In the middle of the world’s largest delta, an island is disappearing.
Bhola Island is the “ground zero” of climate change, and home to what have been called the world’s first climate refugees.
Bangladesh’s largest island is located where one of the country’s mightiest rivers, the Meghna, meets the Indian ocean at the Bay of Bengal.
Caught between rising sea levels and the increased water pressure of the river, which has its source in the melting Himalayan glaciers, the island is rapidly being eroded.
Rezaul Chowdhury from the Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (Coast) explains: “Every second, this river carries one million cubic feet of water down through the Meghna and around Bhola island.
“All of the siltation gathered by the waters in South Asia meet in the Bay of Bengal, along Bhola island, creating the highest amount of river erosion in Bangladesh.”
International scientists count Bangladesh as one of the countries worst hit by climate change.
The country loses an estimated 100 square kilometres of land to river erosion ever year, and nowhere is the situation more dire than on Bhola.
Since 1995, half of the island has succumbed to erosion caused by heavier waters and rising sea levels.
Half of the island’s population has been forced to relocate their homes, many fleeing to the teeming slums of Dhaka.
For those who have stayed, life has become increasingly difficult as they watch their land being eaten away by the waters.
“I go where the river takes me, but the waters have become too dangerous for my children, it’s difficult to fish, many of our people have drowned”
Shah Jahan, Bedey or “river gypsy”
Of the land that remains, the invading sea water has swallowed vast areas of rice fields, making food insecurity a great threat to the increasingly cramped 1.5 million inhabitants of the island.
According to Quazi Ahmad, who represented Bangladesh at the 2007 intergovernmental panel on climate change, the entire coastal region has been adversely affected.
“As climate change intensifies, part of the coastal area will be inundated with salt water, and therefore we will lose agricultural land. If action is not taken to reverse the effects of climate change, up to 30 per cent of agricultural productivity may be lost in South Asia.”
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, and food security is already precarious.
In Bhola, the situation is already severe enough to demand a serious response. In order to tackle the food shortage, the Bangladesh government is distributing food to villagers who have lost their rice fields to climate change.
Many who have lost their fields have also lost their homes. Those who live along the island’s coastline are particularly vulnerable, and many have been forced to move home several times.
At this rate, it is estimated that in a matter of decades the island could be lost entirely.
Chowdhury predicts: “In 30, 40, 50 years, there will be no Bhola Island.”
If the trend is not reversed, islanders here will join climate refugees from other parts of the country, creating even great pressures on the country’s teeming cities.
‘River gypsies’ threatened
Not only is global warming affecting those on land but it is also affecting those on the water.
The Bedeys, known as river gypsies in Bangladesh, are a unique group of people who spend the majority of each year navigating houseboats on the country’s 700 rivers, estuaries and canals.
“River gypsies” are abandoning their way of life as the water becomes more dangerous
Shah Jahan is one of the thousands of river gypsies that live on the waterways surrounding this island.
Over the past decade, the river he calls home has become unpredictable. Erratic rivers and unpredictable monsoons have forced him to reconsider his nomadic lifestyle.
Speaking from the cozy confines of his houseboat, he says: “I go where the river takes me, but the waters have become too dangerous for my children, it’s difficult to fish, many of our people have drowned, I don’t want my children to share this same fate.”
Many river gypsies who frequent the waters around Bhola Island are now abandoning their houseboats to carve out a space for themselves on land.
A small and distinctive group, there are only 800,000 river gypsies in Bangladesh, and their numbers are dwindling. In the past decade alone, 250,000 have abandoned their traditional way of life.
With a sense of impending doom, Bangladeshis are adamant that something must be done to reverse the climate change which threatens to swallow the country’s islands and shoreline, irrevocably changing the lives of the millions who have their homes there.