Struggling to Adapt in Bangladesh The Salty Taste of Global Warming

As sea levels rise, salt in the ground water is slowly transforming Bangladesh's breadbasket into a vast shrimp farm. Yet what may be good for the farmers is bad for everyone else. A visit to the front lines of climate change.

By in Munshiganj, Bangladesh

Global warming has slightly delayed lunchtime in the hut of Topon Mondal. The farmer has dished up a special meal for his foreign guests. There is steaming hot shrimp with tomato sauce in brightly colored bowls placed on the clay floor. His wife Shupria Rani has just prepared this lavish treat, but the food will have to wait.

"At mealtimes, we used to drink the water that we pumped from the ground right here," says Mondal. Now, before the meal can begin, his wife has to run out again to fetch drinking water. The water from their own property has simply become too salty. They can only use it for laundry and cleaning around the house.

Salt in the groundwater has fundamentally changed Mondal's life. The 28-year-old farmer once grew rice and vegetables, just as his father did before him, roughly 90 kilometers from the coast, in small village of Munshiganj in south-western Bangladesh. Mondal used to harvest a number of times each year. It was a life of hard labor, but they had enough to eat. Then rice production started to decline, and eventually the vegetable crops failed entirely. Another farmer told him that the salt in the water was to blame for the poor harvests. Mondal had tasted the salt before, but didn't think it was a problem.

What Mondal sees as an unavoidable twist of fate is actually what researchers have identified as the first consequences of global warming. Gradually rising sea levels are forcing saltwater from the Bay of Bengal into the lowland, delta region of south-western Bangladesh, and into the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, an area crisscrossed by countless rivers and canals. Salt from the sea is slowly seeping into the groundwater, contaminating drinking water and fields, steadily working its way farther and farther north.

"Global warming is already a reality here," says Mohon Mondal, a local environmentalist. "You can taste the sea salt even though we are far away from the coast."

Farmers adapt to saltier surroundings

The environmentalist is one of the few individuals here who knows the facts about climate change. Working with a theater group, he tries to teach farmers about the causes of global warming and help them find ways of coping with the new situation. Just when he wants to show pictures of the group, the power fails -- hardly an uncommon occurrence here.

"We're the first victims of a global consumer economy, but we can't even generate enough electricity for ourselves," grumbles the activist. Bangladesh's power plants only generate half the energy required by the country. The average Bangladeshi produces just 178 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year -- a mere drop in the bucket compared to the 21 tons per capita released annually by Americans.

Farmer Mondal has seen the theater performance, but he didn't understand much. Nevertheless, he is actively working to adapt his life to the salt. "My vegetable fields stopped producing, so I've started to raise shrimp." He is sitting on his heels and smoking a ganja cigarette in a small hut located in the middle of his property. All around him there are large expanses of water, enclosed by low clay containment walls. Despite the sweet smell of the smoke, a horrible stench of decay permeates the air. Bright green algae are flourishing in the stagnant, murky water.

Navigating the delta of Bangladesh.

Navigating the delta of Bangladesh.

These stinking fields have become a booming source of income in the "salt region," as researchers in the capital Dhaka now call the area. Saltwater shrimp that are normally found in the sea live under the algae in the warm muck. They are thriving in their new environment. For two months, the shrimp feed off of the algae and cow manure that Mondal frequently spreads on his fields. When the crustaceans reach the right size, they are picked up by wholesalers, then frozen and shipped by container or flown directly to retail chains in large European and American cities. As for the locals, they can rarely enjoy such delicacies. "The shrimp are far too valuable for us to eat," says the farmer.

"A stinking fish factory for Europe and the US "

This new industry is dramatically altering the landscape. According to Mondal, the environmental activist, this is the first year that more acreage is being used for raising shrimp than for rice paddies and vegetable fields. The entire region resembles a muddy, watery landscape. Viewed from a car, the fields sparkle in the sunlight, yet reek of foul water and rotting fish. Local farmhouses can only be reached via small dykes between the basins. Mondal says, "this region used to be very green, with palms and other trees growing all over the place. Now it's a stinking fish factory for Europe and the US."


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