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Facing floods: What the world can learn from Bangladesh's climate solutions

Majida Begum, 60, whose home was washed away in June 2022 floods in the Sunamganj, northern Bangladesh. Here Begum stands under an elevated canopy of bitter gourd vines – a vegetable garden designed to survive if and when her village floods again.
Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
Majida Begum, 60, whose home was washed away in June 2022 floods in the Sunamganj, northern Bangladesh. Here Begum stands under an elevated canopy of bitter gourd vines – a vegetable garden designed to survive if and when her village floods again.

SUNAMGANJ, Bangladesh – Majida Begum squats in the mud where her kitchen used to be, scaling fish with a dull blade.

Seasonal floods are a part of life on the riverbank where Begum lives in northern Bangladesh. Each spring, when monsoon rains arrive, a web of narrow rivers – like capillaries crisscrossing the flesh of the country – swell into a shallow sea.

But these annual floods – the lifeblood of the region's agricultural cycle – have become erratic in recent years. And last year's were the worst Begum had seen in her 60 years.

In June, the water edged up slowly – and then all at once – sweeping away her thatch and bamboo home.

"Pretty soon we'll be living in the tops of trees!" Begum says, rubbing bony fish against a blade in the new makeshift kitchen she's assembled on a muddy tract where her house used to be. "Either that or this land will be strewn with our bodies."

Begum lives a two-hour boat ride from the nearest road – and farther still from any flood shelter. She doesn't read or write and doesn't have a cellphone.

But before the floodwaters overwhelmed her home, Begum knew precisely when to evacuate – and how to save her own life. That's because of a human chain of communication that relies both on high-tech forecasting and low-tech relationships.

It's what scientists say Bangladesh, a relatively poor country, nevertheless does best: A mix of technology and community solutions that are saving lives on the frontlines of climate change.

Golabari village in the region of Sunamganj, northern Bangladesh. This area experienced some of the country's worst flooding in June 2022.
/ Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
/
Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
Golabari village in the region of Sunamganj, northern Bangladesh. This area experienced some of the country's worst flooding in June 2022.

Bangladesh isn't just ground zero for climate disaster. It's also a hot spot for solutions.

Bangladesh is often called a climate victim. It contributes only a tiny fraction of global carbon emissions – 0.56%, by one count. But it suffers disproportionately from their effects.

Its low-lying geography, south of the Himalayan mountains, means it's particularly vulnerable to flooding as glaciers melt and sea levels rise. Its agriculture relies on monsoon rains that increasingly come in spasms. And it gets battered with some of the world's worst cyclones.

But fatalities from those rains and cyclones have fallen dramatically. For example: In 1970, Cyclone Bhola killed up to half a million people in what is now Bangladesh, while last year's Cyclone Sitrang killed 16.

Part of the reason is what Saleemul Huq, director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development, calls social capital – awareness.

"I tell my American friends, 'You should send your skeptics to Bangladesh! The awareness of climate change here is the highest in the world,' " Huq says. "But we have gone through the doom and gloom phase. That's yesterday's news in Bangladesh. "

Now it's all about solutions, he says.

Bangladesh uses satellites to track cyclones and shares that information with neighboring countries. It's anchored buoys offshore that are equipped with solar-powered sensors to measure sea level and transmit that data to scientists on dry land.

In Begum's region, residents adapt to life around more water by splitting their time between agriculture in the dry season and fishing in the rainy season. Some continue to farm year-round by weaving together bamboo and water hyacinth roots to create a floating farm – a hammock on which to plant seeds to grow bitter gourds, spinach and okra, partially submerged in flooded rivers.

In coastal areas farther south, farmers are using saline-resistant varieties of rice so that as sea levels rise in the Bay of Bengal, the influx of salt water doesn't poison freshwater crops. They're harvesting rainwater and also building pond sand filtration systems to purify brackish water and ensure a safe supply for drinking.

Riverboats are the primary mode of transportation in the region of Sunamganj in northern Bangladesh. This village of Golabari is a two hour boat ride from the nearest paved road.
/ Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
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Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
Riverboats are the primary mode of transportation in the region of Sunamganj in northern Bangladesh. This village of Golabari is a two hour boat ride from the nearest paved road.

"Bangladesh is one of the worst sufferers of climate change, but instead of giving up, we're leading the way in adaptation and resilience – creating best practices that can be used globally," says Niaz Ahmed Khan, a development and environment expert at Dhaka University. "Using indigenous knowledge, we're coping and surviving. We are trying to reclaim our life."

