Photos and story by Shuvroneel Sagar
Check out the photo series part one: Climate change's devastating toll: Salinity's impact on coastal women's health in Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s location has made it one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. According to German Watch's Global Climate Index, Bangladesh is the 7th most affected country in the world, with related economic losses of 12 billion USD in the last 40 years. The people of the coastal areas of Bangladesh face more disasters such as salinity, floods, cyclones, river erosion and thunderstorms than others. Bangladesh’s coastal area is considerable. About 29 percent of the country’s population live in the coastal areas (Ahmad, 2019). The southern region of the country lies just 2 metres above sea level. Climate change due to natural and human-induced factors is a significant cause of sea-level rise, contributing to salinity intrusion.
Note: Salinity is the concentration of salt, mainly sodium chloride, in water or soil. It is measured in parts per thousand (ppt) or parts per million (ppm). Salinity levels can affect the suitability of water for drinking, agriculture, and aquatic life, making it a critical factor in environmental and agricultural management.
Before diving into the current reality and sufferings, a brief geographical context is important to help understand the issue's importance. In the 19 coastal districts, almost all areas are affected by moderate to severe levels of salinity, which has increased in the last five years due to the impacts of several cyclones in a small area (Kabir et al., 2016). Satkhira district is one of the severe saline-affected regions of Bangladesh. It is bounded by the Jashore district to the north, the Bay of Bengal to the south, the Khulna district to the east, and the Indian district of 24 Parganas to the west. The district is divided into seven upazilas (administrative units) and Shyamnagar Upazila is adjacent to the Sundarbans. Three unions (a smaller administrative unit) of this upazila, namely Gabura, Burigoalini and Padmapukur, were particularly affected by salinity after cyclones Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009 (Rezoyana et al., 2023).
As these unions make up one of Bangladesh's most climate change-stressed and vulnerable areas, people, especially women, face multi-dimensional impacts. The most important of those are food and livelihood insecurity as well as drinking and fresh water, which also connect to many other problems.
The main occupation of the coastal people is agriculture and fishing. Rice is the main crop and staple food for the people of Bangladesh. After the cyclones Sidr and Aila hit the southern part, the salinity in that area increased radically, and farmers saw their yield of Aman rice fall in the following years (Rabbani et al., 2013). At least 70 per cent of agricultural land on the south coast is affected by different degrees of soil and water salinity (Ziaul & Zaber, 2013).
"People in low-lying, salination-prone areas are trying to cope in various ways,” said Abdur Rashid Khan, a local farmer who had to convert to working on a crab farm. “They are trying to cultivate a crop, white fish, where the high saline areas like Gabura has no choice except shrimp farming. Shrimp culture is one of the few viable livelihoods [using salt water] and allows for instant money earning, so it influences farmer to allow the saline water in agricultural land and do shrimp cultivation, which is rapidly decreasing the crop production in the land."
Another worker, Abdul Alim, said: "With the illegal water channel [locally known as switch gate], they directly divert salty water from the river to shrimp farm. You will see this everywhere, and it is responsible for increasing the salinity in the agricultural land. The problem related to salinity was not much when most of the land was used for rice cultivation by fresh water [15 or 20 years ago]."
Politically powered and wealthy farmers have taken control of the shrimp farming process. They compelled the farmers to give up their lands for shrimp cultivation, and the number of landless people has increased. Salinity has affected mostly the agriculture-based livelihood, according to locals.
Because of unstable occupations due to rising levels of salinity, people of this area have to rely upon two or more livelihood options for a living. A study shows that the livelihood of 63 per cent of people has been changed due to the increased salinity. The conditions have driven many people to change livelihoods two to three times in the last 10 years (Rezoyana et al., 2023).
A deep relation exists between salinity, livelihood and food insecurity. Shrimp cultivation is profitable, but only benefits some, while labourers who have no land are deprived and suffer from food crises. The decline in agriculture also contributes to higher rice prices. People among the three unions spoke of the high price of essential goods, including rice. Before salinity, most people were able to grow most of the rice for their own households. Now this is not possible, and they can only eat the rice they can afford to buy commercially. Thus, livelihood and food insecurity harshly affect the overall socio-economic mechanism, causing psycho-social crises, illegal activities, etc.
Here, another vital thing that people mentioned when spoken to was that many people from these areas migrate to urban or other areas for jobs and shelter. Migrants previous working in rice cultivation or other agricultural labour, when outside their home unions primarily end up working as day labourers, rickshaw puller or garment workers. Men who go to work outside in brickfields or in small factories making garments, etc., usually have to stay six to nine months. Most of them are married and have children in their home areas, but mostly re-marry in their new working areas and leave their previous families.
Lack of work opportunities and loss of homes or land by natural disasters are forcing people to leave for their safety, livelihood, and food security. Farmer Dinbandhu Mondal, 57, said that about 20 families are leaving every year from his union of Padmapukur.
"I lost my home and land by river erosion,” fisherman Nur Mohammad (52) described, despair in his voice. “Nowhere to go with my family of seven members. We are temporarily staying beside this dam on the [Kholpetua] river but don't know how many days we can stay due to upcoming cyclones and floods. We are still in so many sufferings. If the government gives us a safe place to stay, it would be a great help."
He relocated here from the town of Protapnagar four years earlier. According to the World Health Organization, more than 7.1 million Bangladeshis were displaced by climate change in 2022, which could reach 13.3 million by 2050.
Now is the moment to stand with Nur Mohammad, and with all the coastal people and climate migrants who bear the brunt of our planet's changing climate. Their plea is simple yet profound: for strong, sustainable infrastructure, access to clean water, and the preservation of their way of life. The decision should be simple: support them in paving the path toward a future that is safer and more resilient, not as a privilege but as a basic human right.
In the midst of this struggle, the voice of Majeda, an 80-year-old climate migrant, echoes through the salty air, "We have lost our land and homes. I cannot see properly. No one is here to look after me. I have a daughter left by her husband with two children. She is also struggling a lot to feed her kids. She doesn't get many opportunities to see me as she goes from one place to another to find work as a day labourer. Our suffering knows no bounds."
"People helped me to build this house, and I am residing on the bank of this river. Us older people suffer most during the rainy season when the river overflows. Somehow, I am passing the days with the help of the local people as I cannot work. Don't know how many days I can survive like this," she added hopelessly.
Shuvroneel Sagar (aka Harunur Rashid Sagar) has a professional background in communication, photography and journalism, with more than six years of experience in leading media outlets and agencies in Bangladesh and India before transitioning to the development sector. His passion for creative writing and photography enriches his role as a Communication and Project Officer at FES Bangladesh, where he contributes his experience and creativity to drive positive change for sustainable futures.
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