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Episode 03: Syed Aminul Haque on rising seas, cyclones, and 'seasonal brides' in coastal Bangladesh

In this episode, we speak with Syed Aminul Haque from COAST Foundation, who has spent over three decades working in the most ecologically vulnerable pockets of Bangladesh. We discuss the impacts of recurring floods and cyclones on fishing communities living on the brink in the country's coastline, and their compulsions to get their young daughters married in order to survive. Tune in to learn more.

Episode 03: Syed Aminul Haque on rising seas, cyclones, and 'seasonal brides' in coastal Bangladesh

Reetika: Welcome to the Climate Brides podcast, where we try to untie the knots between climate change and child marriage. My name is Reetika Revathy Subramanian, and I am your host. Join me as I speak with survivors, frontline workers, activists, journalists, and researchers in and from South Asia, to unpack the everyday lives and resistances of young communities braving some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts.
The Climate Brides podcast is supported by the University of Cambridge Public Engagement Starter Fund 2021. If you want to learn more about today’s topic, head over to our website, where we will have full transcripts of the episode, a specially curated reading list, climate models and infographics. Until then, follow the Climate Brides page on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to stay tuned, and stay updated.

Reetika: Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Climate Brides podcast. Today, we have with us Mr Syed Aminul Hoque from COAST Foundation in Bangladesh. The foundation works extensively across 14 marginalised and ecologically vulnerable districts of the country, including Bhola, which is the largest island of Bangladesh. With microfinance at its very core, the foundation provides support in access to education, health and assistance during disasters.
Now, Bangladesh, as we all know, is considered to be the most vulnerable to climate change. It has been estimated that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. Specifically, with a projected 50 cm rise in sea level, Bangladesh may lose approximately 11% of its land by then, and up to 18 million people may have to migrate because of sea-level rise alone. The country also records one of the highest rates of early and forced marriages in the world. So, let’s find out more about the causes, connections, and challenges that lie ahead.

Reetika: Mr Haque, we are very happy to have you here with us today and are really looking forward to this conversation. To begin with, could you tell us a bit more about the work that you do at COAST foundation?
Syed Aminul Haque: Thank you. Basically, I am working with Coast since 1990 and I have started my profession with the microfinance and then I have come with the policy advocacy in 2006. Basically, my advocacy field is the economic issues, budget, pro-poor development services and tech justice and IFIS, etc. And now I have worked with the climate change. So, through this capacity, I will talk with you.
Reetika: Sure, thank you. Globally they say that Bangladesh is probably the most vulnerable to climate change. What are some of the reasons that exacerbate its vulnerability?
Syed Aminul Haque: Yes, Bangladesh is almost vulnerable since history. At first, it's a geographical location because it's situated in the Bay of Bengal. The geographical structure already makes it vulnerable. That’s why, climate change is exacerbated, and natural disaster is more frequently happen like cyclone all sorts of slow and sudden onset disasters slow and sudden that means water salinity, water logging, and even drought is also happening in the northern part of town. And due to geographic location, natural climate is frequently cyclone is happening every two years. That’s why in all cases of vulnerabilities exist and climate change of climate change impacts so that Bangladesh is always vulnerable. And, and, it's globally ranked five within the top 10 most vulnerable countries. So, we cannot differentiate which part of most vulnerable, but we can say as we are working in the coastal area, this is the most vulnerable area due to frequent cyclone and salinity and water logging. And there are also some river erosion happening in the coastal area, and government said that more than 50 million people are vulnerable, those are living in the extreme vulnerable zone in the coastline. Separately, in the non-coastal areas, same vulnerable due to its drowning effect and water scarcity. Especially if you look the northern part of Bangladesh, they are facing a little bit drought and also water crisis in agriculture, and other sectors.

Reetika: Cyclones remain a regular phenomenon in the Bay of Bengal, but climate change is making the storms more devastating, pushing communities to the brink. In the past 20 years alone, we have seen the grave impacts of Cyclone Amphan, Aila, Yaas, Fani, Sidr, among others. What are some of the immediate impacts of these big disasters?
Syed Aminul Haque: So, you know, that big cyclone has happened in the Sidr name cedar in 2007. But after that, there are a lot of cyclones, but this impacted the local community, especially first victim of those who are living in the small island and remote areas. Sometimes they are they have lost all their livelihood options, their home, their agricultural land and standing crops. This is the big, big, big losses. After the cyclone, they have to force to displace from their area for some time or permanently, because if government relief is not sufficient, I just give you an example on the coastal area in during the cyclone Aila, which happened in 2009. This has made huge them as of their livelihood options, because embankment fully damaged and saline water integration in their cropland and our standing crops fully dams. After 2009 is still the embankment is as it as it is damaged condition and many people forcibly displaced and permanently displaced from there.

