New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 23 Jul 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

The Gathering Storm: What Happens When Global Warming Turns Millions of Destitute Muslims Into Environmental Refugees?


By George Black

 

By the end of the first day, it's already become an ingrained reflex: brace for impact as yet another suicidal rickshaw, luridly painted with pictures of birds, animals, and Bollywood stars, swerves suddenly into our path. Our driver bangs on the horn, shimmies to the right, avoids an onrushing bus by a matter of inches, then calmly resumes his navigation of the demented streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. I relax my death grip on the dashboard and exhale. Mostafizur Rahman Jewel, our translator, raises an eyebrow in amusement.

 

"No problem," I say, feigning nonchalance. "Piece of cake."

 

"Piece of cake?"

 

"It's slang. Something really easy, no sweat. Like not killing that rickshaw-wallah. How do you say that in Bangla?"

 

"Panir moto shohoj," he answers. "Easy like water."

 

Easy like water. This is ironic, to say the least, because water, from the rivers, from the ocean, from the ground, is this country's existential curse. Bangladesh and its 150 million people -- the world's seventh-largest population, compressed into an area the size of Iowa -- have somehow contrived to have too much water, too little water, and more and more water of the wrong kind.

 

The long-range apocalypse facing the country is global warming and the accelerating sea-level rise that will accompany it. Think of the computer-generated image midway through Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which shows an inexorable blue wave engulfing a great swath of coastal Bangladesh. But while the Four Horsemen gather their forces, the daily short-term menace is the steady northward creep of salt from the Bay of Bengal. Today the land is saturated with people; little by little it is also becoming saturated with salt.

 

It all begins with topography. In his novel The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh, who grew up in Bangladesh, recounts the Hindu legend of how the Ganges Delta was formed. The goddess Ganga, from whom the river takes its name, descended from the heavens with such force that she would have split the earth apart had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent by weaving it into the ash-covered strands of his hair. But then his braids unravelled and the river divided into thousands of channels. Now consider the map of Bangladesh, where three formidable rivers -- the Brahmaputra, the Meghna, and the Ganges (known, once it crosses the Indian border, as the Padma) -- converge to form a vast, tangled delta that I will spend a week exploring with the photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, half on water and half on land. There is no other landscape like it on the planet.

 

Bangladesh's problem, like Lord Shiva's hair, has many strands. All three of its great rivers rise in the Himalayas, from which they carry a huge load of sediment, made worse in recent years by the deforestation of the Himalayan foothills. Because Bangladesh is as flat as a pool table, most of it no more than a few feet above sea level, the flow of its rivers is sluggish. Riverbeds clog with silt and water levels rise; shorelines erode, swallowing up farmland; islands of sand and mud form, disperse, reform elsewhere. From May to November, the monsoons blanket the country with torrential rain, pushing the rivers over their banks, driving people from their homes, drowning them. Some years Bangladesh is lucky and only a third of its territory is flooded. Sometimes it's half; sometimes it's two-thirds or more.

 

However, try asking the millions of people in the Ganges Delta if they have too much water -- at least of the kind they can use. Over the last few centuries, the natural course of the sacred river has shifted eastward, redirecting the surge of freshwater that used to dilute the salt inflow from the Bay of Bengal. Siltation has compounded the problem, closing off major rivers such as the Mathabangha, the Bhairab, and the Sialmari, which once channelled much of the flow of the Ganges to the Indian Ocean. Then in 1970, India made things worse by building a diversion dam across the Ganges at Farraka, a few miles short of the border. Indian engineers did this to increase the flow of water into the Hooghly River, which runs through Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata, the old capital of the raj. Their purpose was twofold: to provide a reliable supply of drinking water to the city and to flush out the silt that threatened to block navigation. Each of these natural and man-made changes has deepened Bangladesh's freshwater crisis, as not only the main distributaries but also many of the smaller rivers and channels that used to thread through the Ganges Delta have dried up and disappeared.

 

It gets worse. There's also the scourge that comes from the other direction, from the Bay of Bengal, in the form of catastrophic floods and cyclones. (One cyclone in 1970 killed 300,000 people; in 1991, another 138,000 died.) And here's another cruel twist: beginning in the 1960s, Bangladesh constructed a huge web of dikes and embankments to protect against flooding. But these have had a perverse effect. A solid wall of earth may stop the rivers from inundating valuable farmlands, but at the same time it blocks drainage on the land side, and that increases flooding and water-logging. The problem will only worsen with climate change, with heavier monsoon rainfall on the fields and fiercer storm surges on the river. It's a classic double whammy.

 

Simply put, no country in the world will face greater devastation from global warming, and nowhere will the potential political fallout be harder to manage. Millions of people will be permanently displaced, made into environmental refugees. The great majority of them will be destitute Muslims, and in that regard it's hard not to recall a videotaped message from Osama bin Laden in late 2007, in which he added global warming to the list of plagues that Western countries have inflicted on the Islamic world. Put all this together and, without being alarmist, you can't help but wonder if all these dots may not, over time, begin to join up.

 

So how bad will it be? How quickly will it happen? And what can we do to stop it? On my second morning in Dhaka, I put these questions to Mozaharul Alam, a senior climate expert at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, the country's leading think tank on environmental issues.

 

The air-conditioned offices, where rows of scholarly heads are bent over computer keyboards, offer some relief from the heat and turmoil of the Dhaka streets. Alam -- Babu to his friends -- is a dapper, good-natured man with a neatly trimmed moustache. He chooses his words with care. We toss around some of the numbers that are out there -- the percentage of territory that will be permanently lost, the magnitude of sea-level rise, the mounting intensity of monsoons and cyclones, the number of people who will be driven from their homes.

