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Living on the edge

  • Published at 12:10 am September 17th, 2016
  • Last updated at 02:18 pm September 24th, 2016
Living on the edge

Climate change is the buzzword of the decade, and yet the very people who live on the coasts of Bangladesh, directly impacted by global warming, rarely understand the term. They notice, however, their living environment is changing -- the seasons are different and riverbanks are eroding land faster than they used to -- and these changes are threatening their livelihoods.

This could be a story on the general adverse effects of climate change on life and livelihoods -- but this not the story I am going to tell you. My story is of a woman, and her fight against all the odds to survive against nature and society.

While working on a research-to-action project, focused on improving livelihood resilience in Bangladesh, I had the chance to meet people directly affected by cyclones and learn what their thoughts were.

That is how I met Aklima, with her 10-year old son, living in a village in southwest Bangladesh. Because she lives on the coast, she faces cyclones almost every other year.

She smiles warmly every time I visit her for my work.  Her husband lives in Chittagong, earning money, and so she has to manage all the household work as well as other responsibilities she is burdened with in his absence. She never stops talking and loves to crack jokes with me every time. Our friendship continues to grow with each meeting.

This is the woman I’ve known for two years, still smiling, still affable and still fighting against adversity. It is beyond doubt that men are working hard to arrange a house for the family, but it is indisputable that it is women who are putting everything together to make it a sweet home

Aklima’s house is located outside of the new river embankment. It is a beautiful house made with hay. There is a mud yard with a small garden surrounding her house along with a kitchen. When I visited her this past winter, her home reminded me of the houses I used to draw as a child. Calm and quiet.

In our free time, we usually sit in her yard and devour puffed rice with her home cooked masala tea. Yet, winter is not the only season Aklima faces; in the past 15 to 20 years, not only has she faced the summer and the monsoon seasons, but these seasons have become longer than they once were.

During the monsoon, her house gets flooded, often by rain and tidal surges. And things are much worse after a cyclone strikes: Instead of enjoying the greenery of her yard, she is stranded on her bed with her son, waiting for the water to subside. Once water returns to the river, Aklima has to repair her yard and her kitchen. She has to do this after every flood and cyclone; it is almost a regular job.

The first cyclone of the monsoon struck on May 21 of this year, named cyclone Roanu. After cyclone hit, my project team went to the village and to meet Akilma and others. Aklima was busy preparing food for her family in her flooded kitchen. She strolled outside to meet me. She was so happy to hear that I had come to visit her after the cyclone. When I asked about her limp, she confessed she had twisted her leg while running to the cyclone shelter during Roanu.

She looked relieved that her husband traveled a long way to see whether his family was safe after the winds had subsided. Although luck saved Aklima, she was not spared from the distress of her house being flooded.

But Aklima now fears river erosion more than cyclones. It is the river now approaching that threatens to consume her land.  The only land she has, and while the river is the main means of survival for the whole village, it is an agony for those living outside of the embankment. “What’s the point of surviving a cyclone,” she tell me, “if the river takes away your home?”

Her misery has no bounds, but she has faith -- she believes her situation will change and her boy will have a better life.

This is the woman I’ve known for two years, still smiling, still affable, and still fighting against adversity. It is beyond doubt that men are working hard to arrange a house for the family, but it is indisputable that it is women who are putting everything together to make it a sweet home.

Last year in Paris, climate change negotiators were struggling to sign an agreement to keep global temperature within two degrees celsius. Aklima, unaware about the international climate talks, was busy with her kitchen, yet again repairing her house, and praying for a miracle.

There are thousands of Aklimas around us and they are the true victims of climate change and hoping to be rescued.

This year, our eyes are on Marrakesh, where the 22nd UN climate talks will take place. We will learn the roadmap of action from the experts from different corners of the world. Aklima’s eyes are on the edge of destruction, so it’s time to get to know the people who wave at you when you visit them to distribute relief after a cyclone hits, or when you go to study them for your research.

At the same time decision makers pass along their thoughts on how best to tackle climate change, the sea levels are rising and the riverbanks eroding, threatening to displace not only Aklima and her neighbors, but many others too.

Aklima may be a portrait of climate vulnerability. But till now she has never stopped fighting back every challenge she has had to face. “I survived cyclone Sidr,” she firmly replied when I asked why she left from the shelter, “What can Roanu do to me?”

Tanzinia Khanom is a researcher officer working at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).