“The river and school fees are devouring my land.” – A story from Bangladesh by Thomas Loster and Christian Barthelt

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[The following text originally appears as a blog post under the Munich Re Foundation]
Gulnahar is proud. More than twenty women and children crowd into her little hut while she is being interviewed by students from the Resilience Academy. Gulnahar was born in Singpur and once inherited land from her father. She owns a small house and a garden, and has a son – Mahmud – her pride and joy. So that Mahmud can one day live a better life, he must attend school. The village has enough elementary schools, eight out of ten children attend lessons. Schools are expensive, however, particularly the secondary schools and colleges. Gulnahar needs money for Mahmud’s education, money she does not have.

The other part of the village has a savings society. Women manage the money, which is intended for emergencies. But Gulnahar cannot afford the monthly fees of 100 to 300 takas (one to three euros). She is too poor. She was therefore forced to turn to a money lender. “I went to the money lender and always paid the interest back on time!” she emphasises. However, to do this she had to sell her land, bit by bit. “Earlier, I owned all of 4,000 square metres, today I only have 80 square metres left, just enough to survive. The River Ghorautra is digging itself deeper and deeper into our village, it is destroying our means of subsidence.” The remaining land is increasing in value. “I want my son to have a better life than I had,” says Gulnahar. “His education for the future is eating up my land today.” It is a race against time – with an unknown outcome.

Environmental changes are destroying Singpur

“The River Ghorautra is, in fact, a huge problem,” comments Kohlikur Rahman, the spokesman of Singpur’s mayor. In 2015 alone, he forced 270 families to relocate.” The village has a population of approximately 15,000 along with schools and drinking water. There is no electricity, but luckily there are solar panels. The river is the mayor’s greatest worry. We are sitting in his hut, at a distance of roughly 100 metres from the river. “The water level in the river is rising continuously, every year more land falls victim to the erosion. In five years, the house in which we are sitting will no longer be here,” says Kohlikur. In their desperation, the people are building walls of bamboo, but they are expensive and don’t even last for a year.

More and more men squeeze curiously into the small, stuffy room. All of them were born here. We ask about the reasons for the river’s increasing wildness. “Allah is sending us more and more water,” some of them murmur. Kohlikur shows us a long video on his cell phone. It shows land tumbling into the water. “Those are the floods from last year,” he explains. In the last fifteen years, the river dynamics have changed fundamentally. Rainfall often begins earlier than before, and in any case has become stronger and more irregular. “That fits in with the observed impacts of climate change,” muse the Academy students. During the discussions, almost 100 women, men and children crowd around them. Word has spread that strangers are in the village. At the end of the interviews, the young researchers ask the crowd “What is your greatest wish”. As quick as a shot, the people of Singpur call out: “We are happy here, we want to stay in our village!”

The excursion to Singpur was part of the programme of the 2015 Resilience Academy. The participants could talk to people directly affected by environmental stress and learn how Bangladeshi people adapt to environmental changes.