 

Alam says he always prefers to err on the side of caution. Climate modelling remains an imprecise science, and some of the projections may be overstated. The government's chief adviser, the prime minister in all but name, has talked of 25 million environmental refugees. That's probably an exaggeration, Alam thinks.

 

As for the disappearing land, "It's hard to say. Personally I'm not in favour of the language of 'permanent loss.' The hydrological dynamics of this country are very complex, and it hasn't been easy in the past for the models to incorporate things like local rainfall patterns and the infrastructure that's already in place to protect against floods."

 

We look at a wall map together, tracing a route through the vulnerable coastal regions that I'm planning to visit.

 

"But the bottom line?" I insist. "The most conservative estimate of how much of Bangladesh is going to be permanently submerged?"

 

He thinks about it. "Well, at the moment the sea level is rising at about three millimetres a year" -- a little more than one-tenth of an inch -- "but that's going to get worse. The current projections deal with three grades of sea-level rise -- 30 centimetres, 75 centimetres, one meter." He pauses. "Under the most benign of these three scenarios, there's going to be a permanent loss of 12 percent to 15 percent of our surface area, with a present population of five million to seven million." (The United Nations, it's worth noting, projects that by 2015 the country's population will grow by almost a quarter. So make that upper number closer to nine million.)

 

And that's the most benign scenario.

The fishing village of Chandpai has a problem tiger. It began by killing animals, 60 of them in the course of a few months -- goats, dogs, cattle. Then it killed an old woman, dragging her from her hut while she slept. And then, late last year, another victim: a man gathering fodder for his livestock at the forest's edge. Chandpai is the first stop in our weeklong journey to the far south, where the maps and the numbers and the projections will give way to real places and real people. And the tiger attacks on the village, we will discover, offer a kind of Bangladeshi environmental parable.

 

The village sits on a precarious promontory only a few feet above mean tide level, at the gateway to the Sundarbans forest. (There is some disagreement about the origin of the name, but most people think it means the forest of sundri trees -- the predominant species, which yields valuable red-coloured timber, much favored for building fishing boats.) Some 3.5 million people live on the fringes of the Sundarbans, which straddle the India-Bangladesh border and form the largest contiguous expanse of mangroves in the world, covering more than 2,300 square miles.

 

For those who live in villages like Chandpai, the impenetrable mass of vegetation acts as a vital buffer against the fury of the cyclones that gather their strength from the Bay of Bengal. But in contrast to the rest of this overstuffed country, the Sundarbans themselves are free of human habitation, except for a few scattered patrol posts where government-appointed forest guards keep an eye out for illegal loggers, fishermen without permits, and dacoits, or river pirates.

 

The forest floor is three to six feet above sea level, and the tide inundates it twice a day. With a sea-level rise of 45 centimetres -- about 18 inches, which is at the conservative end of the most recent projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- three-quarters of the Sundarbans would be permanently lost. Sixty-seven centimetres (about 26 inches) and the entire forest is gone, obliterating not only that precious defence against cyclones but also one of the richest natural gene pools in the world. The Sundarbans are home to 334 species of plants, 186 birds, 53 reptiles, 222 different finfish, and 100 shellfish. The rarest creatures of all are the gigantic and endangered estuarine crocodile, of which no more than 200 survive, and the Bengal tiger, which numbers between 300 and 400. One of them is now frightening the wits out of the people of Chandpai.

 

Long before dawn I'm awakened by the grating clank of our anchor chain being raised. I roll over in my cramped bunk, lift the flap of the mosquito net, and squint at the illuminated dial of my alarm clock: 4:15. On the shore, half a mile away, Chandpai is beginning to stir; the first lights are already on, accompanied by the soft putt putt of a generator. Then the Bonbibi's engine kicks into life, coughing once or twice before settling into a loud, steady throb.

 

The little motor launch chugs slowly down the Passur River toward the Bay of Bengal. As the red orb of the sun rises above the treetops, I'm joined on deck by one of the two brown-uniformed forest guards who are along for our protection. He carries an ancient rifle, complete with bayonet and loaded with 40-year-old bullets; later we learn that there's about a one-in-four chance the weapon will fire successfully if we should encounter a tiger. Next to me on the bench seat is the copy of Heart of Darkness that my son insisted I pack, and Conrad's Congo comes easily to mind as the Bonbibi cuts its way through the mud-brown water, the dense tangle of forest.

 

A 20-foot crocodile, brutally armoured, sunbathes on a mud-bank. A troop of rhesus monkeys cavorts along a narrow beach. Spotted deer and wild boar browse in the shadows. At the junction of two larger rivers, a pod of rare Gangetic dolphins breaks surface. Several species of kingfisher -- blue-eared, black-capped, brown-winged, white-collared -- make sudden flashes of colour in the lower branches of the mangroves. Gigantic, endangered adjutant storks prowl the shoreline on their spindly legs. Brahmini kites and sea eagles glide overhead. No tigers -- though later, near the remote forest post of Kotka, we will hike along an unnerving forest trail and see paw prints, dried-up scat, and deep claw marks in a tree, six feet above the ground.

 

The Bengal tiger has always been an object of terror. The male can weigh 500 pounds or more and reach 10 feet in length. During the spring tides it may pick fights with crocodiles. It can swim as far as five miles in search of prey and it can climb into fishing boats.

 

The Bonbibi is named for the goddess of the Sundarbans, who is believed to control the tiger's movements. In certain villages on the edge of the forest, Bonbibi is depicted as a Hindu goddess wearing a green or blue sari and seated on a howling tiger, her countenance peaceful and serene. Next to her, her brother, Shajangali, carries a club to drive away the tiger. He is dressed, in one scholar's description, "like a member of the Muslim gentry." This intermingling of religious traditions is typical of Bengal.

