The ‘hanging village’ of Bangladesh: A glaring reminder of climate change refugees

Bangladesh is a country that's bearing the brunt of climate change. With cyclones and monsoon floods, the coastal villages in the country see many climate refugees.

Rafiqul Islam Montu
| Updated: August 14th, 2020

Some of the houses in the 'hanging village' of Bangladesh's Kalabagi village. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

“This is our home now,” Ilias Hossain, a 42-year-old man, told Gaon Connection. Behind him was his house, one of the hundreds of ‘hanging houses’ – houses elevated using bamboo poles – in Kalabagi village of Bangladesh’s Khulna district. There is no other way to survive the wrath of the Shibsa river. Cyclone Aila that hit the coastal areas of the country in 2009 changed the lives of the people in Khulna’s Sutarkhali union of Dakop uplazila forever.

“My house was here. Things were going well. We had some land, and we made a living through agriculture. But Aila came and finished us,” said Ilias. “We lost our homes and our land. There is no other option other than to live this way. High tides are frequent, so we elevated the house,” he added.

According to the Bangladesh government, Cyclone Aila killed 190 people, injured over 7,000, and damaged and destroyed over five lakh houses in 11 districts in southern Bangladesh, including the most-affected districts of Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat, Barguna, Barisal, Bhola, Pirojpur, and Patuakhali.

The ‘hanging Village’ of Kalabagi. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

All the houses in Kalabagi were once on the ground. There used to be front yards where children used to play. There used to be small vegetable gardens around the house. But, then came the cyclone and the people lost everything. However, the disaster taught them, rather, forced them to adapt. They learned hanging their houses is the best bet against high tides.

The Kalabagi village is by the Shibsa river. The Sundarbans is on the other side of the river. Most people here make a living by catching shrimps in the river and some villagers work in the Sundarbans. Moving from this place would also mean moving away from their only livelihood.

“The village had a lot of lands. But, it was all lost due to erosion,” said 45-year-old Ruhul Amin, a resident of the village. Moniruzzaman, 48, also faced the same plight. His house was near the Sundarbans, but he had to move when the river erosion increased.

Cyclone Aila caused extensive damage to over 1,400 kilometres of embankments, an estimated 8,800 kilometres of roads, and approximately 3,50,000 acres of farmland.

The embankment built after Cyclone Aila has been collapsing in the past few years. New embankments are being constructed around Sutarkhali funding from the World Bank. More than five hundred families of Kalabagi are living outside the embankment. Since there is a threat of erosion by the Shibsa river, the new embankments are being built far away. The people who have been hit by the erosion are of the opinion that rather than moving the embankment away from the river, steps should be taken to stop the erosion itself. They feel if erosion is not prevented, the new embankments built will also be washed away.

Life inside a ‘hanging house’. The tidal water touches the house. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Lack of employment opportunities

The Sundarbans and the Shibsa river have long been the livelihood of the people of Kalabagi village. Their income has declined since Cyclone Aila. New rules have come in the way of work in the Sundarbans. Catching shrimp has been banned. Despite such rules, alternative job opportunities were not provided to the villagers. People who were already devastated by natural disasters have lost jobs too.

People find it hard to find employement in the village. They go elsewhere in search of work. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Saiful Islam, 44, a resident of Kalabagi village, remembers how the village was before the cyclone hit. “There was no hanging house here, houses were on the ground. Those houses had green trees. There were roads inside the village. There was work, and the economic situation was good,” Saiful said. “The crisis started after Cyclone Aila, and since then, we have faced many natural disasters. But, we don’t get much help from the government,” he lamented.

Rafiqul Islam Khokon, Executive Director of Khulna-based non-profit Rupantar, said the area has been at high risk after the cyclone. “Locals lost land due to erosion. This has made infrastructural development impossible in the area,” he said. “These people are victims of climate change. It is very important to change their condition. They have to be relocated and rehabilitated,” he added.

The ‘hanging village’ is by the Shibsa river. Across the river is The Sundarbans. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Lack of clean drinking water

Even before the cyclone hit, Kalabagi had a shortage of clean drinking water. The cyclone exacerbated the water crisis. The salinity of the river water increased abnormally since the cyclone and saline water entered ponds and canals. As a result, the sources of drinking water in the area reduced.

Saline water also rose from tube wells in the area. Installation of 160-165 feet pipe didn’t result in freshwater. The water of the river is sweet during the Bengali month of Jaistha-Ashar. Then, the water in the pond is also sweet. But post this period, salinity increases. Not everyone has access to water reservoirs.

People now store water brought from afar – like Dakop upazila, Sadar, and Khulna – in numerous plastic drums. These could be seen while walking through the village. People try their best to save rainwater. This is also stored in the drums. The problem is so severe that there is a possibility of people stealing drinking water from the drums and hence, the mouth of the drum is sealed tight.

Plastic drums filled with drinking water brought from afar. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

“I can eat rice thrice a day, but I can’t drink water frequently,” said Sakiran Bibi, 45, wife of Jalal Mir of Kalagabi village. “Water scarcity is less during the rainy season. I use rainwater and save it too. However, when rains stop, there is a severe shortage of drinking water,” said Zaida Khatun, who was standing beside Sakiran.

Union Parishad Member Montaz Uddin Sana addressed these problems in the area. “Erosion must be prevented with blocks on the banks of the river. Then the crisis will reduce a lot,” he said.

Saline water affects pregnancy

The saline water is also leading to more abortions in the village. Many women conceive with much difficulty and usually face miscarriages in their first pregnancy. Sajida Begum, 30, wife of Ashraful Sardar, is one of them. She conceived after a long time but miscarried. Women here, however, do not know how the saline water is affecting pregnancy.

Women in this area use saline water much longer than women in other areas. They work in saltwater – stay in the river’s saline water for a long time to catch shrimps. They also drink saline water. Shefali Begum, 60, said she spent her entire life using saline water. “We are poor people. Where do we go?” she sighed.

Some women who have faced complications while giving birth to children. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Between 2012 and 2017, the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh monitored 12, 867 pregnant women from conception to childbirth. These include women from coastal and hilly areas. The agency found that women from coastal areas, living within 20 kilometers from the sea, were more prone to abortions than women from hilly or highland areas. The difference is due to the amount of salt in the water they are drinking.

Climate change refugees on the rise

It’s been 11 years since Cyclone Aila hit the area, but people in this area have been facing extreme crises. The ‘Hanging village’ of Kalabagi is a testimony to this. It is true for many places along the coast of Bangladesh. People are becoming climate refugees. Scientists predict climate change will increase this risk in the future.

A new study published last week in Scientific Reports journal said rising sea levels could be even more dangerous in the future. According to the research, Bangladesh is at high risk. Many kinds of natural disasters can strike the country in this century. Economic losses will increase and sea level will rise even more. Strong coastal storms can hit. The strength of the waves can increase and there may be high tides. The risk of periodic flooding could affect millions of people.

“The number of cyclones in the coastal areas of Bangladesh has increased a lot in the last few years,” said Gawhar Naeem Wara, convener of the Bangladesh Disaster Forum. “The strength of the cyclone, river erosion, and tidal surges have also increased. Many people in the coastal areas lost their homes, but we could not take appropriate action for them. Proper rehabilitation of these people affected by climate change is essential,” he added.