They call it 'climate injustice.' Here's how Sufia Khatun of Bangladesh is fighting it

It's called "climate injustice." Here's how Sufia Khan of Bangladesh fights it
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Sufia Khatun claims that big cyclones used hit her community in Morrelganj, southwest Bangladesh, about once every quarter century. She says that while we now experience a large cyclone every two to three years, and a smaller one almost every year, it used to be common for us to have a small cyclone once in a while. She says that the community must have stronger defenses against the wind and water assaults. Otherwise, the area could be uninhabitable.

It's an unnatural disaster, which is especially troubling. Because richer countries have released huge amounts of heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere through burning oil, coal, and gas, the storms are stronger and the sea is rising. Ashish Barua is a program manager at Helvetas (a Swiss development agency that works in Morrelganj), and says, "We [in Bangladesh] haven't contributed even 1% global [greenhouse gas] emission." "I am not contributing to the problem, but it is something I am experiencing. It's what we call climate injustice.

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This is Bangladesh's river delta. It is formed by a network of waterways that run towards the Bay of Bengal. The cyclones bring huge amounts of saline water downstream from the sea to help them. The water surge erodes levees-like structures called embankments, flooding rice pads and contaminating water ponds that people depend on for their drinking water. Khatun, speaking through an interpreter during a Zoom call in the early morning, says that saline water has impacted our livelihoods, crops, and fishing.

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She says that rice paddies, which once produced three harvests per year, now stand empty for the majority of the year. Damage to household gardens has also led to the loss of home-grown food. Because of contaminated water, chronic illness is on the rise.

She says that 60% of men in this community are now unable to farm and have fled for work. They go to Dhaka (the capital) or Chattogram. Even people migrate to India, Bangalore and Kolkata.

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Khatun is the leader of Mothers Parliament, an organization that promotes better water infrastructure in Bangladesh's coast region. She knows exactly what she would say if she was able to address the international climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. She doesn't want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but she does want help dealing with climate change's consequences.

She says that there are two clear demands. They're directed at both the Bangladeshi government, international governments, and charities. She needs help to rebuild embankments that are supposed hold back the surges of saline water and prevent it from flooding homes and fields. She says that the root cause is the failure of embankments. All other problems can be solved if they are repaired and properly maintained. She also wants to see better infrastructure to provide safe drinking water.

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The long-term survival strategies she suggests are not universally accepted. Experts in water management continue to debate whether embankments are a viable solution to the region's water problems. Undisputed is the need for this region to adapt to changing climates.

Bangladesh has made incredible progress in adapting to climate change. The system now sends out warnings about impending cyclones and has a network of strong shelters for people in need. Saleemul Huq (Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, ICCCAD), Dhaka) said that "we have the most efficient cyclone shelter and warning program in the world." In the past, tens of thousands of people died. Today, we are able to warn and evacuate millions of people.

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Scientists have created new varieties of crops that can be grown in seasons with less flooding risk and that can tolerate more salt water. However, Khatun states that only a few farmers have been able to receive these seeds. Many villagers prefer to grow their vegetables indoors in raised containers rather than in soil that is contaminated with saline. Many people are using rainwater to capture and use during monsoon season.

Bangladesh's economy is actually a recent success. The growing textile industry in larger cities has fueled rapid growth. The life expectancy and measures of educational opportunities are both increasing, while child mortality is decreasing. The World Bank reclassified the country from "low income" to "lower-middle-income."

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Consequently, there is an increase in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. According to Bangladesh, the United Nations recently reported that Bangladesh's energy consumption would double in the next ten year under a "business-as-usual" scenario. Although the country contributes a small amount to global carbon dioxide emissions, its share is increasing.

The fate of the coastal areas is still uncertain as climate change accelerates. Sufia Khatun states, "If we fail to repair the embankments in the future, the Morrelganj region will be completely off-the-map."