Cyclones and Covid: The dual impacts on the Bangladeshi Sundarbans

Hello again from Dhaka! I wanted to share a bit of my findings in my final post for the Summer (which ended up actually being Fall — sorry Laura!!)

I mentioned in my last post that there were two cyclones: Amphan and Yaas, that affected the Sundarbans during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many families have not been able to work due to the lockdowns and have faced food shortages. This exacerbated existing patterns where the increased extreme weather in the region was already having catastrophic effect on food security and livelihoods. This is well documented in the IPCC fifth assessment report, which states that climate change is adversely affect people’s propensity to produce, access and consume food.

NGOs, INGOs, research institutes, and the Bangladeshi government are working to address the massive food insecurity through policy. There has long been work on food security in Bangladesh and much of the development interventions have been through modern technologies — saline tolerant plants, flood resilient seeds, elevated and sac agriculture, aquaculture, floating gardens, and hydroponics.

The pandemic has led to a massive shift in traditional livelihood practices. Speifically there has been an exponential shift in cultivating shrimp and crab (these changes were already happening slowly but the pandemic has catalyzed them) instead of paddy, although many poor people are being forced to do seasonal migration due to this practice.

One of my interlocuters recounted that her husband became unemployed after the crab sale was stopped due to lockdown. She mentioned that her husband had borrowed a lot of money from various ngos, and now they are facing the uncertainty of repaying this borrowed money. She explained that they are afraid that if they are not able to pay the money back, they will have to leave their home in search of new livelihood and repay the debt.

Some women from her village who work at a local crab export company said that they became demoted from having salaries and fixed income to daily laborers because of the pandemic. This demotion also resulted in not having paid days off and making significantly less money for the same or sometimes more work than before.

The financial losses increased during the lockdown period when cyclone Amphan innundated the coastal area. Many people, who were barely making ends meet, lost their crops and fish, their homes were destroyed, houses were destroyed, and needed to do a lot of labor to make their villages inhabitable. This lead to any even larger increase in borrowing money and an even larger increase in the cultivation of crops, fish, shrimp and crabs again in the hope that they would repay the loan with that money by cultivating again. 

Just when they began to get their lives back in order, another cyclone, Yaas, badly affected local people and their lands. Following Yaas, the embankments of the region were overflooded with water two more times this year (four in total), so the current crops, shrimp, and crab projects have all faced tremendous damage and loss. As a result, there is a possibility of an even more massive food shortage as well as crippling debt in the Sundarbans.

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About rakasen

Raka Sen is a graduate student in the sociology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include the sociology of climate change, social resilience, cities, neighborhoods and disaster sociology. Her research revolves around the gender divisions of the work it takes on the individual level to adapt to climate change in rural Bangladesh and India. She studies the Sundarbans, a piece and parcel mangrove forest that is often referred to as climate change ground zero. Prior to beginning her graduate study, Raka was a Researcher at Rebuild By Design, a resilience initiative launched after Hurricane Sandy. At Rebuild she worked on a study of managed retreat in the Sandy region and studied how long term infrastructure projects develop over time. A Colorado native, she holds a B.A. in Sociology, Urban Design & Architecture Studies from New York University.