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Bangladesh: A nation in fear of drowning

Ann McFerran, a journalist who visited Bangladesh with Concern, discusses the link between poverty and climate change in an article for the UK's The Independent newspaper.

The once lush island of Aralia is disappearing under rising waters as flooding becomes more frequent, temperatures increase and disease kills four people a month.

Shamola Begum will never forget the way her son cried in the last days of his life. Nine-year-old Masuk had always been a sickly child, but before he died he'd pleaded: "Mother, I need food." But Shamola often only had a little rice to feed him; nothing more.

Shamola, 30, lives with her family on a shrinking silt island called Aralia in north-east Bangladesh. When her eldest son began vomiting violently, Shamola took him to the only pharmacist on Aralia. The pharmacist knew that Shamola had little money for food, let alone for medical care, so he took mother and child to the nearest hospital, a three-hour boat ride away. Halfway through the journey, Masuk's body suddenly turned heavy in his mother's lap. The child was dead. Shamola fainted from shock, and then she cried and cried, tormenting herself for not having enough food for him to eat.

When they returned to Aralia Shamola sent a message to her husband in Dhaka, where he works as a day labourer so he can send home 400 taca a month, about £4. But before Masuk's father arrived home, the dead child had been wrapped in a cloth and buried in the mangrove swamp at one end of the island. Masuk's father was angry. Children in Bangladesh often die from sickness, but he would have liked to bury his son with his own hands.

Aralia is one of Bangladesh's thousands of islands made of silt from constant flooding. About 30-metres wide and just over a kilometre long, Aralia has a population of nearly 4,000 people who live in tiny houses made of clay and bamboo, with barely room to walk between them. As one mother said, they live too close to quarrel.

Why did Masuk die? Poverty is the obvious answer. Masuk was brought up in extreme poverty in a remote part of the developing world, with pitifully little access to the kind of health care we take for granted.

But when you talk to Shamola and her older relations other reasons emerge, and a rather different picture begins to take shape. Survival for the poorest of the world's poor, for people like Shamola and her family, is becoming increasingly precarious, as last week's report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detailed, in preparation for the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm in June. Unpredictable climatic conditions, combined with poverty and the constant damp and humid squalor mean that today a malnourished Bangladeshi child like Masuk stands less chance of leading a healthy life than ever before.

It is hard to gauge the exact extent of the local devastation caused by climate change because severe flooding and catastrophic river erosion are part of every day life in rural Bangladesh. But the island of Aralia, in the Haor flood plain of north-east Bangladesh has, in the past 50 years, diminished to a fifth of its size, according to its older residents Ask anyone over 40 about the island of their childhoods and they describe fertile fields, green trees and animals, an island of plenty, where children grew up healthy and went to school. Today, Shamola's misfortunes are becoming the norm as flooding and river erosion become ever more common. Non-government agencies working with Bangladesh's poor, as well as scientists throughout the world, are convinced that climate change is to blame for the dramatic increase in this flooding.

With a population of 150 million, Bangladesh is the world's most densely populated country. A series of straddling deltas of some of the world's biggest rivers, Bangladesh is at risk not only from rising sea levels, but the increased flow of water caused by more rain and glacial melt from the Himalayas. At this rate of flooding and erosion, 20 per cent of Bangladesh could be under water by 2100. All this despite the average Bangladeshi using just one tenth of the carbon emissions of any European, and one 25th of the average citizen of the United States.

And the people whose lives are most catastrophically affected by this flooding and erosion are, inevitably, the poorest and most vulnerable. As Nazmul Chadhury, of the UK's Practical Action, says: "Forget about making poverty history; climate change will make poverty permanent.'' Climate change may not immediately cause life-threatening catastrophe for the very poor and vulnerable, but when you visit Shamola and her neighbours on the island of Aralia you see that they are, statistically, inextricably linked.

Shamola lives with her remaining five children, all under 12, in her aunt's one-room house. The room measures about two by four metres, and it's impossible to imagine what feat of geometry enables five children and three adults to sleep here at night. But somehow they do. Shamola's mother, Aysha Begum, says that the island was once a good place for a family. "There was no poverty or hunger," she says. "We were healthy and strong. We ate milk and butter."

Everything began to change about 20 years ago, after the l988 flood virtually wiped out the entire population of the island. Then, in 2004, many people who had rebuilt their lives on the island lost their homes. "That's where our house used to be," says Shamola, pointing into the muddy waters, quite close to the mangrove swamp where her son is buried. In the past 20 years, she adds, the flooding has become more extreme and the island was continually eroded. At the same time, sickness has increased among the old and young. Poor diet is one reason for the increased sickness; a sanitation system collapsing under the numbers who use it is another. The islanders use "hanging" toilets, perilous contraptions made from bamboo which hang from the backs of houses, like "long drops", over the water's edge. Cholera, typhoid, severe gastric problems, conjunctivitis, blindness and stunted growth are some of the many health problems derived from malnutrition and appalling sanitation.

