EVERY year people in Sheffield raise £65,000 for Christian Aid Week to help some of the poorest people in the world. Ben Spencer travelled to Bangladesh for The Star to see how that money is spent.
THE people of Bangladesh are on the very frontline of climate change.
The low-lying country is the most densely populated in the world, after the city-states of Singapore and Bahrain, with more than 160 million people crammed into an area the size of England and Wales.
While sceptics in the West squabble over whether climate change even exists, farmers in Bangladesh, eking an existence out of their small plots of land, are watching it change their lives.
Ananda Majumder, a rice farmer in Mitrodanga in the district of Gopalganj, has watched his harvests shrink as the land and water becomes polluted by salt.
As sea levels in the Bay of Bengal rise millimetre by millimetre, salt water is flowing upriver, poisoning water sources across the low-lying delta and making vast swathes of land completely infertile.
Even in Gopalganj, more than 50 miles from the coast, the salination is affecting farmers.
Ananda, who provides for his wife and seven-year-old son, said: “The salt water comes in at the peak of the dry season.”
“Sweet water used to come down from the north, from the Himalayas.
“Now the flow has reversed so the salt water comes up from the south, from the sea.
“The rice gets damaged and over the last six or seven years the yields have been down.
“Last year I had no yield at all in the low lying parts of my land, because it was too salinated.
“I didn’t have enough rice to last me through the year. I had to grow other vegetables to supplement my income.”
Non-governmental organisations such as the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), which is supported by international charity Christian Aid, is working with farmers to help them adapt to the changing climate.
This year, for the first time, Ananda is growing a new type of saline-resistant rice, provided by CCDB.
He is expect a harvest of 2,000 kg, up from 1,200 kg last year.
The new seed, a hybrid strain, will not produce as much rice as a healthy field of traditional seed – but it will cope better with the high salt content of the land.
A drawback of using the new hybrid rice is a reliance on the big corporations which have developed the seed. Previously Ananda kept aside a small proportion of his harvest to resow next year, something not possible with hybrid varieties.
But he said: “I feel very proud to be doing this. If the yields are as expected we will do it again next year.”
The salination problems have been exacerbated by Bangladesh’s growing shrimp-farming industry.
Large-scale industrialists have taken over large swathes of the mudflats near the coast, and are pumping in sea water to breed shrimp, making the salt levels even worse.
Environmentalists and aid workers have tried to challenge the large businesses, but shrimp – known as ‘white gold’ locally – is the country’s second biggest export, and they have had little support from the government.
Ananda’s neighbours, Roban Biswas, 42, and his wife Sona, 32, have started rearing a breed of ducks more resistant to the salt, which were provided by CCDB to cope with the problems.
The farmers, who also grow vegetables and keep cattle, have found the extra income from selling duck eggs enables them to send their daughters Tumpa, 16 and Ritu, seven, and son Rajib, 12, to school.
“The salt water is making it harder to grow rice and vegetables,” said Roban.
“The cattle are also getting sick because they are drinking the water. We used to fetch water from the river for the cows. Now we have to give them water from the well.”
Closer to the coast, in the district of Satkhira, fisherman Mofazzal Kagzi , 65, has watched the fish in his pond die as the water became salinated.
Mofazzal is the head of a large family, supporting his four children, their spouses, and seven grandchildren.
“We felt completely helpless,” he said.
Local organisation Shushilan, which is also backed by Christian Aid, helped Mofazzal clean and drain the pond with a grant of 1,400 Bangladeshi taka (around £10), and gave him 1,200 saline-resistant baby fish, which he is now breeding to replenish his stock.
The money he makes from the fishing pond is now helping his grandchildren gain an education.
“It is very important my grandchildren go to school,” Mofazzal said. “I am willing to help myself, but I need help to help others.”
* Donate this Christian Aid Week (May 13-19) online at www.caweek.org
The first £5 million donated to Christian Aid Week will be matched by the Government pound for pound, so we can help more people in poor communities around the world work their way out of poverty.