 

Many of those who venture into the forest to make their tenuous living -- the fishermen, woodcutters, and honey collectors -- will conduct elaborate rituals before they leave home, imploring Bonbibi to protect them. Anthropologists have documented ceremonies in which a variety of ritual objects are gathered and offered to the goddess -- conch-shell bangles, vermilion, scraps of red cloth, green coconuts, earthen pots, sweetmeats, hemp, incense. In the Indian section of the Sundarbans, there was a brief experiment in which forest workers tried wearing a mask on the back of the head -- the idea being to confuse the tiger, which likes to attack from behind. There is no evidence that this, or the prayers to Bonbibi, or any other protective measures, have made any difference.

 

Official reports say that several dozen people fall victim to the tigers each year. But many more deaths go unreported. The honey collectors, the mowalis, are especially vulnerable. They come here for two months each year, in April and May, pursuing the rock bees that swarm south from the Himalayas in search of the nectar-bearing flowers of the holly mangrove (Acanthus ilicifolius) and the river mangrove (Aegiceras corniculata). Once the mowalis have paid the forest service for their permits and given the forest guards and government officials their cut, each man may bring back 200 pounds or more of honey. That will fetch about 5,000 takas, or close to $75, for two months of unthinkably dangerous work. (The annual per capita income in Bangladesh is $520.) The mowalis work singly or in pairs, deep in tiger territory. Their presence is especially disruptive at this time of year, since the cubs are only a couple of months old and are still in their dens. The first attacks, then, are likely to be defensive, but the kill will convert the tiger from a "circumstantial" to a "dedicated" man-eater.

 

The mowalis, their fellow villagers, and the forest guards all agree that the tigers have become more aggressive of late, more willing to enter human settlements in search of prey. Though there's no hard data to confirm this yet, they also agree on the reason -- the steady degradation of the tiger's habitat, made worse by Cyclone Sidr, which hit this part of Bangladesh last November. Freshwater supplies are diminished, the forest cover is disrupted, populations of spotted deer (the tiger's main prey) are depleted. And there's the parable in the clash between man and tiger: the overall health of the Sundarbans ecosystem, the survival of its top predator, the livelihood of the population, and the continued habitability of the land are all inextricably intertwined.

 

A few miles from Chandpai, a small boat pulls over next to the Bonbibi. The boatman tosses a rope across the gap and ties up. It's a surprise to see another Western face on board, one of only a handful we've seen in this unvisited country. He introduces himself as Adam Barlow, an English-born tiger expert from the University of Minnesota. He's on his way to Chandpai to teach villagers how to protect themselves while also protecting the endangered animal. The goal is to anesthetize the problem tiger, put a radio collar on it, and return it to the forest.

 

"What's their usual way of dealing with the problem?" I ask.

 

He answers, "Normally they put out bait for the tiger. Then, when they've lured it into the village, they gather by the hundreds and arm themselves with sticks. Then they beat the tiger to death."

 

The captain of the Bonbibi puts us ashore at Sarankhola, a village on the north-eastern edge of the Sundarbans. There's been tiger trouble here, too: a 15-year-old boy from the adjoining village of Khuriakhali, killed while out fishing. Perhaps 8,000 people live in each of the two villages, Muslims and a minority of Hindus appearing to coexist in striking harmony. The Muslim homes are simple, those of the Hindu families sturdier and more ornate, painted in vivid primary colours, with fenced vegetable gardens and carefully tended shrines in adjacent huts. Both groups are endlessly hospitable, inviting visitors into their homes with offers of biscuits, fruit, and small cups of sweet black tea.

 

As we walk along a narrow, elevated path -- a shoelace of doughy, yielding grey mud raised eight or ten feet above parallel rows of fishponds -- people tell me a story that could be repeated with little variation in hundreds of other villages. They grow two rice crops a year, a few vegetables. They fish for depleted stocks. They venture into the forest to cut timber and firewood. They're still catching their breath from Sidr.

 

Even by Bangladesh's exaggerated standards, Cyclone Sidr was a monster. It's impossible to ascribe Sidr or Hurricane Katrina or any specific storm directly to global warming. But like Katrina, the cyclone can be seen only as a harbinger of more and worse to come. Ocean surface temperatures, which incubate these giant storms, are rising in the Bay of Bengal, just as they are in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

 

The early-warning system worked reasonably well, says a middle-aged man who is old enough to remember the catastrophes of 1970 and 1991. That's why fewer than 4,000 died this time (although more than 150,000 were injured and a million tons of rice were lost). From the radio, the villagers knew the cyclone was coming a full two days before it made landfall. A three-tier system of red flags in the main population centres indicated the likely strength of the storm. Government officials and the villagers themselves then spread the word more widely via handheld bullhorns and bicycle-mounted loudspeakers. Right up to the last minute, however, no one knew exactly where the storm would hit. As it happened, the villages around Sarankhola and Khuriakhali took the brunt of it.

 

Sidr came suddenly, at 10:30 on the night of November 15. Most of the old people, the women, the children made it to the cyclone shelters, raised 10 feet above the ground on concrete pillars. But 14 people in Khuriakhali failed to reach safety, the man tells me as we continue our walk along the raised path. These unlucky ones were trapped in their homes, reluctant to abandon their meagre possessions, or swept away and drowned by the fast-rising water. "It came up to here," the man says, indicating his collarbone. The winds reached 135 miles per hour.

