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The following project has been created in collaboration with Carrie Tomberlin.

This is a work in progress - only about 15% of the project is represented here.

Work will be ongoing through the Spring and Summer of 2016.

Bangladesh is considered by the international scientific community to be amongst the world’s most vulnerable populations to the effects of climate change.  Topography, population density, and poverty are certainly contributing factors, but location is the real source of the issue.  Bangladesh has one of the world’s largest river deltas and shares much in common with our own Mississippi River Delta: it is flat as a pancake and right at sea level.  Like New Orleans, it is very susceptible to cyclones, averaging one major storm every three or four years.  However, Bangladesh has the added challenge of being sandwiched between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean which bring both seasonal snow melt and annual monsoons, both of which are exacerbated by global warming.

Though Bangladesh faces seemingly insurmountable challenges, they are not merely coping, but adapting with resilience and ingenuity utilizing community - based adaptations that address both climate-change vulnerabilities while simultaneously encouraging sustainable economic development.  In doing so, Bangladesh is  providing an example of how the rest of the world can act on a local, national, and international level to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Though seemingly far away from American experience, much of what Bangladesh is learning can be applied to other highly populated areas at or near sea level such as Miami, New York, and Boston, as well as major cities across the globe including Tokyo, Shanghai, and Amsterdam.  

Having photographed environmental issues for many years, we find the images for visualizing climate limited due to the gradual and elusive nature of the problem.  For several years we have been working on a new way of image making. This new paradigm allows us to collect a range of time and collapse it into panoramic space which we later distill into a singular allegorical narrative that has the potential to express a more complex narrative than a traditional image.  The process shares as much with writing, painting, and motion pictures as it does with photography, but still holds onto the realism of photography.  It also beautifully parallels environmental issues in that the accumulation of time reveals the reality of the situation more clearly than any individual moment.

 

This photograph was made in the middle of the Jamuna River during the summer of 2014. At the time, we had no idea we were floating over farmland or that we were even in a flood. Life was going on as if conditions were normal.

 

Summer 2014

 

Spring 2014  -  This is what it looked like 3 months earlier. This dramatic rise in the river occurs every year.

 


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Of the 15 most pressing global issues identified by the Millennium Project, at least 12 contribute to the challenges facing Bangladesh.  It is our intention to illuminate the ways in which these challenges exacerbate one another and have compelled Bangladesh to find innovative strategies to mitigate and adapt to these challenges.

Bangladesh was the first country to submit a National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2005, which focused on the most urgent and immediate priorities for climate change adaptation. Since then, community-based adaptation projects are being implemented by the government of Bangladesh, NGOs, and a host of development agencies like USAID, the World Bank, and UNDP. Bangladesh, in fact, has many pioneering examples of community-based adaptation including expanding traditional methods of agriculture like floating gardens that help the communities survive when fields are flooded; planting mangroves for protection from cyclonic storms; and using tidal river management to clear drainage canals. However, very few of these initiatives ensured the direct participation of community women and addressed their vulnerabilities.

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Bangladesh is situated in southern Asia, on the delta of the 2 largest rivers on the Indian subcontinent, the Ganges and Jamuna (Brahmaputra). Having a total area the size of New York state, the country has a population of 160 million, roughly equivalent to half the population of the entire United States.

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The Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, which encompasses nearly 33,707 square miles (87,300 square kilometers) in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, is Asia's largest delta. It is also the world's most populated delta, and is home to some 111 million people. The residents of this region are particularly at risk from accelerated global sea level rise linked to climate change. Sea level rise is projected to increase the salinity of the water and soil of this now-fertile region, endangering crops and food security.

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Monsoon Season usually stretches from May through October. Even during a normal monsoon, floods covers about 20 percent of the country, disrupting life and causing deaths. More than 60 percent of Bangladesh gets inundated during years when the monsoon is severe. Additionally, temperatures across the Himalayas reach their peak over this same period of months which results in ever greater snow melt as the glaciers recede.

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The convergence of these two sources of water have often lead to catastrophic flooding. Over the last 100 years, floods have killed over 50,000 people, left nearly 32 million homeless, and affected more than 300 million people.

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Storms in the Bay of Bengal account for seven of the ten deadliest hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones in recorded history, as documented by Weather Underground. The Great Bhola Cyclone of 1970 brought a storm surge of 27 feet and killed an estimated 350,000 to 550,000 people. By contrast, over the last 100 years the United States has lost around 10,000 people over 179 hurricanes.

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This image depicts where the shoreline will likely be as sea levels rise.

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Low Tide Along Harihar River, 31 minutes 35 seconds


Eighty miles inland from the coast, the daily tidal cycles continuously erode the silt that is the foundation of the entire river delta. Fisherman have learned to exploit the rising and falling water to aid in catching fish and shrimp.

 

 

Collapsed Apartment Building, Chuknagar, 58 seconds

Both tidal shifts and seasonal flooding increase erosion along the river banks, undermining bridges and buildings as the land is swept into the Bay of Bengal. As one of the world’s poorest countries, many Bangladeshi do not have the means to move out of harm’s way.

