NELD Story by Erin Derrington

Eastern Bangladesh – “Ask the decision makers to help… we want to stay here.” 

Author: Erin Derrington

This was Aiyesha’s urgent plea at the end of our nearly two hour talking session in a hot tin schoolhouse in the village of Singpur in eastern Bangladesh. Just east of Nikli, Singpur has lived with the floods of the Ghorautra River, but the river is gaining ground. It is hard to imagine that for half of the year the swollen channel our small boat motored across for over an hour is dry. But in the monsoon months the waters flow and cut away at the village’s land mass. On one side a wall has been erected – eight sections of painstakingly constructed cement holding back inundation when the river rises. The rest of the rainy-season island employs bamboo and water hyacinth to buffer against the perpetual flows.

We were a group of young researchers and practitioners meeting in Bangladesh for one week to work on loss and damage. One day we went into the field. Groups of us interviewed groups of locals.

The teachers we spoke to insisted it was wave action from more boat traffic that was causing increased land loss – in the last flash flood nearly 30% of the land was swept away; the people that stayed were pushed even closer together. Our interviewees and the people we spoke to along the riverbank as we walked the wall said the same thing – this wall saved our village. They recognized long-term concerns with a unifying theme – we want to stay.

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© Christian Barthelt, Munich Re Foundation

When asked about what made them want to stay in their village eyes lit up. The previously subdued dialog became energized. They love the air in the village, being able to catch fish, and to live in a place where their parents and grandparents live. Where generations past have been born, grew up, and died. They know their neighbors – and, unlike the “plastic people” in the cities, they have close connections. They help each other. They are working to educate their children together. They want to stay. Here.

Aiyesha wasn’t one of the teachers – five of six of which were male. She was the only other village woman in the room, and she came in to fan us. She stood between a few of our group, teachers and translator sitting around a small table forming a ring around the foot of the table, closest to the windows and doors. Younger men filled the standing spaces between shelves stocked with notebooks, while school children crowded outside. Aiyesha’s brightly colored woven hand fan created a rhythm behind our conversation, welcome flash of color carrying with it a current of air. And in the end of our interview as we wrapped up a shared treat of sweet hot tea and biscuits, we asked our question about what they love about this place. The response was touchingly sincere. How can you quantify the love of a place? How can you value the spark that alights in our eyes when we think of home?

After our translator worked through the closing comments of our accommodating hosts, a colleague turned to Aiyesha… and what about you? After all your kind fanning, please tell us a little about you and what you love about this place?

It was as if another flood had been loosed.

Our Savior of the Fan began with her deluge of story – she had been in Oman working for the past several years and had recently returned, and she loves this place. It is home. She asked us, unsolicited, if we would ask the decision-makers to help. They want to stay she said as she pleaded with her eyes. We made clear it was not in our powers to influence decision-makers. “Then please tell our story” was the response.

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© Christian Barthelt, Munich Re Foundation