Most critically, the government has partnered with cellphone providers to extend 4G coverage to areas that might not even have electricity or plumbing.

"So that when something happens, almost everybody on land gets the message, gets to shelter and survives. It's not the technology, it's social capital – people knowing what to do," Huq says. "That is Bangladesh's biggest asset."

To save lives, scientists rely on a housewife with an old Nokia brick phone

Last June, a few days before Begum's house washed away, scientists in Bangladesh's capital noticed something unusual: An unprecedented amount of rain forecast for the Himalayan foothills across the border in India. It's an area that's been deforested in recent years.

"There's no grass or trees on those hills, so the water just rushes downstream," explains Partho Protim Barua, an engineer at the country's Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre in the capital Dhaka.

It rushes downstream, across the Indian border, into low-lying Bangladesh.

That day, Barua called up his colleague Nazma Akter in the far north of the country, near the Indian border. She's a housewife with a side job reading a gauge in her local river, the Wah Umngi or Umngot River, which flows from India's Meghalaya state southward into the Surma River in Bangladesh.

The gauge looks like a yardstick stuck in the riverbank. Akter, 26, checks it five times a day, records water levels and sends her readings to Dhaka's Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre by text message – on her indestructible old Nokia brick phone.

Nazma Akter, 26, works as a gauge reader for Bangladesh's Flood Forecasting & Warning Centre. She reads water levels in a river near her home in the Sylhet district of northern Bangladesh and sends data to engineers in Dhaka by SMS.
/ Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
/
Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
Nazma Akter, 26, works as a gauge reader for Bangladesh's Flood Forecasting & Warning Centre. She reads water levels in a river near her home in the Sylhet district of northern Bangladesh and sends data to engineers in Dhaka by SMS.

Bangladesh relies on hundreds of people like Akter – regular folks, not scientists – who monitor water levels at rivers, streams and reservoirs across the country. They act as scouts for the scientists, looking for signs of trouble on the front lines of climate change.

Akter recalls how last June, the river showed a 2.5-meter rise – around 8 feet – over three days. It was a sign of massive rainfall to the north – just as Barua had seen in the forecast – even before local skies clouded over.

Akter, who has just a high school education, says she realized what was coming: Some of the worst flash floods ever to hit her country.

So she increased the frequency of her trips out to the river to read the gauge from five times a day to every hour – even as her own family prepared to evacuate.

"Suddenly the sky grew dark here, and people started panicking. Then my own house flooded!" Akter recalls. "Still, I went out in the rain and checked the gauge every hour. I had to – it's my duty."

A human chain from citizens to scientists and back to citizens, yielding region-specific warnings.

Back at the government's Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre in Dhaka, Barua, the engineer, says he was in disbelief when he received Akter's text messages. He plugged her hourly data into his hydrological models, triple-checked it for accuracy — and was astounded.

"The rivers there are very narrow, so the water level rises suddenly," he explains. "But this broke records from the last 100 to 150 years!"

So he grabbed a little microphone attached to his desktop computer and recorded a message on June 19, 2022.

A water level gauge in a tributary of the Surma River in northern Bangladesh. Hundreds of laypeople read these gauges in rivers across the country and send data daily to engineers at Bangladesh's Flood Forecasting & Warning Centre in Dhaka.
/ Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
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Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
A water level gauge in a tributary of the Surma River in northern Bangladesh. Hundreds of laypeople read these gauges in rivers across the country and send data daily to engineers at Bangladesh's Flood Forecasting & Warning Centre in Dhaka.

"Salam Aleikum, peace be with you," he began. The two-minute message goes on to list regions of northern Bangladesh where flood risk was high – and imminent.

"We try to keep it as simple as possible and as short as possible," Barua explains. "Basically, what's going to happen in each area in the next three to five days."

He uploads the audio to a website where it's accessible by all of Bangladesh's mobile phone operators – and then holds his breath, hoping people will get it in time.

On June 19, 2022, Barua's message went out on Bangladesh's emergency warning system as a smartphone push notification. The government recently signed a deal with Google to expand that service. His warning also went out as an analog SMS text message, and as an audio recording accessible on a toll-free number – so that even folks with bulky Nokia brick phones like Akter's can receive it.

"Everybody in Bangladesh has a mobile phone – almost 100% penetration. So they can get text messages, and a growing number have smartphones, where they can actually see the satellite image, track the cyclone and figure out how long they have to get to the shelter," Huq explains. "Any deaths that we tend to have are usually fishermen who are out at sea and don't get to land in time."

