Rangu Debi, 70, lives on Monpura, an isolated island of Bhola district in Bangladesh, by the Meghna River. A widow with six children, she has seen many catastrophic cyclones and floods, but fifty years ago, Cyclone Bhola’s flood waters took everything from her.
“The flood water of 1970 cyclone took one of my daughters, whom I miss always. We spent whole night in tress, some survived holding tail of dead cows. We lost our homes, communal assets and livelihoods,” she says.
Since then she’s been living in a government shelter, and her story is not uncommon.
A densely populated, low-lying country dominated by floodplains, Bangladesh is exceptionally vulnerable to flooding. Long subject to frequent cyclones, extreme weather and storm surges, climate change is now supercharging those events.
Meanwhile, rising sea levels are driving a slow onset disaster in salinization. Rangu says it’s affected her family’s health. In earlier days, river and pond water was safe to drink, but not any longer.
“Now the water tastes salty, and we feel abdominal pain all the time. We suffer often from diarrhea, dysentery and jaundice,” she says.
Those able to leave hazard-prone areas have done so, while the poorest have been left behind with flimsy housing, tenuous livelihoods and nowhere to go when disaster strikes.
Hundreds of millions of lives hang in the balance.
UNDP has been supporting Bangladesh with advancing adaptation planning and budgeting and tracking domestic climate finance, to resilience building, to reducing emissions from fossil fuel-based power and advancing the country’s REDD+ Readiness Roadmap.
One project has taken a community-led, approach, working with nature to improve jobs and food security and reduce disaster risk.
Since 2015, with the backing of the Global Environment Facility-Least Developed Countries Fund, Bangladesh’s Forest Department and UNDP have been working with eight coastal communities in the Bhola, Barguna, Patuakhali, Noakhali and Pirojpur.
Razia Begum, 48, lives on the island of Char Johiruddin in Bhola. She came almost 20 years ago with her family after losing her home and everything she owned to riverbank erosion.
Her new home is also extremely precarious. The houses are not sturdily built — they are constructed with bamboo, corrugated iron or even straw. When frequent cyclones hit, the family and their livestock take shelter in the local cyclone centre.
“The children cannot go to school for many days,” she says. “We lose crops, livelihoods, cattle, and our homes.”
By offering families more resilient, sustainable livelihoods, the project is helping them put food on the table and increase their incomes, while also reducing pressure on forests.
More than 2,000 families have been taught how to cultivate of saline-tolerant rice, build floating vegetable gardens, and grow fruit and pulses.
More than 2,500 households have been trained in livestock-rearing, such as raising ducks establishing fisheries, including cage aquaculture and crab fattening.
A further 140 households have been introduced to innovative ecosystem-based farming models, including the award-winning ‘Forest-Fruit- Fish-Vegetable’ model (3FV), implemented in 28 hectares of degraded forest land.
To regulate drainage and protect agricultural fields from saline water intrusion, the project has also been excavating 2.9 kilometres of canals and renovated sluice gates.
One hundred and fifty tube well platforms have been raised above flood level, while 140 new ponds are also helping ensure safe drinking water .
Razia and her family have benefitted from the new farming models and are happy to have fresh, safe water.
“Two years ago we had very few ponds so we were dependent on the tube well. Now we have 40 ponds,” she says. “As tidal water cannot enter the ponds, so we get fresh rainwater. It reduces our labour.”
The project has constructed six raised earthen platforms, which can shelter up to 15,000 livestock during disasters.
Restoring and nurturing mangrove forests, a first line of defence against climate disasters — has been a core component of the project.
Since its inception, more than 572,000 seedlings of 12 climate-resilient species have been raised in its nurseries.
The project has expanded the diversity of species in 650 hectares of previously mono-culture plantations, also developing an assessment plan to determine how effective the diversification has been.
Some 600 people, mostly women, are now members of Forest Resource Protection Groups established under the project to manage and protect mangroves.
Jannatul Ferdous, 42, is a housewife and sometime day labourer, who is now able to sell fish to support her family. Prior to taking part in the 3FV programme she would collect wood illegally from forests, but now she has been trained as a forest steward.
“We are thankful for the programme,” she says. “High tidal surges have brought a negative impact on our lives. The tidal surge water increases 10–12 feet. It’s also affected the greenbelt which is protecting us from disasters and cyclones.”
Story by Kate Jean Smith, Communications Specialist for Climate Change Adaptation, UNDP. Photos: UNDP Bangladesh/ICBA-AR Project except where otherwise cited.