 

Three months later, these villages remain half-crippled by the aftermath of the storm. Scores of palm trees are still down, splayed like pick-up sticks across fishponds and graveyards. It takes me a moment to realize that the skeletal piles of kindling submerged in the small tidal channels used to be fishing boats. Though the floodwaters drained off quickly, many of the fields are still tainted by salt. The rice and vegetable crops are coming in, but the yield is way down. All the sources of drinking water are brackish, adds a younger man in a blue lungi, the wraparound, calf-length skirt that most Bangladeshi men wear in preference to trousers.

 

The conversation turns to the weather more generally, and the villagers talk not only of the magnitude of the changes, but of their strangeness. At nine in the morning, we were shivering on the foredeck of the Bonbibi, wrapped in sweaters and jackets against the surprising chill. Winter -- the dry season -- has lasted a month longer than usual this year, punctuated by sudden freak downpours. The people here are plagued by familiar ailments -- headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue, the raging fevers and bone-numbing chills of malaria. But these afflictions are coming at unaccustomed times of the year.

 

The one thing that these villages have going for them, however, is that a good-size freshwater river, the Bhola, is of some help in keeping the worst of the salt at bay. If we want to see the full extent of the saline drama, we'll need to travel a little farther south and west. In particular, says Khushi Kabir, the longtime head of Nijera Kori ("Doing It Ourselves"), one of the country's most influential nongovernmental organizations, we should look at the shrimp farms. The suggestion is of more than passing interest, since the shrimp at the seafood counter of your local supermarket is quite likely to have begun life in these salty fields.

 

At Mongla, a scruffy river port with a harbour full of rusted freighters, we exchange the modest comforts of the Bonbibi for an aged blue Land Rover with no air-conditioning and not much in the way of suspension.

 

Drive through almost any country in the world and there will be intervals of respite from the press of population. A forest, a range of hills or mountains, a stretch of rock and desert. Not so in the area of Bangladesh that encircles the Sundarbans. Here, the journey induces a peculiar kind of claustrophobia, with no break from either people or land under one form of cultivation or other. Every mile is a white-knuckle game of chicken. Brightly painted trucks adorned with folk-art carvings go head-to-head with careening buses, headlights on full beam, hands on the horn, passengers clinging to the roof for dear life. It's a crude Darwinian contest; biggest always wins.

 

Rickshaws, bicycles, motorbikes, and motorized trishaws engage meanwhile in their own Nascar-style adventures. Overloaded flatbed bicycle carts are heaped high with firewood, 20-foot culms of bamboo, sacks of rice, cooking pots, hay bales, teetering pyramids of cooking oil tins, people. Right in front of us, the imbalance of weight is just too much for one small cart, which abruptly tips over, catapulting the driver backward into the air like a circus performer shot from a cannon and sending his 10 passengers, including a frail-looking elderly woman, sprawling onto the highway and into the oncoming traffic. Our driver hits the brakes. The old woman picks herself up, dusts herself off, and starts all over again, reattaching herself to the mass of humanity and livestock that wanders randomly across the blacktop: scrawny goats, undernourished cattle, chicken, geese, dogs, children, old men with white beards hobbling along on canes, day labourers in their lungis, women in rainbow saris. The farther south we go, the more the saris give way to the black burkas of conservative Islam.

 

As we enter the bustling little town of Shyamnagar, another bicycle cart meanders past. Behind the driver, on the wooden flatbed, a bearded man shouts into a deafening pair of loudspeakers, painted blue and green.

 

"What was that all about?" I ask Benedict Poresh Sardar, who works with Uttaran, the most important of the NGOs active in this area.

 

"He said if you give money to the madrasa, you will go straight to heaven," Poresh replies.

 

A few hundred yards later, another loudspeaker blasts invitations to an Islamic gathering. A crowd of teenage boys blocks the roadway, collecting funds for their school.

 

"The madrasa is a religious school that teaches boys only," Poresh complains. "There are many more of these schools than before, more all the time. The main thing they do there is read and memorize the Koran. In Arabic. The government encourages them to teach modern and general education too. But..." He frowns, then shrugs. I file away the thought for later.

 

English words have begun to crop up among the ornate Bengali characters on the roadside signboards: Prawn Hatchery, Gold Coin Aquaculture. Large-scale shrimp farming took off here in the 1980s in an effort to boost exports. By 2010, the Bangladeshi government hopes, it will bring in $1.5 billion a year.

 

The industry has transformed the life of villages like Burigoalini, which lies at the end of the road we're following-one of the last habitations on the north-western fringe of the Sundarbans forest. Burigoalini is an old name, referring to a local woman who once had pastures here for milk cows, paddies for rice, and thriving fishponds. That kind of diversified farm economy no longer holds up around here. Instead, the landscape is dominated by a vast patchwork of flat water broken up by earthen embankments. Shrimp farms, as far as the eye can see. A modest number of people have made a good living from the industry, but many more have been left destitute. This is not a labour-intensive business.

 

"How do the big shrimp companies get hold of all this farmland?" I ask Poresh.

 

"They start by leasing it," he says. "Fifteen or twenty thousand takas -- $220 to $300 -- for a two-year lease on one biga of land [about half an acre]. Then they renew. Sometimes the industry brings in musclemen, backed by the two big political parties, so the poor farmers aren't given a choice."

 

"Meaning they use violence?" I ask.

 

He nods. "When they find it necessary."

 

We've reached the neighbouring settlement of Tatinakhali now, leapfrogging our way across gaping holes in the raised mud path. We've been joined by Alok Kumar Halder, one of Uttaran's local representatives. He's a large, heavyset man, half as big again as most Bangladeshis. He wears a lime-green polo shirt with an Oxfam logo.

