What Survival Looks Like After the Oceans Rise
Standing sometimes waist-deep in seawater on the shores of the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, they work to find bricks, dig them out of the sludge and cart them to the side of the road to sell. The job is new, a result of devastating storm surges a little more than a decade ago. In 2007, and then again in 2009, cyclones battered the coastline just south of Kuakata, destroying homes and structures and drowning entire villages. The storms submerged forests of mangroves and left 99 local residents dead.
The sisters Kulsum and Komola Begum survived. Now they scavenge, looking for debris. They wait until low tide, when the receding waves reveal the rubble. Once they’ve wheeled bricks to the embankment, they break them into small, chestnut-size pieces. These shards are used in the foundations for homes in the new village, a mile up the shore.
Despite being responsible for only 0.3 percent of the emissions that cause global warming, Bangladesh is near the top of the Global Climate Risk Index, a ranking of 183 countries and territories most vulnerable to climate change. When scientists and researchers predict how global warming will affect populations, they usually use 20- and 50-year trajectories. For Bangladesh, the effects of climate change are happening now. Cyclones are growing stronger as temperatures rise and are occurring with more frequency.
Researchers warn that within a few decades, Bangladesh may lose more than 10 percent of its land to sea-level rise, displacing as many as 18 million people. Decisions to leave coastal communities aren’t really decisions at all. Families leave because there are no other options. There is no work. There are no homes. Over the past decade, an average of 700,000 Bangladeshis a year migrated because of natural disasters, moving to Dhaka to live in sprawling slums as climate refugees. Kulsum and Komola have managed to forge opportunity from disaster; they will stay, for now. They will continue to collect bricks to build the new village, even if the new village will most likely meet the same fate as the old one. — Jaime Lowe
The sisters Kulsum and Komola Begum make a living scavenging bricks, which they sell to construction workers for roughly $1.40 a sack.
During monsoon season, when currents are stronger and tides wash away the sand, the family can bag 60 to 70 sacks. Over all, they earn enough to send the children to school and buy uniforms and books.
Komola Begum’s sons sometimes help their mother collect the bricks. “When I can earn, my children can eat. If I don’t, they will starve,” Komola said. “I do this for my kids.”
Her son Nur-un-Nabi plays outside his family’s home, which is surrounded by fields of rice and grasses. When he is not at school, and not helping his mother on the shore, Nur-un-Nabi can often be found running on thin slippery dams, occasionally chasing a water snake slithering out of the flooded rice fields.
The dozen miles of beach crowns the tourist town of Kuakata, roughly two hundred miles south of Dhaka. The beach is surrounded by forests of mangroves and palm plantations, which are falling victim to increasingly aggressive cyclones, tidal surges and rising seas. ‘‘When we were young, the old people used to say that the sea was very far from here,’’ Komola said. ‘‘They packed up their meals and walked their way to the sea. But now you can reach it in no time.’’
Komola Begum loads bricks onto a cart that her son Bellal Nabi will pedal a few hundred yards along a path of hard-beaten earth up to an embankment where the bricks will be unloaded and broken into smaller chunks.
Nur-un-Nabi breaks bricks, while his aunt Kulsum does the same a short distance away. The piles of bricks rest on an embankment that was recently raised to make it more resistant to cyclones. The Begum families’ homes are about a hundred yards from the embankment — which the more pessimistic local residents expect will withstand just a few more cyclones before being washed away.
Komola and Kulsum Begum load a bag of brick for a client. A bag can be as heavy as 40 kilos, and the two sisters often help each other with the task. “It is a good business so far,” Komola said. “Sometimes we get pre-orders, and this is good money.”
At each low tide, new scraps of bricks are revealed in the mud. A few decades ago, Komola Begum recalled, there were fishing villages here, and roads, rice fields and plantations.
“Some bricks come from the fishing nets,” where they are used as weights, she said. “We don’t know where the others come from.” She assumes that many come from homes that have been swept away. “Now everything is under the sea,” she said from the beach, pointing toward the ocean.
Photo captions by Jacopo Pasotti.