If sea levels rise as predicted, as many as 50 million Bangladeshis are estimated to flee the country by 2050. Bangladeshis have already started to move away from the lowest-lying villages in the river deltas of the Bay of Bengal. A rough estimate claims that around 1.5 million of the five million slum inhabitants in the capital Dhaka, moved from villages near the Bay of Bengal.

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Flooded Brick Factory, Ashulia, 23 minutes 45 seconds

Every day, locals deposit trash along the roadside where pigs root out organic matter.  Over time, anything not eaten slides down the bank, into the river, and out into the Bay of Bengal.  In the background, the Turag river has overflown its banks and submerged a brick factory, an annual occurrence lasting several months.  During the dry season, most of the country’s 6,000 brick factories burn coal, expelling several million tons of greenhouse gases annually.  To combat severe air pollution, there is a growing movement to replace these kilns with lower emissions alternatives.

 

 

Flood Resistant Housing, 7 minutes 11 seconds

Most houses in the flood plain are built atop a plinth, a platform made of silt, cement, stone, and brick which raises the house 3 to 6' above the surrounding land. Unlike traditional earthen floors, the plinth is strong enough to withstand repeated floods. This one features a layer of brick armor offering additional protection from the elements. In the foreground is a collection pond for rainwater that also serves as home for the family's fish and ducks.

 

 

Building Up The Embankment Along Kholpetua River, 21 minutes 30 seconds

Construction of small dikes or embankments around individual land parcels separated by numerous tidal creeks and inlets to limit saline water overflow has been practiced since the 17th century. Since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, protection of the coastal areas from flooding and storm surge is carried out under the Coastal Embankment Project (CEP). Workers dredge the river channel, lowering the bottom of the river while building up the embankments to create a topography where gravity pulls water away from villages and fields.

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Pioneered by Robin Leichenko and Karen O’Brien, double exposure theory has emerged as a recent subset of vulnerability studies within climate change. The term double exposure is taken from photography, referring to film that has been exposed to two different images, whether on purpose or by accident, having the effect of layering the two pictures on top of one another. Leichenko and O’Brien use this metaphor to explain interactions between exposure to climate changes and globalization: Double exposure often entails being vulnerable to negative outcomes that result from some combination of stresses and shocks related to both processes. In other words, those experiencing the negative effects of environmental change often simultaneously feel the negative effects of globalization (Leichenko and O’Brien 2008, 10).

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Locally-Produced Concrete Blocks To Reinforce The Embankment Along Jamuna River, 4 minutes 27 seconds

Nearly a quarter of Bangladesh is less than seven feet above sea level, and the Ganges River Delta is comprises 230 major rivers and streams. An estimated 4000 miles of embankments have been constructed in an ongoing effort to keep the rivers within their banks. The drying cement blocks were produced within a few hundred yards of where they will be installed as the first layer of defense against the swiftly moving river currents.

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The Cyclone Protection Project, which was approved by the World Bank in 1989, will rehabilitate some of the existing embankments, build new embankments, and construct roads. Locally available materials, indigenous technology, and cheap surplus manpower will be used in this project.

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Double exposure literature provides a helpful framework to examine the impacts of climate change in Bangladesh, a country experiencing both a disadvantage in the global economic system and significant environmental hazards from climate change. Many developing counties experience negative stressors from both climate change and globalization, but double exposure can also produce positive impacts. In some instances sustainable development measures promote both environmental stewardship and economic development which simultaneously reduce vulnerability.

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Guard House and Living Quarters at Fish Farm, 5 minutes 20 seconds

After their rice paddies are ruined by saltwater storm surge from cyclones, many farmers turn to aquaculture, farming fish instead of rice.  Tilapia is a lucrative export and it requires a guard to ensure that fish are not stolen in the night.

Unlike other development practices, which can sometimes further marginalize the poorest sectors of a population, in theory, community - based adaptation focuses on these poorest people, who are most vulnerable, involving them in the process of adaptation and development (Kates 2000).

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Salt Resistant Rice, 2 minutes 31 seconds

Because so much fertile land has been destroyed by salt water contamination, new strains of saline tolerant rice have made hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland once again viable.  Rice accounts for 70% of calories consumed in Bangladesh, and the nation is the world’s 6th largest producer of rice.

 


Early Warning System, 1 minute 35 seconds

Used to warn of approaching cyclones, these simple speakers save thousands of lives and are so cost effective they may become a model for other countries.

 

Cyclone Shelter, 2 minutes 19 seconds

Approximately 2500 cyclone shelters have been constructed since the 1960’s.  Built on concrete pillers raising the first floor several meters off the ground, each is designed to accommodate 2000 people.  A large ramp allows people, livestock, and provisions to all be quickly moved higher than the flood or storm surge.  Most shelters double as schools during the dry season.

As the shelters can accommodate only 27% of the population at risk (Islam 2004), 2000 more cyclone shelters are planned to be built soon in the low-lying coastal districts. The May 2009 Cyclone Aila confirms the importance of shelters. The Cyclone struck the coastal areas of Bangladesh with very high wind speeds. According to the Government of Bangladesh, the cyclone killed 190 people, injured more than 7,000, and damaged or destroyed more than 500,000 houses. The lower death tolls in recent years can be attributed to a network of cyclone shelters after the 1970 disaster and a SMS warning system recently introduced (AFP, June 2009).

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