 

The shrimp farms depend on a steady supply of brackish water from the river, Alok tells me, pointing to the sluice gates that regulate the flow into the big, rectangular ponds. On the far side of the river,

100 yards away, the solid wall of forest begins. Tiger country.

 

The problem is, all that sodium from the river also seeps into the surrounding farmland, diminishing its fertility as well as the availability of grass for cattle grazing. The domestic food supply is being sacrificed on the altar of export earnings. The salinity of the soil in the Khulna area -- named for its administrative centre, the third-largest city in Bangladesh -- has increased a staggering 80-fold since the 1970s. The productivity of the land has declined so much that Bangladesh now produces less than half as much rice per acre as China. Researchers are experimenting with new strains of saline-tolerant rice, but it's too early to tell how much this will help.

 

Uttaran has the broadest of agendas, working with the poorest communities of farmers, fishermen, woodcutters, and mowalis on matters as diverse as safe drinking water, access to land, legal aid, divorce, and domestic violence. The last of these is rampant, and like most of Bangladesh's woes it is aggravated by the degradation of the environment. In Tatinakhali, the paths are crowded with women and girls on their way to the sand-filter well in the next village, Kolbari, which purifies water drawn from the muddy fishponds. It's the only possible source: the groundwater is brackish, and the deep tube-wells tap into naturally occurring, and lethal, deposits of arsenic. Three miles there and back, three times a day, nine miles altogether under the burning sun, to collect enough heavy jars of water to supply a family's daily needs. And if, as a result, a woman is late preparing dinner, the frequent reward is a beating.

 

"When your husband does that, is there any remedy?" I ask Shajida, a charismatic woman in a purple sari who is one of the community's leaders. A neighbour’s three small children linger shyly in the doorway behind her. Their father was eaten by a Bengal tiger three weeks ago.

 

Shajida offers the faintest of smiles. "Crying," she says.

 

"Is there anything you can do that will make your family's life easier?" I ask, anxious to change the subject.

 

She gestures at a small pond fenced off with reed matting. She's trying to raise crabs where rice used to grow.

 

"We're emphasizing that kind of adaptation," Shahidul Islam, Uttaran's founder and director, tells me later in Dhaka. Islam is a local man, the son of poor farmers in the small town of Satkhira, a few miles from the Indian border. He founded Uttaran in 1985, distressed by the social inequities he saw all around him. A year later he began to work on environmental issues. When the land flooded, he wondered if the root cause was something more than the rain. Something human-induced. Asking such troublesome questions has made him powerful enemies. In January 2007 two soldiers dragged him from his office and took him to a nearby army base, where he was blindfolded and beaten -- with a field-hockey stick, he thinks. They broke his foot, and he still walks with the trace of a limp. He spent a total of seven months in jail under the Special Powers Act, charged with "organizing landless people against the state."

 

I ask him what exactly he means by adaptation.

 

"Turning to fisheries in waterlogged areas," he replies. "Crab farming. Growing crops on the dikes. Floating vegetable gardens-some people call it hydroponics. Planting saline-tolerant rice, saline-tolerant reeds. Better house construction -- even the poor people are trying to build cyclone-proof houses with concrete pillars and concrete lintels." Some people take advantage of the micro-credit loans for which Bangladesh is famous so that they can afford to lease the land themselves and pre-empt further incursions by the shrimp industry.

 

Development experts call such behaviour the economy of resilience, and Bangladeshis are nothing if not resilient. But the stark fact remains: with the creep of salt, life here is steadily becoming untenable.

 

I stand with a cluster of men and women from Tatinakhali, staring out over the monotony of the shrimp ponds. "So are people leaving?" I ask them.

 

"Ten percent want to stay, but 90 percent would leave if they could," a middle-aged man answers. The young people above all dream of city life, he says, of getting an education. But they have neither the money nor the connections to make it happen. The older ones are too attached to the land and the way of life. Building a home and a fishpond, a yard to dry and winnow rice, a patch of cultivable field, is a 20-year investment of time and labour that is hard to relinquish. When it happens, family migration, first seasonal and then permanent, follows a familiar pattern that is repeated across the world: the breadwinner leaves for a local town, then moves by stages to the city; having established a tenuous means of subsistence, he calls for the family to join him. But since the tiger attacks got worse, whole families are beginning to leave together.

 

"Where will they all go?" I want to know.

 

Islam takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. "I don't know," he says. "I just don't know. What I do know is that Bangladesh can't deal with this on its own. It isn't possible to handle the migration problem within this country's borders."

 

In any given country, the capital city is the customary magnet for desperate migrants running from rural poverty. But this capital? Dhaka?

 

Over a cup of nasty instant coffee (the only kind you can get in Bangladesh -- no Starbucks here), I sit and talk with Professor Haroon ur Rashid, chairman of the architecture department at Dhaka's North South University and an expert on urban planning and sanitation. He's a small, owlish man with a pungent sense of gallows humour. His English is impeccable.

 

"The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen grew up in Dhaka," Rashid begins. "He once told a BBC interviewer that his children saw him as a man without taste, because he said he liked every place he had ever visited and could happily live anywhere. There was only one exception: Dhaka. That was unliveable." Rashid grins -- rather incongruously, it seems to me, for someone who actually has to live here.

