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The curse and blessing of shrimp

April 22, 2009

We charge at speed down roads perched high above watery fields and ponds, and barely wide enough for our bus to pass another. But we don’t slow. Not when two cycle rickshaws, overtaking men pulling a cart loaded with log, are filling the road just metres in front. Not when a gaggle of schoolchildren chase a goat across our path. Not when we are confronted with our own therebutforthegraceofgod in the buckled shape of two overturned buses on their sides with their face and guts mangled and strewn in a spaghetti of metal, and with blood on the well-maintained tarmac. 32 people a day die on Bangladeshi roads, but we are fortunate.

In time, the landscape of emerald paddies splashed with rusty coloured brick factories becomes browner. The fields approaching Khulna and beyond have largely been converted to shrimp farms and nothing grows in such salty water. After the garment industry, shrimp farming is the country’s biggest foreign economic earner. There is a huge amount of money, power and politics invested in this industry that emerged only 10 years ago when one relatively well-off farmer, called Mohasin from Shyamnager village, decided that instead of closing the sluice gate against the salty seawater after harvesting his rice, he would open it and trap the water and shrimp larvae within his protective polder (dyke). That year he produced a good yield of shrimp which he sold for an impressive amount of money. The idea caught on and soon other farmers, some of whom had been struggling to grow rice with the increasing salinity, joined him. The trouble was that most of these farmers were leasing plots from landowners who, seeing their impoverished leaseholders grow suddenly richer than they from shrimp farming, refused to renew the tenancies, saying that the practice was destroying rice crops. The landowners then swiftly shifted to shrimp farming employing very cheap labour – the previous tenants were forced either to work as labourers or elsewhere in shrimp production. As the shrimp export market has emerged and expanded, these landowners have become extremely wealthy. Many have become greedy and are unsustainably flooding their neighbours’ paddy fields either through accident or to bully them off the land so they can purchase it cheaply.

So while shrimp farming has brought wealth to the country and to many landowners here, it also gathers misery in its skirts both locally and from far away as flood-displaced migrants are drawn to Khulna’s apparently gold paved streets – 40,000 people a year move here. In the town’s slums we met some of these fortune seekers. Sleeping 7 to 10 in one-room hovels, many of these people – who greet us in the wonderfully friendly manner that is typical to Bangladeshis – have been forced from their villages by river erosion, by increasing flooding due to sea level rise, by loss of subsistence farming due to increased salinity, and by crippling poverty.

We meet Jamal Fakir and his wife Rakha Begum who lives here with his five children. Jamal is a cycle rickshaw driver (80-100 Taka per day) and Rakha and the four oldest children (of whom the youngest is 7) all work in one of the shrimp factories a few yards away (she earns 80 Taka per day, whereas the kids make 50 Taka a day). Although we are 150 kilometres from the Bay of Bengal here, the effects of rising sea level are already being felt. Jamal tells me that during the highest tides (at full moon) the water is at least knee height in their house, whereas 5 years ago it didn’t enter the house as often. And others, who have lived here for as long as 15 years, chip in, telling me that the water comes in much more often than it used to and stays there for longer in fetid stagnant pools. Dhaka University climate scientist Atiq Rahman, an IPCC member, who has studied sea level rise in the area, says that it is rising by 7 millimetres per year here (the global average is 3.4mm). “In our childhoods we never saw water in our homes. Now every year our houses are flooded by salty water,” one resident tells me.

In the slums where Jamal and Rakha live, the water carries sewage, disease and destruction into the houses. People seek refuge on the road, which is slightly higher, living under tarpaulin or palm leaves. The people here have strange skin complaints, some of which are the result of arsenic in the water, but others due to their unsanitary living conditions and malnutrition. During the dry season between September and February there is little work here and the canals that used to bring fresh water into the area are all silted up. The open sewers don’t flush to the river – the whole area stinks.

We make to leave and a small boy grabs Nick’s arm. Grinning, he points to the camera and to himself asking for a photo. Nick obliges and the boy stands proudly in nothing but a threadbare pair of filthy shorts, his arms, back and forehead covered in skin-lumps. The camera snaps and the child rushes round to look at his image on the screen. Delighted, he stands hand in hand with a friend to wave off we two visitors from another world who were lucky enough to glimpse his for an hour or so.

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