Dhaka is on the front lines of climate change, but what does that mean to the people living in its slums? We know that climate change intensifies the exclusion suffered by the poorest, but what are the best ways to support them?
As part of my research on climate change at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester, I spent months in a slum in Dhaka talking to over 600 people in their homes, workplaces, local teashops, and on street corners to understand how climate change affects their “everyday” lives and what solutions they employ.
My research found that the urban poor have been able to develop a myriad of ways to respond to climate change but in many cases their efforts are constrained by a lack of land tenure rights. For example, if slum dwellers are not protected by laws and regulations that shield them from exploitative landlords, they are less likely to invest scarce resources in making their homes more resilient to climate change. Limited resources can also trap the poor in places that flood most frequently because they cannot afford rents elsewhere. One slum dweller explained: “The water came up to my waist, our houses drown. Where can we go? The more water, the less the rent. The rent is low here. The owner is going to raise the land, but the rent will go up. This will not help me. We will move somewhere else. We are poor, wherever we can get cheap rent, we move there.”
With the research completed, I teamed up with the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Dhaka to explore the findings through a Pot Gan; a traditional folk medium that combines melody, drama, pictures, and dancing. The Pot Gan we developed is an interactive event that challenges the audience to engage with the personal experiences of slum dwellers affected by climate change. The director of the Pot Gan, Mr Ahasan Khan, explained the importance of active engagement: “One of the key aspects of the Pot Gan is that it is designed to get the audience involved. “That way, they feel part of the story that is being acted out and are much more likely to remember the key messages from the performance later on.” Live performances of “The Lived Experience of Climate Change: A Story of One Piece of Land in Dhaka” have now been seen by over 600 people, including Dhaka slum dwellers, policy makers, practitioners, academics, and the general public.
The water came up to my waist, our houses drown. Where can we go? The more water, the less the rent. The rent is low here. The owner is going to raise the land, but the rent will go up. This will not help me. We will move somewhere else. We are poor, wherever we can get cheap rent, we move there
The collaboration with the University of Dhaka resulted in the Pot Gan being developed as part of a Master’s course unit on “Theatre for Development,” helping Bangladeshi students learn about crucial global issues that have a local impact, and explore those issues through traditional indigenous theatre. The stories and the script itself are all based on the direct testimony and experiences of the people living in the Dhaka slum that my research is based on.
The Pot Gan has proved a very effective tool to deepen engagement and understanding of the everyday realities of climate change. In a survey of the varied audiences who saw the live performance, every single person who responded agreed that performances like the Pot Gan are a useful way to build awareness on climate change. More than 80% said they had learned something new about climate change as a result.
This is not surprising: it can be difficult for scientists and other climate change experts to fully comprehend and then communicate the day-to-day impact of climate change on local communities. The Pot Gan, however, “humanises climate change, what otherwise would be a fairly complex and difficult to understand, and theoretical and technical issue,” according to Dr Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Institute for Climate Change and Development, who praised the Pot Gan’s interactive element, where “in the end, the audience were the theatre.”
The Pot Gan was also performed in the slum where I conducted my research. I felt that I owed the community the opportunity to see the results of the research that they helped to produce, and a chance to provide additional feedback on its key themes.
I believe that it is a researcher’s moral responsibility to engage the communities around the findings that they have been central to generating. Far too often, research is carried out extractively in the global south, and then presented only to audiences in the global north. Public engagement and research dissemination should be aimed at a diverse audience using innovative methods that not only present the findings but challenge the audiences to action or critical thought. This is how academics can have a real, lasting impact on the issues and communities they study.
To bring the stories from the Dhaka slum dwellers to an even larger international and national audience, the Pot Gan performances were filmed to produce a documentary exploring my findings on the everyday realities of climate change. Directed by Ehsan Kabir from Green Ink, the documentary has been viewed by over 45, 000 people and was recently premiered at the Manchester Museum’s Climate Control exhibition. Similar to the live Pot Gan performances, the screening actively encouraged people to discuss the issues raised, moving them from passive members of the audience to active participants.
This project highlights that understanding the day-to-day realities of low-income people living with climate change must play a central role in climate change action. If you look at any given intervention, whether it is going to be accepted, modified, or completely rejected by the local population depends on whether the intervention fits with their everyday experiences and understanding of climate change. So to create effective climate resilience strategies, it is crucial that we engage local voices in innovative ways to ensure that we do not leave the disadvantaged and most vulnerable behind by predefining their “problems” and bypassing their priorities and realities. This project provides a platform for the “voices of the urban poor” to enter the climate change debate -- challenging us to inclusive action and critical thought.
The documentary and video of the Pot Gan performance can be viewed at bit.ly/GDIpotgan
View the project photo galleries at bit.ly/GDIpotganphotos
For further information on the project
Twitter: #GDIpotgan @JoanneCJordan
Dr Joanne Jordan is a lecturer in Climate Change and Development at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. Since 2007 Dr Jordan’s work has focused on climate change resilience, vulnerability and risk in Bangladesh. She can be contacted at [email protected]