 

The capital of Bangladesh seems at times to be dissolving into its constituent elements. If it's made of iron, it's rusting; if it's vegetable, it's rotting; if it's brick, it's reverting to mud, to river sediment. Survival here seems an unfathomable challenge. On the Buriganga River, the wharves are crowded with those decrepit three-story vessels you read about on the inside pages of the newspaper: Overcrowded ferry capsizes in Bangladesh: 400 feared dead. Dhaka's waterways are clogged with raw sewage and lined with stilt houses and squatter shacks made of tin, tar paper, and palm fronds. People cluster on the banks to bathe, brush their teeth, wash clothes and cooking utensils, defecate, and fish in these waters. Even in the more upscale neighbourhoods of Gulshan and Banani, where diplomats congregate, a misstep in the dark can drop you through a pothole into an open sewer. By the end of the day your clothes are suffused with the stench.

 

Uncountable beggars -- street children, bird-thin old women, blind men, people with nightmarish deformities -- tap on the car windows at every stop. And there are many more stops than starts. With virtually no functioning traffic lights, the streets are an impossible gridlocked snarl, loud with the clamour of car horns and rickshaw bells. (Dhaka has at least 600,000 rickshaws, some say 800,000, their drivers earning barely two dollars a day.) The whole chaotic scene is enveloped in a thick, grey-brown blanket of smog. Bangladesh produces only one-quarter of a metric ton of CO2 emissions per person each year (the U.S. figure is almost 25 tons), and you can be forgiven for thinking that most of that comes from the streets of Dhaka.

 

"In 1953, when it was the capital of East Pakistan, the population of Dhaka was half a million," Rashid tells me. "The big population explosion came in 1971, after the War of Liberation, when people could opt between living in Pakistan or in Bangladesh. Now it's growing at about 6 percent annually. Most of the newcomers are from the countryside, people with no skills who work in low-wage, marginal occupations. The city has grown by accretion, not by planning. In terms of infrastructure, water, services, sanitation, Dhaka is a total disaster. God only knows what it will be like in the future."

 

Already Dhaka is one of the most populous of the world's mega-cities. By some estimates the population has reached 14 million, though Rashid disputes that. He thinks the true figure is probably closer to 12 million. Even by his more conservative math, the population of Dhaka will double, to 24 million, in the next 12 years.

 

"And now, on top of all that, there's climate change," I say with a frown. "Is the government thinking about that as it tries to predict how many more rural migrants are going to come to the city in the next 10, 20, 50 years?"

 

He just looks at me, as if I've asked a very stupid question, then says, "I doubt it."

 

But if Shahidul Islam is right, and Bangladesh can't handle the human tide on its own, where are the refugees supposed to go? What safety valves might relieve some of the pressure?

 

No one has ever quite known what to do about environmental refugees. Norman Myers, an Oxford University professor who writes extensively on the subject, calls it "one of the foremost human crises of our times." By 1995, he says, the last year for which reliable estimates exist, at least 25 million people worldwide had been driven from their homes by environmental degradation. He expects that number to double by 2010, as global warming kicks in seriously, sea levels rise, population increases, and available resources dwindle. Yet these people have no legal standing under the United Nations Convention on Refugees. This is not some arcane question of international law. What it means is that when they flee their homelands, they have no rights that trigger access to the tents, the camps, the emergency food supplies and medical relief that are supplied by the international community. They're pretty much reliant on their own resourcefulness.

 

For Bangladeshis, one traditional place of refuge has been India. To many people in the areas we've visited, the border is an artificial construct that they have always felt entitled to cross at will. Where a river forms the frontier, a few hundred takas is enough for a "broker" to ferry them across by night. If it's a land crossing, a similar amount will usually persuade the border guards to look the other way.

 

India is now trying to close down this option. On our last day in the south, we drove a few miles west from Islam's hometown, Satkhira, to the border post at Bhomra. Soldiers lounged around with guns. A line of colourful trucks waited for permission to cross. A few yards short of the barrier pole, a narrow dirt road branched away to the right, paralleling the frontier. Our Land Rover started to make the turn, but the officer in charge stepped over briskly and held up a hand. He considered our foreign faces, Len and Diane's cameras, walked back to the hut that served as his office, called his superiors for instructions. Then he put the phone down and shook his head. Not a chance. For what the road would have led us to is a newly completed stretch of the fence that India is constructing to keep out Bangladeshis, a double line of concrete posts and barbed wire. When it's finished, the fence will be 2,500 miles long, longer than the U.S.-Mexico border.

 

The fence idea has been around for years, but it's taken on new impetus in the last two or three. The reason: India's anxiety about terrorism. In 2002, a radical Islamist group machine-gunned the U.S. cultural centre in Kolkata. Then, out of the blue, came a wave of several hundred bombings in Bangladesh -- including one suicide attack -- in the latter months of 2005. These incidents were attributed to a local jihadist group called Jamatul Mujahideen, the Party of Holy Warriors.

 

All of which brings us back to Osama bin Laden, and thence to a second safety hatch that has beckoned to Bangladeshis desperate to flee environmental degradation in the rural areas and urban collapse in the capital. I'd seen graphic evidence of this on my way to Dhaka, when I changed planes in the oil-rich emirate of Dubai. The airport is opulent beyond description, its main concourse lined with gigantic artificial palm trees and twinkling fairy lights, the only discordant note being the hundreds of Bangladeshi migrant workers curled up asleep on the floors.

 

It's estimated that two million Bangladeshis are now employed in menial jobs in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Debt bondage is not too extreme a term for their condition; to get an employment visa, each must make an up-front payment of $2,000 or more to a recruiting agency. By the time their contracts expire, it's more than likely they will have been exposed to the fundamentalist Wahhabi, or Salafi, strain of Islam. This is a world that is well captured in the movie Syriana.

