New Internationalist

The tempest

Issue 397

Mahfuz Sadique reports from Bangladesh, where the land can become a sea and the sea a wave.

SHEHZAD CHOWDURY
SHEHZAD CHOWDURY

‘There was something wrong with the pubali batash (north-easterly wind).’

Rustam Howlader (pictured below) tries to recreate in words and gestures exactly what went wrong on the evening of 19 September 2006. The wrinkles on his forehead ripple with some unknown fear.

That evening he was swept off his trawler by lashing waves. All night he floated in the open sea until he was pulled in by the high tide to the dense Sundarban mangrove forest, where the fear of lurking tigers haunts even a seasoned coastal fisher like Rustam. Eventually he was rescued by a passing Coast Guard patrol and returned home four days later – to find an already mourning family. He had been listed as ‘missing’ by the authorities.

Officially, no more than 110 fishers, those whose bodies were recovered during the following week, were declared ‘dead’ after that fateful September storm. But the count made by local fishing communities, and numerous reports in local newspapers, put the figure closer to a 1,000.

Rustam’s tale is already told and re-told every day in his locality. But he still has a hard time explaining it. ‘I have lived off the sea for 30 years now,’ he says, ‘but the water never gets so dark, so fast. And the waves – I can’t even start telling you.’

In fact, no-one at the age-old docks of Sharankhola, where Rustam and his coastal colleagues are anchored, still has any clue what happened to the sea that evening. As one fisher put it: ‘The waters are not the same. It’s gone pagla (mad)!’

According to Dr Samarendra Karmakar, Deputy Director at the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, some 5,000 fishers in 630 mechanized trawlers and 50 fishing boats were thrashed by ocean currents gushing at speeds of 100-130 kilometres per hour, and by waves as high as 12 metres.

Climate experts say that ‘mad’ storms like this will become more frequent in future. The storms are getting stronger too. This tempest took its toll even on the rulers of the high seas. The Bangladesh Navy’s pride, BNS Shaheed Farid, was salvaged nearly a week later. Lost to the sea forever is its skipper, Lt-Commander Feroz Kabir. His body was never found.

A place to cry

Khadija Begum (pictured top left, following page) of Arong Ghata village, just a five-minute bike ride from the Sharankhola docks, is not sure how to grieve for her dead husband. Sattar Akhand, a coastal fisher for 20 years, went missing in the storm. Left with no land to live off, nor any other form of sustenance, Khadija wails: ‘If I could just bury his dead body beside my house, I would have a place to cry.’

Her sorrow subsides for a moment. She sits cross-legged on the porch of the two-room thatched hut with her youngest, seven-year old Mamun, tugging at her sari. The horrors of the future grip her: ‘Now what? What will I feed this boy? He [Sattar] left me with nothing. That sea gave us our living, and now that monster has taken him away.’

Khadija stares blankly as her newly married teenage daughter Zulekha comes out of the house and sits beside her. Because the ‘agreed upon’ dowry had not been paid, Zulekha’s in-laws sent her back to her father’s home a week after he went missing.

Rustam, Kadija and 36 million others like them live on one of the largest river deltas in the world. They have found themselves living alongside ‘unknown waters’. No group is more affected than the 7.3 million coastal fishers.

‘Over-fishing – by 65 per cent in the seas and 25 per cent in the inland coastal waters – has already put present stocks, as well as future fishing, in jeopardy,’ says marine fisheries expert Dr Giasuddin Khan of the Department of Fisheries.

‘When I was a kid, I used to go into the forest with my father in our small fishing boat. We used to get so much fish that by noon our day’s catch would be done,’ reminisces Binoy Mondal (pictured right).

He lives in a district that borders on India and has the largest patch of the Sundarban forests. ‘But now, forget one day – we go for days on end without getting a good catch. We didn’t have so many people fishing back then. Well, we didn’t even have so many people. Now with shrimp ghers (enclaves) taking up so much cultivable land, all of them have moved our way, vying for the same fish. No wonder we don’t get enough.’

The curse of the shrimp

New prosperity for some has come as a curse for most who live along the coastal belt. Shrimp farming became Bangladesh’s very own ‘gold rush’ in the mid-1980s. While nearly a million people are now involved in the industry, the real benefactors are the shrimp-exporting companies, which number barely 130.

For miles and miles, along both sides of the coastal highway, previously agrarian land is now inundated in saline water. Shrimp farming has devoured land bought for nominal sums from marginal farmers. Thousands of families have lost ancestral livelihoods and moved on to coastal fishing, or simply migrated. Traditional farming is all but impossible.

