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The Blue Fig

Global warming seems to have a more severe impact on certain countries than others because it affects the world climate. An immediate effect of global warming is the increased natural disasters like storm surges and floods, while sea-level rise is slow yet inevitable.

Bangladesh, the world’s largest delta, is direct victim of global warming. Increased natural disasters like cyclones and oceanic tidal waves affect Bangladesh’s coastal area. The coastal lowlands of this country have millions who, ironically, depend on the sea for their livelihood. Thus, Bangladesh is one of the scapegoats of climate change, a direct function of global warming.

Bangladesh’s low-lying coastal areas are speculated to be submerged due to sea-level rise as the world temperature increases. Immediate natural calamities like cyclones and tidal floods worsen the situation. A BBC report says, “By the end of the century, sea levels are expected to rise along the Bangladesh coastline by up to 1.5m. And that will come with more extreme seasonal fluctuations in sea levels. Disastrous storms and unusually high tides currently occur once each decade but could become as regular as three to 15 times yearly by 2100. There may now be 100,000 people migrating yearly due to saltwater flooding” (Park 2019).

As rising sea levels and unusually high tidal waves encroach the lowlands of Bangladesh, the coastal areas face increased salinity. When the upstream water flows reduce drastically in the dry season, the saline water goes up to 240 kilometers inside the country and reaches distant regions. Agricultural activities and cropping strength have changed; farmers cannot grow various crops in a year. Food and work opportunities are getting reduced. Another factor that helps the continuous sustentation of salinity on the mainland is shrimp cultivation, which involves trapping seawater in agricultural lands for a long time.

In search of food, people around coastlines near Sundarbans have taken up a profession, catching excessively young shrimps from rivers and degrading the marine ecology and biodiversity. As the places around coastlines are affected by salinity due to climate change, people’s usual professions are replaced by alternatives to survive in hostile conditions.

Due to the lack of work opportunities, women have no choice but to catch baby shrimp from coastal rivers; they sell them in the local market. A significant number of agents work for big shrimp firms to buy those baby shrimps. However, consuming saline water harms the skin, menstruation, and, more seriously, an unborn child.

The increase of uterus cancer and infertility for both men and women around coastline areas are linked to salinity is being researched. Fishing communities in Bangladesh report that the availability of many local species has declined with the silting up of river beds, changes in temperature, and earlier flooding. Communities cope by selling labor, migrating, and borrowing money from lenders. The unemployment rate has increased as local peasants lose their job due to the scarcity of agricultural land.

Four families brought their remaining food storage to the table. They are fishermen living on an island adjacent to the Sundarbans forest in Bangladesh. They live in terrible conditions, as the river is constantly eroding, cyclones hitting yearly, and they are relocating to the surrounding islands. On the other hand, climate change and the impact of corona pandemic have taken their peace away.

Shrimp farming needs much less labor force than agriculture. As a result, many migrate to wealthier areas while others depend on Sundarbans’ forest resources. However, the Sundarbans’ help is limited, and their regenerative capabilities are slow. Shrimp farming in the coastal areas is a lucrative business. The increase in salinity is likely to jeopardize shrimp farming. For the last few decades, more and more attention has been given to sea fish and brackish water fisheries. Shrimp farmers occupy agricultural lands, and holes are dug from the damn illegally to bring and flow the saline water onto the mainland. It results in permanent soil salinity that affects the local ecosystem. Bangladesh is one of the top ten prawn producers in the world. Using chemicals and antibiotics for extensive farming in naturally flooded areas or artificially occupied lands makes the ecosystem disappear.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak has accelerated the climate crisis, including the social complexities among the communities across the Sundarbans. The fishermen community and the other resource-dependent communities of Sundarbans faced various challenges, especially the food crisis, as the supply chain in Bangladesh was interrupted due to the day-to-day lockdown and other restrictions. There was a prohibition from the government for a significant time to enter the Sundarbans forests, whereas many people were largely dependent on collecting forest resources. The climate adversity and the pandemic have forced people to the edge resulting in starvation in a vast area of Sundarbans.

β€œWhen my husband, Ruhul Amin Seikh, goes fishing, I wait for him by the river’s edge. Some days when I do not feel sick, I join him in our small boat. I can barely support my husband as I am aging and suffering from diseases. Our children are separated. They have their families and are no longer able to provide for us. The forest is no longer providing us with food. After spending hours in the river, my husband returns with a small number of fishes. We can hardly sell fish for 80 Taka (1 USD) daily. We starve or eat once as we grow older. Water is saltier than ever; our house is still broken after the cyclone, and now the corona is killing us. We have almost no food for the coming days. We remain hungry; we remain thirsty.β€œ – Fatema Khatun

“We are left with one bucket of rice and some vegetables for our twenty-one members’ family. Since the virus hit, we are no longer allowed to go fishing. I entered the jungle for only seven days in the last seven months. My sons are trying to work as laborers now. But there is very little work now. Our lands went into the river, and with every passing year, calamities are hitting us hard. There is little drinkable water left in the area, and now the devastation of this pandemic will kill us with food scarcity. Our children are hungry all the time. When again will we be able to eat a proper meal? We do not have any idea?” – Motiar Rahman Gazi

But this pandemic has hit this already vulnerable family in Ahsasuni at the Bay of Bengal. Their land is gone in the river, and their survival depends on their work for a living. The family has no way other than starving, but they are more concerned about how long.