 

It's also a world that is antithetical to Islam as it has historically been practiced in Bangladesh, which has the third-largest Muslim population in the world, exceeded only by Indonesia and Pakistan. Islam here has always been of the moderate and peaceable variety. It is strongly shaped by Sufism, the mystical strain of the religion that emphasizes self-knowledge and the individual's closeness to God, and is often intermingled with the traditions of the minority Hindus, who make up a little more than 10 percent of the population.

 

As I travel through Bangladesh, many of my informal encounters reinforce this impression of moderation. In the southern town of Bagerhat, for instance, I'm buttonholed by Mohammed Helal Uddin, the black-bearded imam of the historic 77-domed Shait Gumbad mosque. He shoos away a crowd of Bangladeshi pilgrims and visitors. "No talk for you," he chides, "only people from America." The combination of his fractured English, my nonexistent Bangla, and a translator gone temporarily AWOL doesn't make for the easiest of exchanges. But the gist of what he wants to say is clear enough.

 

"Islam is very peaceful religion," the imam insists. "Holy Koran says all people created equal, no difference. Ladies and gentlemen, different prayers, but also same, equal. Islam always speaking truthful, no bad work."

 

I ask him about Cyclone Sidr and global warming. "Is very difficult for us," he answers. "People come here to mosque to be shelter." He waves a hand at the huge palm trees lying horizontal across a brick wall, still there three months after the catastrophe.

 

"What do you think is responsible for all these changes in the climate?" I ask.

 

"We see the will of Allah," he replies. "We see as da'wa" -- a call to follow Islam.

 

"Is it just an act of God, then?" I ask. "Because some people think the rich countries are also to blame. Do you believe that?"

 

He purses his lips, thinks about it, then looks me straight in the eye and says softly, "Yes."

 

A group of women in burkas stands at a distance, curious about our conversation.

 

Those who work with the poor in southern Bangladesh are made apprehensive by all the black burkas and new madrassas they are seeing among the saline fields and the shrimp farms. Some are also fearful that the Islamists benefit from the quiet support of the region's secular authorities, though they're reluctant to talk about this on the record.

 

"A lot of money is also coming in from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries to build mosques," says one local NGO activist who prefers not to be identified. "Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic political party, is very strong here. It's part of an international network. In 1971, during the war of liberation, its members took up arms in favour of Pakistan."

 

Khushi Kabir, the director of Nijera Kori, has no particular religious affiliations but shares these anxieties. She is willing to talk more freely about them, perhaps feeling that living in Dhaka and having good international connections give her some added protection.

 

"You have to understand," she says, "that this isn't so much a Muslim culture as a Bengali culture. At the village level, Muslims and Hindus live together quite harmoniously. But what's being imposed now is an Islamic identity. It's a global thing, this move to create a big Muslim brotherhood." Her lip curls with disdain. "I just hope they don't go for a Muslim sisterhood. I want nothing to do with that."

 

There's a further twist to the story, she adds, a perverse side effect of the well-intentioned involvement of outside agencies. "For example, the World Bank and UNDP" -- meaning the United Nations Development Program -- "have this model that they've developed in other Muslim countries like Egypt. In the name of strengthening communities, they've insisted on giving a central role to the imams. But this is not a society that's been dominated by the dictates of the imam. In Bangladesh the role of the imam has basically been restricted to the rituals of birth, marriage, and death. That's changing now. The lack of secular space is becoming a big threat."

 

I ask her how this manifests itself in everyday life.

 

"There always used to be a lot of cultural activities in the villages where the lines between Muslim and Hindu were very blurred," she answers. "The jatra, for example, which was a stylized theatre performance by travelling troupes of actors, based on local history and folklore. Or the Gazi-Kalu, where you could debate any issue you liked through songs and poetry. But now all I see are the waaz -- the Muslim prayer gatherings and sermons."

 

Until recently, the environment and climate change have not played a big role in Islamic theology. That, too, is beginning to change. Fazlun Khalid, director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences in Birmingham, England, believes that "conserving the environment is simply an expression of worship." Far from being alien to Islam, Khalid argues, environmentalism is rooted in four core principles of shariah, or Islamic law: the unity principle (tawhid), the creation principle (fitra), the balance principle (mizan), and the responsibility, or stewardship, principle (khalifa).

 

The religious scholar Mawil Izzi Dien, who was educated in Iraq and now teaches at the University of Wales, quotes the Koran in support of this view. "Do no mischief on the earth after it has been set in order," one verse says. And elsewhere, in Izzi Dien's paraphrase: "Those who corrupt the earth or its contents will suffer an awful doom."

 

Sentiment on these issues has begun to stir internationally, for example in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim states. "The OIC has recently started doing more work in the area of climate change," Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi who was one of the lead authors of the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report, tells me when I call him at his London office. "And certainly the inequities of climate change are going to feed generally anti-Western feelings in the Islamic world."

 

In Bangladesh the debate is still pretty much limited to Dhaka's educated secular elite. Those who are most at risk don't yet use the vocabulary of climate change, says Shahidul Islam. "But what they understand is this: last year the tide was here" -- he chops a hand against the wall, then raises it a few inches -- "and this year it's here." Yet at the local level, too, there are signs of a shift. Bangladesh's Imam Training Academy, which operates under the auspices of the lavishly funded Islamic Foundation, now includes the environment in the list of topics its trainers use "to inspire the Imams of Mosques in order to create consciousness in the society."

 

"Most people still think the cyclones and sea-level rise are an act of God," says Mozaharul Alam, the climate expert at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. "But as the topic gets incorporated into the educational system, awareness grows. When people realize that they're not an act of God but the act of someone else, well... it's unpredictable how they will react."

