Climate in turmoil

Indian fishermen and Burundian farmers have one thing in common: As poorest among the poor they are not responsible for climate change; yet they are the first who live with its consequences. In both countries, the weather has been diverting from its usual pattern for a decade. Welthungerhilfe trains fishermen and farmers to take precautions.

published by the NGO Welthungerhilfe, 4/2015, pp. 17-19 >>

“Seriously? You saw our house?” Dipak Mondal leans forward, excited and anxious. “Please, show us a photo!“  He sits on his bed in a makeshift dwelling next to a Kolkata highway, surrounded by his wife, son and parents. It’s narrow and dark – but cozy, more so than in the business district that starts behind the highway. Made of bamboo and covered with recycled billboards, their shed feels like a fortress. And while Europeans would call their settlement “slum”, Dipak has another word for it: „Little Kaikhali“, he says lovingly.

The arrangement of sheds, vegetable beds and clotheslines imitates a place that, 80 kilometers further south, slowly sinks into the sea: the island Kaikhali in the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest on earth. The Sundarbans are in the Ganges delta on the Indian-Bengali border, where according to Hindi beliefs Lord Shiva’s braid dissolves and unites with the sea. 4.4 million people live in this labyrinth – and nearly 300 tigers.

“The boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable,” Amitav Gosh writes in his novel The Hungry Tide about the Sundarbans. The inhabitants have learnt to adapt to those changes: They construct dykes and fish ponds, elevate their vegetable beds and hunt for crabs.

But in the last decades ever more extreme hurricanes and floods have shaken this order. The rising sea advances 200 meters onto the land every year. Several islands already disappeared. Between 2000 and 2001, per the Indian census, 100.000 people left the region permanently – among them the Mondal family.

“How is our place in Kaikhali?“ asks Dipak again. I hesitate. How am I supposed to tell him that even the ruins that they left behind are no longer? The image on my camera shows a cow on a clay base feeding on straw that is normally used to cover roofs. Raw material is scarce in the Sundarbans. Neighbors and cattle consume what the last hurricane left of the Mondal’s house. Which wasn’t much anyway.

“I have never seen a storm like Aila before.” Sahdev Sardar stands on an embankment a few kilometers from Dipak’s former house. Women in saris stroll along the dyke and fan cool air. It is difficult to imagine what happened here in May 2009: “When the sun had just risen, the sky turned pitch-black again” Sahdev remembers. “The storm raged and brought torrential rain. Around 10 am the embankment burst. Water flooded our neighborhood, forced its way through windows and doors into houses. We escaped by swimming along the embankment for half a kilometer.”

With the last strength, the Sardar family reached their ashram’s emergency shelter. Both of Sahdev’s daughters-in-law had never learnt to swim; they only survived because their husbands carried them. The Sardar’s cattle drowned, their house was crushed, and their fields were so salinized that for three years nothing grew.

And yet they were lucky: That same morning, several thousand people died, hundreds of thousands lost their land and work, a million people became homeless.

“I spent my whole life here.” Sahdev looks down on Matla, the “mad river,” which is now so calm. “But since Aila I can no longer sleep when it rains.”

Tigers in distress

Changing weather patterns leave not only the people of the Sundarbans in turmoil. Since the cyclone, Bengal tigers have been moving toward the villages. Everyone can name neighbors or relatives who died of tiger attacks after 2009; before Aila such attacks were extremely rare. “I assume that they cannot find any prey now that the forest is under water,” Sahdev says. He lifts his lungi just enough to reveal a deep scar that runs over his lower leg. “In the year after Aila I went crab hunting as always,” he says. “When I got out of the boat between mangroves to fasten the net, a tiger suddenly appeared behind me.” Sahdev owes his escape to his friends: They hit the animal with sticks until it let go.

Climate change? Never heard of, say both Sahdev in Kaikhali and Dipak in Little Kaikhali. Yet they are experts for its consequences: Sahdev notices that the monsoon occurs at other times than in his youth, that the sea level rises, that cyclones are more frequent and more violent. He adds that even crabs migrate into cooler waters.

