How natural calamities claim the livelihood of women in the coasts
Bangladesh is highly susceptible to different natural disasters and climatic hazards as it is located in an active delta. Different slow onset stressors such as salinity intrusion and rising temperature alongside sudden calamities such as cyclone and storm surge have made the life of the inhabitants of south-west coastal belt very challenging.
Women particularly suffer the most from these environmental vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities are further exacerbated due to poor infrastructure and other socio-political factors. All these reduce the coping capacity of local communities to fight against different climatic shocks and stresses.
Cyclone or storm surge is identified as one of the most frequent, severe and of high magnitude sudden climatic events affecting the south-western coastal area. Cyclones of high magnitude and intensity such as cyclone Aila had a heavy toll on life and livelihoods of coastal people. Cyclone Aila brought a significant amount of saline water with it, which not only altered the level of salinity in drinking water but made agricultural farming very difficult.
Cyclone Aila in 2009, was reported as the most devastating natural disaster to have occurred in recent history. Not only causing severe damage to life and property but also leading to the significant intrusion of saline content both in water and soil.
Mahmuda, a thirty-three-year-old woman who lives with her family in Garuikhali village of Paikgacha Upazila, Khulna stated that, “The devastating Aila destroyed most of the houses, took away the roof of most of the homestead. The significant intrusion of saline water caused the death of fish, crop damage and destruction of livestock. It also destroyed the embankment which was established after 1971. Besides, some roads were also destroyed.”
Mahmuda had been involved with homestead vegetable production, which not only made her financially empowered but also reduced their family expenditure on food. With this savings, she started her tailoring business, which also strengthened her financial stability. However, due to soil quality degradation as a result of salinity, she can no longer practice homestead farming.
“Now that we do not grow paddy at field and vegetable at home, we need to buy them from the market. I have taken a loan of forty thousand taka from Grameen bank to buy paddy for the entire year. I have to repay fifty taka per week and two hundred taka in total per month. We find it difficult to repay loans with small earnings. Sometimes we take another loan to repay any previous loan.” Regrettably, she is not earning as much as she did in the past from her tailoring business and the economic tension is all but apparent.
Since women are the primary recipient of micro-credit, they have to take the mental pressure of being in debt. Being trapped under the vicious cycle of indebtedness, the propensity for domestic violence, physical abuse and mental stress towards women also increases.
Moreover, increased level of salinity, irregular rainfall pattern and prolonged drought resulted in water scarcity in this area. Besides, large scale shrimp farming has further intensified the situation. As a result, the number of potable water sources has significantly reduced.
“I used to fetch water from the nearby pond for household use and drinking purpose. However, the level of salinity in the water has gone high. Now I fetch drinking water from the only freshwater pond (more than one kilometre away) twice a week. Once we run out of that water, we consume the saline water from the pond.” The extra burden of fetching water from long distance has a heavy toll worsened by the extreme heat.
For consuming and using saline water, her children get afflicted by different water-borne diseases very often. Mahmuda also suffers from different skin diseases all throughout the year. Besides, within the last few years, her blood pressure has increased. She blames salinity and extreme heat for that.
Many contributing factors have reduced the overall well-being of Mahmuda’s family—lack of drinking water, reduced agricultural production, less family income, and increased occurrence of diseases and the ever-increasing burden of debt. While fighting against all these shocks and stresses, she is struggling to save money for her children’s education. The fear that Mahmuda might need to stop their education and not be able to provide a better life for her children is palpable as well as concrete.
Sharin Mannan is Programme Assistant at International Centre for Climate Change and Development.