Travelling by seaplane to Koyra, in the delta area of Bangladesh, was the equivalent of a journey some years into the future, when the devastating effects of climate change will be an accepted reality worldwide. We landed in an area still devastated by cyclone "Aila" which hit Bangladesh in 2009. A huge amount of once cultivated land was still under water, because of daily tidal fluctuations and the fact that some embankments had not been mended in the nearly two years since Aila.
I spoke to one woman, living with her husband and son in a tiny shack on a narrow embankment they shared with other families who all had to move there when their homes were destroyed. She looked much older than the mother of a seventeen-year-old, and had a resigned, desperate expression as she pointed to the flooded area where she had once had a decent home and small farm. "We are waiting" she said, "It is two years now, and nothing has happened. We cannot go home."
Together with my BRAC hosts, I was driven to meet local farmers and fishermen and women. BRAC has a big program in Koyra covering education, and advice on climate resilience to over a thousand villages, including training on how to adapt their livelihoods to cope with the brackish, salinated water that has covered their farmlands and traditional fresh water fishing.
We stopped at a large, recently cultivated area to speak with local farmers. They told me how they were growing maize for the first time, as it is able to grow on brackish land, and different varieties of rice which are salt tolerant. I was encouraged to ask questions, which when translated, were answered with a sense of pride. "Yes, we are glad to have new crops to plant. We can now feed our own families".
Further on, I watched a man standing waist-high in a fenced off area of salinated water. He was feeding fish to crabs to fatten them and getting a good economic return from selling the crabs. BRAC had helped to develop a market elsewhere for the crabs and explained that the local Muslims did not eat crab, so it was Hindus such as this farmer who had developed the crab fattening skills. Fortunately, this did not seem to cause any inter-religious tension.
Later I spoke with a group of women, who with their husbands had adapted their fishing skills away from traditional fresh water fishing to fishing for tilapia, a small salt tolerant fish. They had benefitted from training on how best to manage the fish stocks and ensure sustainability. Again, I was encouraged to ask questions, and like their male counterparts the women were happy to discuss the way they had had to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Yes, they liked the fish to eat, and now they were beginning to have a small income again.
As we drove, I noted similar projects for families living on embankments which were supported by other NGOs, and I was shown some latrines provided by Concern. There were women working to build smaller "bolders" as the embankments are called, and men carrying heavy stones on their heads to help construct a roadway into more flooded parts, all work schemes for local people.
However, I was struck by the absence of effective local authority planning and action. When I raised this with a local authority official, who had been invited to join BRAC colleagues at their local center for a working lunch, he shrugged his shoulders at the immensity of the task and referred to the lack of local authority resources. Bangladesh is a least developed country (LDC) which has become the leading LDC negotiator on climate change issues. Its contribution to the problem of green house gas emissions is negligible, but the additional burden of climate change is already being felt. Officials in Dhaka predict that 20 million people may have to leave this region if the global temperature increases by more than 2° Celsius and sea levels rise as predicted. There is nothing theoretical about the climate change issue from this local viewpoint. The injustice of a poor LDC country having to bear huge additional costs from climate impacts it did not contribute to is self evident.
A memorable stop on my visit was to a local primary school run by BRAC. It was organized on the same principles as a BRAC school I had visited the day before in Korail slum, the largest slum in Dhaka. The schools have 30 plus pupils and one teacher, who teaches these children the five year curriculum in four years, through intensive participation and teacher commitment. These are boys and girls who would not otherwise go to school, and their ages differed as a result. I was struck about how enabling the atmosphere was in both the slum school and the local school, full of creativity and a sense of enjoyment of the work and play. In the school in Koyra the children enacted with great gusto -- and acting skills -- how climate change may happen. One of the taller boys acted as the tree which the others cut down, even though warned not to. The winds came, and the consequences were played out -- they all knew where the climate shelter was! As I watched with a grandmother's eye, it struck me that every primary school around the world should be beginning to bring home to children what we must all do to change our habits. Every school needs to be a "green school", so that children can educate their parents. For some it will be knowing where the nearest climate shelter is. For others -- in the developed world -- it will be learning to reuse, reduce, recycle, eat less meat, and travel by public transport, among other ideas.
I watched representatives of two villages receiving disaster preparedness training provided by BRAC. The main method of instruction was to form small groups who discussed together, and then acted out their response to an early warning of the danger from cyclone or sea surge. What they were learning about disaster risk reduction will become ever more important as climate change aggravates the risk.
We took another small trip in our seaplane, to the immense excitement and pleasure of the crowds of children and villagers who saw us off and a similar group crowded around when we landed again in the water 10 kilometers away! This time I was shown two different types of climate resilient houses developed by the architectural department of BRAC University. The approach to the design was participatory -- amongst architects and engineers, home owners, carpenters and masons, to arrive at a combination of skills where the knowledge of each of the participants was optimized. The first "test" house was on concrete stilts, made of local wood and roofed by local tiling. It looked distinctive as we approached by boat, and sturdy. But it was also quite costly for local people. The other "test" house was constructed entirely from local affordable materials, on the theory that if it was destroyed in a particularly bad cyclone or tidal surge, it could be rebuilt relatively easily. The locals seemed divided on which house they preferred but the younger women I asked opted for the house on stilts.
The journey back to Dhaka in our seaplane took 50 minutes. I was told the journey could take from 36 to 40 hours by road. I was not the only passenger who nodded off en route, and as I did, I was thinking of the resilience of the local people I had met. I was struck by their sense of pride in learning to adapt to worsening environmental conditions, and the admirable way in which BRAC empowers communities in all aspects of its work.