 

In Dhaka's Zia International Airport, waiting for the Emirates flight that will take me home, I'm startled by the realization that everyone else in the waiting area -- every single person -- is a young Bangladeshi male, all of them bound, like me, for Dubai. I wonder how many of them have been driven from their villages by floods, by cyclones, by the salinity of the soil; how many of them have found the overcrowded, polluted chaos of Dhaka too much to endure; what they will have learned about other kinds of Islam by the time they come back. This time I look at them a little differently and even, I have to confess, a little nervously.

 

I'm reminded of something that Haroon ur Rashid, the architect, said when we talked about India's fear of al Qaeda-inspired terrorism taking root in Bangladesh. "That's crap," he snorted. "The general mass of people here are God-fearing, but they're not fundamentalists."

 

Then he paused and modified the thought. "But of course that could change quickly, because this is a worldwide trend. And all you need is a few people to disrupt things. As Che Guevara once said: give me 11 good people and I can overthrow a government." The line may be apocryphal, but it kept playing in my head.

 

It's easy to sink into despair here, but Bangladeshis, despite being battered by centuries of natural and man-made disasters, seem the least despairing, the most resilient, of people.

 

"We Bengalis are a poetical people," Rashid told me. "As we say here, it's hope that keeps us alive. If we lose our hope, we might as well not live."

 

But what about the rest of us? Because the actions of the outside world are going to be critical in determining whether Bangladesh's future is survival or an apocalypse that may touch us all.

 

Well, says Alam, "the first thing is to build sufficient infrastructure to protect us in the future. Better embankments, wider canals, sluice gates."

 

"Which will cost a fortune," I suggest.

 

He smiles wryly and nods. "Yes, I know. And it probably won't be enough anyway. And if it's not enough, then the estuaries will move inland and the whole area will become one big tidal floodplain."

 

And if India, the United States, the world, begin to look at Bangladesh as a geopolitical Rorschach test, and see in the inkblot only the shape of radical Islam? Just last year, pointing to desertification in sub-Saharan Africa and sea-level rise in Bangladesh and other coastal areas in Asia and the Pacific, a group of 11 retired U.S. generals and admirals described global warming as a "threat multiplier" and warned that "the chaos that results can be an incubator of civil strife, genocide, and terrorism."

 

"True," Alam says, "that may happen. Although it isn't necessarily a bad thing. If there's a security response, you can use that to draw attention to the severity of the problem and so increase the pressure to restrict greenhouse gas emissions."

 

All of which will require concerted international action on a scale we've never seen before. The current machinery of the United Nations won't remotely be enough to deal with the kind of complex humanitarian emergencies that will be forced on us by global warming, says Sir Crispin Tickell, a former British ambassador to the U.N., when I meet him for lunch at his office at Oxford University. "One answer is to create a World Environment Organization," he tells me. "And it'll have to have real enforcement powers, like the World Trade Organization."

 

These are big thoughts -- utopian, a sceptic might say -- and Bangladeshis think mainly of tomorrow. Will there be enough rice? Enough clean drinking water? Will the tiger get me? All of us have the same human tendency to plan for the next day, next week, next year. Projecting political developments 10, 20, 50 years into the future is a chancy business, as imprecise a science in its way as the modelling of climate change. But those are undoubtedly the terms, and the timescales, on which we now have to think.

 

May 28, 2008

Source: onearth.org Summer 2008, an independent publication of the natural resources defence council.

Source: onearth.org

 

 Comments

 

          Pavan Nair wrote on July 22, 2008, 10:51PM :

 

          There is a large population of Hindus living in the Sunderbans area of West Bengal. Climate change will not selectively target Muslims or any religion for that matter. After experiencing severe cyclones, Bangladesh has done a lot to build storm shelters as also evacuate people when cyclonic warnings are issued. Cyclone Sidr is a case in point. The casualties were relatively low for a storm of that intensity and swath. On the other hand India in spite of having more resources is waiting for a tragedy to happen. Given the fact that water levels as also ground levels are rising, it would be worth considering a planned migration of the population northwards. This will have tremendous social, economic and environmental impact as the density of population of both West Bengal and Bangladesh is the highest in the world. There is however no alternative.

 

    *

 

          jo wrote on July 20, 2008, 05:27PM :

 

          The article's author, George Black, mentions research being done on rice that can grow in higher salinity areas--India has had such rice for decades, after their canals began salinating the land.

 

          he also refers to "money...coming in from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries to build mosques... Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic political party, is very strong here. It's part of an international network." This plague on basically sufi/tolerate your neighbours Bangladesh ahs been going on ever since the country won independence from Pakistan in 1971. For more than a decade, despite academics warning about it, the move had been ignored or even denied by US government ambassadorial officials. Finally, the US had to face the muzak adn admit it, after assassinations and bombings began to run amuck. Mr. Black should have visited Comilla, where he could have seen rickshaw backboard paintings of Osama bin Laden.

 

    Yuman wrote on July 02, 2008, 01:06PM :

 

          I have to wonder if some people reading ‘The Gathering Storm’ may be missing the real threat pointed to in the article? As pointed out in the text the radical Muslim is making great headway into the Muslim world and is properly applying its resources by brain washing the worlds’ poor. This is what I see as the storm warning in the article – CHANGE YOUR WAY OR GET OUT OF THE WAY! It won’t be a political solution as much as a radical religious solution that brings down the western view of use of the planet.

 

          Having grown up with the ‘threat of communism’ I seem to see the same thing taking place again; but with a most powerful difference, GOD! Communism could not truly win the peasant with its denial of the peasants God, but the radical Muslim has a much better equation!

 

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/islam-and-the-west/the-gathering-storm--what-happens-when-global-warming-turns-millions-of-destitute-muslims-into-environmental-refugees?/d/288


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