winds of up to 135 miles an hour. They have wavy concrete roofs with small detachable solar panels instead of the usual corrugated metal sheet that becomes a flying hatchet when loosened by cyclone winds. I peek inside one of the homes where a baby is sleeping under a large net and a young mother bustles about. As in many poor homes, the only furniture is a bed and clothes hang from wooden rods strung up on the whitewashed walls. A sonorous midday call to prayer warbles over the village like a mournful lullaby.
Outside every house there is a large plastic vat for collecting rainwater, as well as a booth-like latrine with a bright blue door on thick concrete foundations. Near the ponds are large domed sand filters where people can pump clean drinking water.
In the aftermath of a cyclone, access to clean drinking water and sanitation are major problems. Thousands of homeless resort to open defecation in close quarters. Today children are frolicking in one of the small ponds alongside fleets of bobbing, quacking ducks. After a cyclone these ponds become contaminated with salt water and refuse. Typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases can lead to more deaths after the storm.