The Bangladesh coastline has experienced a total of 66 major cyclonic storms since 1797, and numerous smaller – though equally fatal – ones. On 29 April 1991 gusts of 225 kilometres per hour, and tidal surges topping 7.5 meters, lashed coastal communities, killing nearly 140,000 people.

‘I was holding her so tight to my bosom. Only Allah knows what happened,’ recalls Marium Khatun, her eyes dry, her voice unemotional. ‘My fingers felt numb, and when I looked down she was not there anymore. My little baby girl was gone – washed away by the sea.’

Marium Khatun recounts how, while clinging on to a babul tree in that dark April night of 1991, ‘the land became a sea and the sea became a wave’ – and she lost her three-month-old Yasmin, along with a son, Jasimuddin, and two more daughters, Sultana and Jannat.

Over the past decade-and-a-half thousands of lives have been saved by nearly 2,000 cyclone shelters, mostly constructed after the 1991 disaster. Bangladesh’s home-grown, low-tech yet effective system, known as the Cyclone Preparedness Programme, is one of the ‘adaptability factors’ that coastal lives can now count on.

But a new fear is looming on the horizon. This time the sea is creeping in on them. Like all the rest of the Ocean, the Bay of Bengal is rising, and at an alarming rate. Forecasts suggest it will rise 30 centimetres by 2030 and 50 by 2050.

‘There is a five-metre embankment in most coastal areas, initially built in the late 1960s and extended over the decades, which might provide some security against rising sea levels,’ explains Dr Ainun Nishat, an internationally recognized wetlands expert.

Sitting on the uthan (porch) of her mud hut, you wouldn’t know death was once here

‘But with increasing frequency of tidal surges, if there is a breach in these embankments thousands of acres will go under water. What is more dangerous is that even more land will become saline. Even if we increase the height of embankments, with lack of proper drainage sustained water-logging could boomerang into the bigger problem.’

‘Sea-level rise, in combination with local-level subsidence from the billions of tonnes of accumulated silt carried from the rivers up north, will allow salt water to inundate coastal low-lying lands,’ warns environmental scientist Dr Ansar Uddin Ahmed of the independent think-tank Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad. Many millions of lives and livelihoods are at risk as a result.

The coastal communities of Bangladesh, especially fishers, represent a stark, emblematic cross-section of lives lived by the sea. The Ocean is changing, and changing fast. Adapting to these changes involves accepting their reality and then taking action.

Mahfuz Sadique is a journalist and writer based in Dhaka. He can be reached at mahfuz.sadique@gmail.com

JIGSAW EARTH

The Earth’s crust is made up of plates that form a sort of giant, spherical jigsaw puzzle. The study of their tectonics (the word derives from the Greek for ‘carpenter’ or ‘builder’) has, since the 1960s, provided a unifying theory for the way continents and oceans develop. This has been made possible only by the exploration of the ocean floor.

PLATE TECTONICS

The plates are much thicker than the Earth’s crust itself, which is attached like wrinkled skin to the upper mantle. Together they form a relatively cool and rigid layer riding on a weaker, hotter, partially molten layer beneath it. They are not fixed in position, but are constantly moving – roughly at the rate at which human fingernails grow. Exactly how and why plates move remains unclear. But there is broad scientific consensus that convection currents within the mantle are largely responsible. Convection is the process that causes hotter and less dense material to rise, while cooler, denser material sinks – it is the same mechanism that sends smoke up a chimney and drives the ‘conveyor belt’ of ocean currents (see page 7).

Heat from the Earth’s core is the main engine driving convection in the mantle. Heat and pressure together make the ‘solid’ rocks of the outer layer of the mantle behave like a fluid that creeps and flows.

Along some of the boundaries between plates new crust is being added, while along others it is being lost or ‘subducted’.

New crust is created by the outpouring of volcanic basalt at mid-ocean ridges. This crust then begins a slow journey across the ocean floor, sinking as it cools. Crust destruction takes place where the edges of oceanic plates collide with continents and are forced underneath them. Immense stresses produce explosive volcanic eruptions, jagged young mountain ranges and deep trenches where plates plunge to destruction. The entire rim of the Pacific, the ‘Ring of Fire’, is marked by such zones.

New crust adopts the magnetic polarity of the Earth, which is known to have changed over time. So, through changes in the magnetic polarity of crust on the ocean floor, it is possible to track the movement of oceans and continents – back to the point, 250 million years ago, when there was a single super-continent, Pangea, and just one super-ocean, Panthalassa. As Pangea split in two, a new ocean, Tethys, was created and then disappeared, leaving slivers of rock from its former floor high in the Himalayas.

Quite what the jigsaw of Earth will look like in another 250 million years, no-one knows...

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