“I started walking in the early morning. Before the sun sets, I return to our village. I walk mile after mile and sell homemade crackers. My husband died 35 years ago. My only daughter is severely ill, and her husband is bedridden too. If I can sell crackers, my family will have something to eat. I can hardly earn 100 Taka (USD 1.5) if I can walk the whole day. Some days I cannot move, my feet get swollen, and my eyes hurt. We are not afraid of the virus, but we fear hunger.” – Arati Biswas

“Six months ago, during cyclone Amphan I lost my cattle, all domestic animals. Since then, I have continued living in our wrecked house all alone. My children have left for the city to find a job. They could not manage to come since the lockdown. I started to raise animals again and protect them all the time. The river is coming close; I might lose my destroyed home any day. I used to work at people’s houses in return for food. When I could not assist with anything in household chores, I went fishing. There is no work in this locality; we hardly catch fish. I have little left to eat. How am I going to survive with so much struggle? I do not know.” – Helena Begum

“After eleven days of cyclone Amphan, my daughter was born. We had no electricity, no food, and no drop of drinking water. My husband could not go fishing in the river for the lockdown in coronavirus. Since then, my husband could hardly manage permission to enter the jungle. I got married when I was fifteen in the aftermath of another cyclone. Every year at least twice, our house has been destroyed in cyclones, tornados, or storms. We suffered terribly from drinking water as every year salinity is increasing. Now my husband and I eat once daily. During the lockdown, I hardly ate as there was no food. My youngest child is now six months old; she is severely underweight. What could we do? I have to first give food to my father-in-law and mother-in-law, who are in their nineties. And then I feed our children; if we have something left, my husband and I will have it. There is nothing in our food storage. We have one-kilogram rice, a few onions, garlic, and vegetable leaf for only today. I have nothing to cook tomorrow.” – Marzina Begum

“I collect firewood and sell from house to house. Most often, I get 100 Taka (USD1.5). I lost count of how many times the storm destroyed our house. My husband is a honey collector. Since the pandemic started, he could not be able to earn anything. My legs hurt from walking from miles to miles. But when there is no food at home, and the children are hungry, I continue to walk. If it continues like this, half of the inhabitants of Sundarbans will be hungry. Drinking water was scarce, and now we had no food at home. We are just dying slowly.” – Jaheda Begum

“I am the only earning member of my family. My husband left me. I live with my mother, who is in her sixties and cannot walk properly. We lost our home during cyclone Bulbul. Since then, for more than one year, we have been sheltering in a temporary house which is made of a Gol leaf. When six months ago cyclone Amphan hit, I thought of fleeing our village. If I catch fish, we will eat. Since corona, there is a restriction, and we cannot enter the forest like before. My family has nothing left to eat tomorrow. We are just surviving with little or no food.” – Fatima Banu

“We are starving today. Yesterday, we finished the only food we had. My husband searched for work even though it’s risky to go outside now. We heard the virus is dangerous, but we do not have any food. How can we wash our hands? I forgot when last time we ate something good. And now we do not have even half a plate of rice. If my husband does not return with food, I will go from door to door for my mother and son. Everyone is in crisis; getting a loan is impossible. Sometimes I wonder why we are suffering miserably. Our land is gone; the forest is shrinking. As far as we see, we cannot get drinkable water. Salinity will kill us someday. But until then, we have to find a way to live.” – Khuku Begum

Many moved to the nearest cities, trespassing the Bangladesh-India border at the Bay of Bengal. Silent climate migration is going on. The fairy tale of the king and his daughter teaches us that everything becomes tasteless without salt, even love. However, for climate refugees, this is not the case. ‘Salt’ made their life simply bitter; salt is the tragedy they are left with, on their lands and tears. The figs are the symbol of fertility and prosperity. Coastal areas are one of the best places to grow fig trees, but then it turns blue and leaves people around them in a permanent blue of life, hacking their lives.

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Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

Mohammad Rakibul Hasan is a Dhaka, Bangladesh-based documentary photographer, filmmaker, visual artist, and art educator. His work explores human rights, social development, politics, the… More »

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