Aysha says: "So many children and adults now are a bit sick all the time, it's only when we get really sick we think of ourselves as sick. But even then we're too poor to afford a doctor.'' According to Aysha, about four people, usually children, die every month from sickness, and this number is growing. But Aysha thinks there's another reason. In the past few years, the sun has been hotter than ever. "This year it's caused blisters on the children's and babies' skin. I don't remember it ever being as hot as this. But maybe that's because the island used to be green and we could sit under the shade of the trees.''

Alaha is a tall handsome woman in her 40s, whose husband died six years ago of a mysterious illness. With five children and no income, Alaha wasn't sure how she'd manage but through the island's women's group, which is supported by Concern Worldwide, she worked as a caretaker on a tree project, which pays her £7 a month. After her husband's death, Alaha made friends with a woman called Rabanu. "She was the sort of friend you could rely on to help with your children," says Alaha. But then, in the flood of 2004, Rabanu was swept away. Alaha points to where this happened. After her friend had drowned, Alaha cried for several days. "But I have to get over my sorrow," she says. "People on this island have to fight these kinds of things all the time.''

As we stand staring into the muddy waters, a woman appears, dishevelled and sopping wet, throwing water over her face. Alaha dismisses her abruptly. "That's Anzura," she says. "She's crazy. She refuses to live with her husband." It wasn't clear whether Alaha felt the two were connected, although the implication was certainly there. Then the "crazy" woman leaned forward to offer me what looked like a brown oily nut, which I was told was betel nut. Alaha told me to decline. "It will give you a bad headache," she said. "Has Anzura always been like this?'' I ask. Alaha considers. "Maybe it's the water that makes her crazy," she said.

For many of Aralia's islanders the cyclones, flooding and increasing temperatures were a divine punishment. Sereena Aklet, 25, says that when she lost two of her four children in the 2004 floods, she promised Allah that she wouldn't ask for anything ever again if only she could find them. But now she says: "I can understand Allah giving a punishment to people who do bad things. But I still don't understand why Allah is punishing innocent children." Sereena Aklet's belief system and that of most islanders is based around a wise but sometimes punitive god who metes out punishments of severe flooding. Today, scientists believe that this flooding is caused by global warming. What the IPCC's recent report makes clear is that climate change is making the lives of Shamola and her family increasingly marginal. Soon, like the precarious islands of silt, the basis of their existence will simply be washed away.

If you walk across the length and breadth of the island, braving the often sudden violent rain storms or the gales of hot wind, you wonder what's happened to the men. Ask to see the island's school teacher or doctor, and you will be told that there is neither, although there used to be both. The school stands empty and the pitifully stocked pharmacist's shop is the nearest thing to a clinic. There are still fishermen, however, with stories of dwindling fish stocks, and far less variety, and how the government had sold off fishing rights to rich land owners. But most men are absent because they're in big cities such as Dhaka and Sylhet, working as labourers or rickshaw drivers, for about 100 taca a day (about £1). Later, in Dhaka, I talked to some such men living in a garage dormitory, working to send money back to their families. They said their fathers rarely had to work in the big cities, as they are now forced to do. For one man it was all down to population growth: "My father had five sons; each of his sons had five sons. Now there are 25 men in our family. That's why today there's not enough food for people to eat, or space for so many to live."

Back on Aralia, Sirafut Islam, 62, said he had decided to stay. He recalls an ideal childhood with land outside his house where cattle grazed. In l971, he fought as a freedom fighter in Bangladesh's War of Liberation and sold everything to fund his eldest son to work in Kuwait. Today the son sends money back and sometimes he comes home, with presents for everyone.

Once Sirafut Islam placed his faith in Bangladesh's liberator, Sheik Mujeeb. Today he says he has no time for politics or politicians. "Politicians came to see us before elections, but nobody does anything for people like us.'' But he doesn't believe he is being punished by Allah. "When I was a child, there was a cool breeze in the rainy season and shade from the trees. Now the trees have been cut down, it's hot all the time and the flooding is more destructive. Why has this happened?'' He answers his own question by pointing to the inside of his hut. "I listen to my radio,'' he says. "And I hear how in other places, just like ours, there aren't forests any more. But I also hear how factories, planes, cars and power pumps make bad gases. I've heard about greenhouse gases and I know they are harming the land and the air. What is happening to us is not because of Allah, but because of people who are causing these gases for the sake of their own bellies without thinking of what they're doing.''

With that, Sirafut Islam's mobile phone rings and his face lights up. His son is calling from Kuwait. He walks down to the beach so he can best hear the son who will never have to raise his own children on Aralia, because he is a construction worker in Kuwait. But Sirafut Islam is undeterred. "No matter what happens, Aralia is my home. I won't go unless I'm washed away."