UNDERWATERCoastal erosion is one of the biggest problems Bangladesh has to face, but shipbreakers are cutting mangroves and destroying natural barriers to make space for the shipbreaking yards.
The fishing village of Shitalpur in Bangladesh
Middle Akilpur, Bangladesh - Our feet sink into the mud as we approach the homes of Mahmud Jamal and his neighbours. The only thing protecting their houses from the water that is slowly flooding everything here in the village of Middle Akilpur, 20km from Chittagong, are a few plastic bags. Where once there were fields in this village, now there are marshes. “Most of us are farmers in these villages,” Mahmud explains, “but it has been a few years now that we cannot work the land anymore. Salt water has invaded the land, and, if once we managed to have two crops a year, now we cannot have even one.” Rising sea levels are one of the most urgent issues facing Bangladesh, according to organisations such as the World Bank. The country’s morphology, climate and the fact that it is floating on an immense delta, exposed to an increasing number of recurring and devastating typhoons, make it a prime victim of climate change. But it isn’t just the climate that is endangering the future of Mahmud and the other inhabitants of this village. “Before the shipbreaking yards got close to our homes, we had minor problems,” he says. “Then, they started cutting down the mangroves, which have been a barrier protecting us from the rising water since forever, and they started digging out the sand, destroying the natural barriers which were protecting our villages. And now, here we are in this situation: exposed to sea storms, we cannot work the land anymore, and our feet are perpetually under water.”
Some of the few mangroves left along Chittagong’s coast
The inhabitants of Middle Akilpur say they have tried to speak out against this - contacting local politicians and political parties, as well as the owners of the shipbreaking yards, asking for compensation. But, they say, nothing has changed. The coast, and its fragile ecosystem, continues to be destroyed. According to an estimate by YPSA, in the past few years about 60,000 mangrove trees have been cut down along the 14km of coast near the city of Chittagong, to make space for the ships. Mangroves are essential for this fragile ecosystem and are the last barrier against typhoons and floods. In 2009, 14,000 mangroves, planted with support from the United Nations, were pulled down to make space for shipbreaking yards. “They come here at night, cut down the trees and then leave,” says Mahmud. “We barely have time to realise what is going on.” In 2010, the High Court of Bangladesh directed four shipbreaking yards to close and replant the mangroves that had been cut down. But it took until October 2013, for them to stop work and they still have not replaced the mangroves.
Two villagers of Middle Akilpur with their feet in the water
Elsewhere, some plants are starting to grow again; trunks can be spotted among the skeletons of cargo ships and oil tankers that were brought to this coast to die. But this is not enough to shelter those who, like Mahmud, live along a shore regularly stricken by typhoons and flooding that leaves thousands of families without homes or jobs. The presence of trees along the coast helps to prevent erosion and limits the damage caused by floods. But the exploitation of the soil by the shipbreakers puts the ecosystem - which is already deeply compromised due to the heavy pollution from the shipbreaking yards, which discharge large quantities of toxic and highly polluting substances onto the beaches and into the sea - at risk. The inhabitants of the coastal villages try to protect themselves with barriers made of stone blocks and earth, but after a few sea storms, these fall down and leave room for the seawater to get in. “There is nothing we can do. Now, it’s seawater getting into our homes, but soon it will be the bulldozers that will come here and take everything away from us,” says Mahmud. “Bit by bit, centimetre after centimetre, the yards are taking over the entire coast, and will soon arrive here. And with them, the end will also come for all those people who have lived here for centuries, farming and breeding,” he adds.
Bathing after prayer in a village on the outskirt of Chittagong