Sun, Jan 07, 2007 - Page 5 News List

New hope for Bangladesh's climate change refugees

THE GUARDIAN , GAIBANDHA, BANGLADESH

With the help of technology, relocated communities are changing the way they live.

The new village of Amader Bandhan stands on a sandbar about 300km north-west of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka in the district of Gaibandha and consists of 100 half-brick, half-tin homes. Its population is drawn from the ranks of the country's climate change refugees.

Amul Islam is one such victim of environmental forces. Flooding and erosion have washed away his home five times, forcing the landless laborer to collect his belongings and search for land and food to survive. But the new settlement should end the 42-year-old's wanderings.

"We can now live here for years," he said. "I never thought I would have my own house. I am very lucky. This will mean a better life for my son Roshna."

Stretching across a vast delta where three great rivers meet, Bangladesh is flood-prone. Not only does it have monsoon rain to flush away, but the slow cooking of the earth's atmosphere, the theory goes, will release more water from Himalayan glaciers above the flatlands of Bangladesh.

Climate change, say scientists, also means higher tides in the Bay of Bengal. The result is trillions more liters of water sloshing over the country, depositing billions of tonnes of sediment.

"In the last 18 years we have seen floods that should only occur once every 100 years and once every 50 years," said Babu Alam of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies.

"These are not freak events but a pattern of significant change. Bangladesh is having to cope with much more devastating floods much more often," Babu said.

Nowhere is the impact more broadly felt than in the chars of Gaibandha, islands of sediment in watery channels, created by the swell of the rivers, monsoon rains and sand carpeting, which can leave once fertile land useless.

Local people have always faced seasonal loss in this ever-shifting terrain. But global warming has accelerated this cycle of disaster.

The development charity organization Practical Action is helping people in the area cope with climate change. The charity's approach is to relocate communities and to change patterns of livelihood by introducing technology.

In Amader Bandhan, Practical Action convinced Mohamed Sarkar, 80, a landlord, to give up land for homes and a school. He said he, too, had been a victim of fierce weather.

"I used to own [102 hectares] but it came down to [11]. I lost a lot because it became silted up after floods. These people also needed help and I thought why not give them my land," he said.

The land was unable to support crops, but Practical Action introduced a pit system of agriculture on riverbanks. Holes were dug in the sand and filled with compost and mud.

Sweet gourds were planted -- a vegetable that can be pickled and sold during the monsoon, when the price rises. Each family gets 50 pits.

"Now we will be able to save. Usually when the rains come it is a disaster for us," Murida Begum said.

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