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.

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.

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."

'Come to the Sundarbans While it Still Exists'

But the shrimp farmer is satisfied. He is eager to show us his cultivation ponds. With a flick of the wrist, he pulls the only garment that he wears, a piece of blue cloth, up to his hips, and wades into the mire. Working in the sludge leaves him with countless infected sores all over his wiry body. He leans over and skillfully runs his hands through the murky water. After a few moments, he seizes a large shrimp. The gray scaly creature measures 15 centimeters and writhes wildly. He says that a truck will arrive soon to pick up his 5,000 harvested crustaceans. In return, he will receive 30,000 taka, roughly €300 -- a small fortune that will even allow him to afford a house made of concrete.

Although this may appear to be a successful adaptation to the changing climate, not everyone is happy. "The shrimp grow all by themselves. Now I don't need a single hired hand," says the shrimp baron with a grin. Local farmers used to hire around 200 workers for every hectare. Now they only need three laborers for the same acreage, estimates activist Mondal. He says, "for the rest of the population, this region has nothing more to offer. Unemployed laborers hang around or venture into the swamps, illegally scavenge wood or poach tigers. Only very few have benefited from the shrimp boom."

A small minority reaps the profits of change

Salinization could have enormous consequences for Bangladesh's food supply. Whereas Bangladesh's southwest was once the country's breadbasket helping to feed the nation, now the region's bounties are all exported in the form of shrimp. And the money earned ends up in the pockets of only a few people who now have to pay fewer workers. Many observers see this as a dangerous development. "Climate change means that the poor get poorer and food supplies become more limited," says climate researcher Atiq Rahman from the capital Dhaka.

South of the stinking shrimp farms, every additional millimeter of rising sea levels has the potential to wreak havoc on the environment. Only centimeters above mean sea level lies the world's largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, with its extensive network of tidal waterways. This vast and impenetrable woodland covers an estimated 17,000 square kilometers. Depending on the phase of the moon and the rainy season, the forest is either slightly submerged or transformed into a sea of mud, where small mangrove roots protrude from the soil. Here, deep in the jungle, live the last 200 Bengali tigers -- the pride of the nation.

For many years, this fragile environment between the mainland and the sea has been a World Heritage Site and protected as a unique habitat for a large number of species. Now it is seriously threatened. Salt from the sea has severely stressed the mangroves, which, in contrast to normal trees, breathe with their roots. Due to a lack of funds, researchers are unable to ascertain the exact source of the problem, but they have described a mysterious dying of trees, which starts when the canopies of the huge mangroves rot away. This is widely attributed to the higher salt content in the water. In addition, the trees have simply stopped growing, says an employee of the forestry department.

"The Sundarbans' days are numbered"

Our guide on a boat trip through the jungle is Bapi, a beefy man who has already accepted the inevitable: "The Sundarbans' days are numbered." He goes on to say that even if the rising sea level could be stopped, sediments from the rivers will bury the Sundarbans. Ever since the 1970s, when the government began building levees to protect some riverside areas against flooding, the waters have deposited increasing amounts of material in the mangrove forests. These sediments prevent the trees from breathing through their roots, says Bapi. As a result, he predicts that the forest will disappear in 10 years.

Our boat ride through the mangroves is an amazing experience. Huge flocks of birds fly over the forest and monkeys scream in the canopy overhead. However, the boat makes too much noise for a glimpse of the world-famous tiger. People in Munshiganj often tell strangers that nearly 100 victims a year fall prey to the great beasts, but authorities on the subject flatly dismiss such claims: The big cats don't like human flesh. Only very weak or old tigers are liable to attack people, mostly locals gathering honey in the forest. Healthy tigers prefer small monkeys for dinner. "The tiger can take whatever he wants," says our guide with a certain amount of pride.

Bapi sits pensively at the bow of his wooden boat. In his lap is a loaded rifle, just in case. Time and again, he points to the mangroves that are already slowly dying. "It's a crying shame because this forest is unique in the world. People eventually ruin everything," he says. He used to have an advertising slogan for his exclusive clients: "Come to the Sundarbans before the tourists come." But Bapi is changing his slogan to reflect the realities of today. His slogan for the future is "Come to the Sundarbans while it still exists."

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