ON the edge of the largest mangrove forest in the world, home of the famous royal Bengal tiger, I met Krishna Rani.
The rhythm of the tides of the Bay of Bengal, the ebb and flow of the river, and the fertility of this great golden delta have nurtured her through most of her peaceful life. On first impressions, the site of her home – on the shore of a river which dances with the glorious colours of the setting sun, in the cradle of the great Sundarbans – could be a cottage for tourists.
But when I listen to her story, the glamour glow of the Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) world heritage site and its tigers fades away, leaving a harsh and bitter story of negligence and domination of the powerful over the helpless.
In 2009, the great cyclone Aila sent waves crashing over embankments all over the southern coast of Bangladesh, taking lives and leaving people homeless. Krishna and her husband had enjoyed prosperity and security from the acres of padi fields around their home. But after Aila, the land’s fertility started to decline. It happened at a bad time. Her husband had just taken exorbitant loans to marry off their daughters – two in close succession. After the rains he took another loan to sow his next crop. The harvest was miserable.
The yields continued to decline, and the family never really recovered. Eventually they lost most of their land. Two of their sons moved on in search of a better life. Another stayed on to support them as best as he could, working as a day labourer in between eking what he could from the land they had left.
There were other signs of change. The water in the tube wells began to develop a salty hint. Krishna’s husband had aged quickly. Being irrecoverably indebted was harsh on him. He died a decade after Aila.
Krishna, who had lived well her whole life, had no way to deal with poverty. The conditions continued to decline. The water grew steadily worse, vegetables stopped growing in her yard, fish was increasingly difficult to find in the river. She developed an ache in her stomach.
The year after her husband died, their home was damaged by another great cyclone, Amphan. Recently, there have been terrible storms almost every year. She lives in fear of the embankment walls collapsing again.
The embankments grew weaker. Sometimes there was no protection against the tides. Last year, for several months, the high tide would invade her home twice a day. Now the embankments have been fixed, but a putrid water remains trapped inside, not far from her house. The same river which once brought security and luck now keeps reminding her of her loss.
Krishna has never been to the city. Her air-conditioner is the wind filtering through the mangroves. Her washing machine is a pond. There is no electricity in her kerosene-lit hut. She doesn’t need electricity or a high-tech lifestyle, or a washing machine, but she needs protection, assistance for adaptation and food security. She needs access to safe drinking water. She needs to grow vegetables for a balanced diet.
Her suffering makes me think, what’s her fault? What does she have to do with the enormous changes that have happened in her environment? What part has she played in the intensification of the storms and the salinisation of her soil? She has emitted zero carbon. But she is paying a hefty carbon tax. We are the ones who are responsible for her condition. Those at the COP26.
I’ve gone to COP26 because I really want to shout out at world leaders on her behalf.
For the last two and a half decades, the Conference of Parties has been dealing with the climate crisis. The negotiations go on and on. Meaningful decisions are few and far between. And it seems we have even given up trying to find a solution for loss and damage. Even though there are plenty of funds that exist on paper at the international and national levels, bureaucracy hinders access to them. These funds should not follow commercial banking protocols, they should follow a humanitarian protocol that should be easy to access. Only 10% of climate funding makes its way to the people who really need it.
Meanwhile, Krishna continues to live in pain. She represents 13.3 million people from the coastal regions of Bangladesh who are at risk of being forced out of their homes by 2050 due to salinity, sea level rise and other adverse impacts of climate change. There is no legal platform where she can claim her rights. And there is nobody to take up her issues seriously.
National and global governance needs to be refined to address this new crisis. National and international legal frameworks must be reviewed periodically to respond to emerging climate issues. Pronouncements made at international climate conferences should be accessible to the masses.
One in every seven people in Bangladesh is at risk of displacement by 2050 due to climate change. All these people are being traumatised. Policymakers and scientists must work together to find which populations will be affected, and to find solutions.
I want to say these things at COP26. Let political leaders continue their negotiations and dialogue. At the same time, all of us – individuals, nations and corporations, with whatever power we have – need to maximise our effort to make sure the suffering, loss and damage of Krishna Rani is addressed. It should not be treated as a local issue but a global one.
In the meantime, there are plenty of adaptation solutions at the local level that have to be implemented effectively. The world can see and learn from these local solutions, inherited and refined over generations through indigenous knowledge and lived experiences. Local people and ecosystems managed to coexist for centuries. They need patronisation in a structured manner.
This world should not tolerate suffering when we know the reason for it. We should anticipate and prevent it. Instead of statecraft and strategy, deals and treaties, it should be humanitarian values and obligations that should drive climate action, based on the ability of each nation. Climate action goes beyond responsibility. It’s an obligation. – Daily Star/Asia News Network
Kazi Amdadul Hoque is the senior director of strategic planning and head of Climate Action at Friendship, a Bangladeshi social purpose organisation.