His ecological footprint? Invisible.

The Sardar family does not have a car or electricity. When Sahdev visits his wife, who has been working as a housekeeper in Kolkata since the cyclone, he takes the bus. His ecological footprint is almost invisible; any European toddler has emitted more carbon dioxide than Sahdev in half a century. If it was for the people of the Sundarbans, there would be no climate change – and yet they are its first victims.

“It’s an incredible injustice,” says Michael Kühn, Welthungerhilfe’s climate expert. “Activists from affected countries are rightly demanding that the Global North has to at least limit the damage of climate change in the South.”

For this reason, Welthungerhilfe considers the effects of climate change in each project since 2011: It plans nutritional projects in the Andes so that they can get by with less water in the future because with glaciers melting the region’s water supply is endangered. It trains farmers in Kenya to catch rain on rock faces and store it. In the Sundarbans Welthungerhilfe supports its long-standing partner Sri Ramakrishna Ashram Nimpith (SRAN) that provides food and shelter to the most affected after cyclones.

“Even if climate change cannot be clearly blamed clearly for a single cyclone such as Aila, it does increase the probability of extreme weather events,” Kühn emphasizes. Together with his colleagues, he advocates for more sustainable consumption by targeting consumers and companies as well as politicians in Berlin, Brussels or at the next climate conference.

Heavy rain in the dry season

Jeanette Girukwishaka from Ngozi in Northern Burundi has also been surprised by changing weather pattern. In her small African country, scientists have been noticing deviating rainfall patterns since 2001 – with immediate harms for harvests.

In the middle of the dry season of 2014, a heavy rain poured down on Jeanette’s village. It destroyed her family’s hut and blew away their rice harvest which was drying on the roof. “The storm came so suddenly that we did not even have time to save our goat,” Jeanette says. “She was our only animal and pregnant. We found her here – drowned.” She points to a puddle in the middle of her mud hut.

Her hut is located at the foot of one of thousand hills that characterize the landscape in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. While hills have been terraced and afforested in large parts of Rwanda – among others in a Welthungerhilfe program – the hills in poorer Burundi lie bare, unprotected from erosion. The rain triggered an avalanche of mud and water which hit Jeanette’s house at full speed.

But the 46-year-old does not give up. To protect her village, she helps Welthungerhilfe to dig erosion trenches on the hills of northern Burundi – a total of 500 kilometers. Jeanette dearly needs the salary she gets for this work; she wants to reinstall her roof before the next rain.

While Burundi will probably be able to adapt to climate change, the inhabitants of the Sundarbans play for time: According to scientists their low-lying islands will be submerged within the next decades. The inhabitants cannot stop the sea level from rising, but they can play for time and postpone the moment where they will inevitably become climate refugees.

Playing for time

The Sri Ramakrishna Ashram in Nimpith is at the epicenter of this effort; it has been supported by Welthungerhilfe for many years. Every morning, 50 young nutritionists and agricultural scientists gather around the highest-ranking monk Swami Sadananda. “Swamiji” – orange robe, broad smile – sends them out to the remotest islands where they advise families. While he delivers his spiritual pep talk, villagers pass by to touch his feet and his antique landline phone rings incessantly.

Dilip Mondal from Baishata was eager to learn from SRAN’s agricultural scientists. He dug a fresh water pond and used the spill to raise his field by half a meter; the next flood no longer affected him. Growing beans, bananas and cucumbers, he earns five times more than his neighbor on the same land area whose field is still subject to flooding and salinization.

Sahdev Sardar is glad that he has succeeded to rebuild his little farm with the help of the ashram. “After the tiger attack, my son here tried to persuade me to move into the city,” he says, winking at 22-year-old Sajal. “But as migrant workers in Kolkata, we would have to tolerate a lot. In the Sundarbans, we are our own bosses on our own land.”

His family feels prepared for the next cyclone. SRAN has trained early warning teams and first aid groups in ten villages. “Before it hits again, we will have enough time to walk to the ashram with bag and baggage,” says Sahdev. However, their most important documents are safely stored in Kolkata. To be on the safe side.