Bangladesh - early December, 2007 A small group, myself, my film-partner Tyler, our friend and guide Bachchu, and a driver are on the road leaving Khulna, Bangladesh, traveling southeast. Where we are headed is a small town called Sarantjola, situated in one of the worst hit areas by Cyclone Sidr which roared off the Bay of Bengal on Nov. 15, only three weeks ago. In Khulna, Bangladeshs third largest city, you wouldnt have know a massive ball of wind and water roared through the eastern portion of the countrys Sundarban National Forest, but for the occasional mangled billboard and daily press coverage. It is thanks to that wall of green, the worlds largest mangrove ecosystem and a UN World Heritage Site, that Khulna, an urban center of more than 4 million, was spared and the damage not worse. The uncountable network of waterways and islands that make up the Sundarban act as a sponge to storms that rip off the Bay of Bengal, diverting their energy much the same way a car frame does in a wreck. The fisherman and harvesters, however, working close to the bay, and the people living in villages off the forest's eastern edge faced the storm with little more than a thatched roof for protection from 143 mph winds and no stockpile of any kind in which to weather the storm that brought a saltwater tidal surge over 26 feet high. It is to one of these areas that we are headed...
Tyler and I came to the Indian subcontinent slightly more than four weeks ago with the express intent of documenting, on film, what global climate change means to those people who are at the greatest risk of a warming planet. For us it is not a question of hard science, nor is it about convincing skeptics; for us, it is about telling the story of people who are facing the consequences of environmental degradation on a global level. It is countries, such as Bangladesh, labeled as developing and more often than not, the byproducts of the fresh scar of European colonialism, that are facing the severe whiplash from climate change without being a major or even substantial contributor of greenhouse gases. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and also one of the poorest. Its masses know more about environmental conservation and efficiency than those of most developed nations, simply out of necessity and survival. Seeking out a living, on a village level, on the same piece of ground or out of the same river, generation after generation, is no small task, but rather one that breeds connection to and stewardship of natural resources.
Things are always changing, though...small changes, but hideous, titanic-sized changes when put in the context of putting food on the table and a roof over your head. Through interviews with Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizationss, local university professors/students, business owners and, most importantly, residents living so close to the land that the dirt stuck between their toes seems genetic, we are compiling a picture of whats happening to Bangladesh. Rivers are changing, because of upstream neighbor Indias race for industrialization, and not producing the sediment and flooding necessary for agricultural land to revitalize itself. The soil is increasing in salinity, due to changes in precipitation and the tireless inland creep of tides, causing smaller crops and a lack of usable land. The traditional six seasons have been reduced to four, causing hotter dry spells, longer time in between rainfall, and flooding when the rain does come from increased intensity. And the storms, lest we forget the storms, have increased in frequency and intensity. Cyclones have been a way of life in Bangladesh for as long as the Bay of Bengal has existed, but now they are coming more frequently and with greater intensity, such as Sidr has shown. We heard one story about a fisherman who had been out on the water since childhood and for as long as he could remember had been able to predict storms and weather them. He refuses, now, to go too far out on the water because the he can no longer predict storms and is afraid of their newfound intensity.
That is why we are out to document Sidr, its disastrous, deadly effects, and understand the people it dominated. In the US, climate change feels like an underscored adulterous relationship between politics and economics. Somewhere in the media attention about climate change there is meaning and practicality, but all too often it has been smothered by overly friendly smiles and sign-waving know-it-alls. Here in Bangladesh, the natural resilience to Mother Nature that seeps out of the locals' pores is changing, and climate change seems to be the guilty party. More and more we have heard the story of youth leaving villages for want of work, and farmers or fisherman becoming laborers of some other capacity. Down in Sarantojola we heard, firsthand, tales of people ready to move north, out of the growing dangers of living near the coast, and stories of people for whom poverty and hunger are growing by the year. There is one simple truth: environmental changes are happening too fast for people to adapt. And with a growing population, the ancient ability of calamity avoidance migration is getting harder and harder to do.
It is the sad truth that global south countries like Bangladesh are the most likely, and most vulnerable, to green house gas emissions from global north countries like the U.S. and Western Europe, and are on a list of nations most susceptible to the industrial by-products of developed countries. Countries like Bangladesh lack the infrastructure to mitigate, or for that matter directly influence, the negative repercussions of climate change. One can only hope that they will not choose a development plan similar to ours and will instead look within for strategies to evolve and provide for their people. Already in Bangladesh the main choice of transportation is a bicycle, mostly out of necessity; the government has banned the use of plastic bags; and almost all auto-rickshaws, the small, motorized people movers, were converted from diesel to compressed natural gas. All of this from a country whose signature on the Kyoto protocol is drowned among those of more developed nations. Be wary of the debate surrounding climate change and those who debate it. They have the luxury of high ground and concrete homes. For Tyler and I, Cyclone Sidr was an obstacle in our path that turned into the biggest lesson either of us could have learned: that in our global community, it does matter if you walk or drive to work. Connecting how you live with the natural world around you is a necessity, no longer a choice. Bangladesh may be halfway around the world from the U.S., but like any good canary in a coal mine, it is squawking its head off in alarm, not conscious of its own self-preservation but rather for the larger safety of our collective society.
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