Riverboats are the only mode of transportation to many of the villages in flood-prone northern Bangladesh.
/ Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
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Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
Riverboats are the only mode of transportation to many of the villages in flood-prone northern Bangladesh.

How emergency warnings reach the people who need them most

As scientists scurried around making predictions and warnings at their headquarters in Dhaka, Majida Begum was on her riverbank in the country's north — oblivious to it all.

On the day Barua sent out his warning, she was in her kitchen scaling fish and watching the sky cloud over.

Begum doesn't have a TV, cell phone or radio. There was no way for her to receive the scientists' warning. Her next-door neighbor doesn't have a phone either. But the neighbors' nephew does.

"I don't understand what kids do with those fancy phones these days," says Begum's neighbor, Nur Jahan, who believes she's around age 50 but isn't quite sure. "But somehow that day in June, we got the scientists' warning."

Nur Jahan, 50, helped raise the alarm about rising floodwaters in June 2022 in her home village of Golabari in the Sunamganj region of northern Bangladesh. Jahan doesn't have a cellphone, but her nephew does. He received a flood warning sent out by scientists in Dhaka, and Jahan helped spread the news by word of mouth to their neighbors.
/ Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
/
Fatima Tuj Johora for NPR
Nur Jahan, 50, helped raise the alarm about rising floodwaters in June 2022 in her home village of Golabari in the Sunamganj region of northern Bangladesh. Jahan doesn't have a cellphone, but her nephew does. He received a flood warning sent out by scientists in Dhaka, and Jahan helped spread the news by word of mouth to their neighbors.

It was actually two days after Barua had sent out the alert that Jahan's nephew got the alert and started a human chain of communication, spreading the warning around his village by word of mouth.

By then, the water was already lapping at the edge of Begum's kitchen.

Begum describes how she and her family took refuge on their fishing boat and watched from a distance as the waters washed away their home.

"We slept on the boat for three days – and went three days without food," she recalls. "We were paralyzed, floating and waiting."

When they returned to their home – wading through knee-deep water – it was in shambles.

But everyone in the village survived.

Rebuilding raised homes with local materials

Since then, they've been rebuilding raised houses atop sandbags and fortifying the foundations with indigenous materials. One house was raised by about 15 feet, atop concrete reinforced pillars.

Begum's new home sits eight feet higher than her previous one. In the yard is an elevated canopy of bitter gourd vines – a vegetable garden designed to survive even if the area floods again.

The dirt floors are still unfinished. But they're covered with a paste made from mixing cow dung and water. It's like a varnish that seals the surface, so that when floodwaters invade again, the floor won't become a muddy mess.

"We have to accept our hard life. Rebuilding is part of our seasonal cycle now," says Bilal Ahmed, 42, a local resident and musician. "But we have to live here. We have nowhere else to go."

Since last year's devastating floods, Ahmed has been reviving old Bangladeshi folk songs that celebrate seasonal rains as bringing life rather than trauma. He performs them at weddings and festivals. He's also been writing new songs, with lyrics encouraging people not to chop down trees, or toss litter.

Because deforestation exacerbates flooding, residents of Golabari village in northern Bangladesh have started using sticks of cow dung rather than wood as fuel for cooking. On the left, cow dung sticks dry in the sun before being used in cookstoves. On the right, residents seal the foundations of their homes with a mix of cow dung and water, which acts like a varnish against floodwaters.
/ Lauren Frayer/NPR
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Lauren Frayer/NPR
Because deforestation exacerbates flooding, residents of Golabari village in northern Bangladesh have started using sticks of cow dung rather than wood as fuel for cooking. On the left, cow dung sticks dry in the sun before being used in cookstoves. On the right, residents seal the foundations of their homes with a mix of cow dung and water, which acts like a varnish against floodwaters.

Music is a timeless rural tool for spreading awareness and staying safe, he says.

Meanwhile Begum, whose house has been rebuilt with help from her neighbors, also built something new for herself: A cookstove that's portable instead of being fixed to the ground. It burns dried cow dung for fuel, rather than wood – which has become precious in these parts. There are only a few trees left, and nobody wants to chop them down for fuel.

"The benefit of this stove is that it's portable. So that I can take it on a boat, next time we flee," she explains.

Next time she has to evacuate – and she's sure there will be a next time, she says – at least her family won't go hungry.

Freelance producer Dil Afrose Jahan and freelance photographer Fatima Tuj Johora also contributed to this story from Dhaka and Sunamganj, Bangladesh.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.