Reetika: Drawing on what you’re saying, we have also been reading about how it has been estimated that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. What are some of the responses from the different stakeholders, including the government on climate displacement policies?
Syed Aminul Haque: One of the major impacts of that Climate change is displacement. So, displacement in coastal area is very high, and people being displaced due to the disaster, people being displaced due to the salinity, people being displaced due to the river erosion in coastal areas. So, we are doing local policy advocacy and national level advocacy to see and also international. We are regular participating in COP and fighting to for a new protocol maybe, but in fact, we are not success. But we are fighting internationally to have a new protocol or new treatment for displacement people also, but nationally, we are fighting for displacement management policy and in 2018 government has drafted a policy for internally displacement climate induced displacement management. And hope we'll make the next government will draft action plan and provide budget for the internal management of the management of the internal displacement issues. Apart, we are fighting for budgeting, climate budget, government also doing separate budget, general budget and climate budget. This budget is not allocated sufficiently for coastal in case of climate focus. So, this is our very concerned issue, we will continuous advocacy to increase budget allocation for climate adaptation function. So, this is our climate focused activities.

Reetika: Right, now, moving on to one of the main focus areas of the podcast—which is the impact of the climate crisis on the lives of women and girls. Could you tell us more on how disasters affect women and girls differently?
Syed Aminul Haque: After cyclone or any disaster, the male person, who is the lead of the family, they have mobilised other areas for their employment searching of food on it. But women, elders, child this group of people are in fact in the trap. Because if we think about the women, while men go out for job searching that job or food or others, women have to take the lead of the families in the disaster affected area, there they are, maybe had their home is damaged, they have to repair it somehow the other is not they have to care of their child, they have to care of the old aged, they cannot go every year anywhere for searching for food. It is our society, because government is not empowered them with economical others so women, child, and elders, this group of people, they are they unable to move and they are trapped in the disaster-affected area and suffering most; most in fact of food in lack of proper rehabilitation, in lack of health and hygiene, many other issues, because government don't provide sufficient support for survival in the area.

Reetika: Okay, on that note, news reports revealed that Bangladesh witnessed an ‘epidemic’ of child marriages in the wake of increased disaster. What have your field teams, working specifically in the coastal districts, been recording?
Syed Aminul Haque: Child marriage is, in fact higher since the long in Bangladesh. I think it's after second of India. But why child marriage is higher in Bangladesh. This should be focused first. My experience, I am not academic or I am research that on these issues, but my experience two things work as a co-factor: economic empowerment i.e. poverty reduction and education, that means gain knowledge and capacity and understanding. And the lack of these two factors co-act as an act creating negative impact. So, lack of these two factors the existing and Bangladesh that's why that's why child marriage is higher. But how climate change exacerbate in the coastal area and others area because climate change what is the impact of climate change, impact of climate change is that the just that's is the main cause of damaging all sorts of their livelihood options, shelter, food, health, education, and further economic improvement activities. That's why it's further a undermine of their capacity to lead the livelihood. This is a social problem we can so, poor people, they feel burden about their challenge, because they cannot continue their education, even concrete they cannot unable to continue their health and other livelihood burden. So, this is one. So, by this, seeing the by this phenomena, negative and sufferings phenomena, some social problem is accelerated that child marriage issues because in our society, where people are living in very remote and small islands, some vested quarters, the so-called social leader, who is getting money from the sadist people intend to get married have the child. So, offering financeial incentives through the local leader to their family, and the site, parents or a child, parent and parents of the of the child, they are motivated, and they get the give them in marriage. So that's why child marriage is high. So, I guess if poverty is the one of the main factors to the child marriage and climate change in such a way exacerbate the scenario, this is one. Second area we can give you an example in our working area there as we are working in a very small island, where 5000 families living there is a marriage called seasonal marriage. What is the seasonal marriage? It is a small area, where people are living on the fishing, fisheries, fisheries activities. Some rich men from the plain land or other go to the small islands during the fishing season. And they offer a lumpsum money to the family to get their child married within four months, six months and one one year. And in our society, lack of education, this is happening and this married child no way to go anywhere, either education or either leading the new social life. Thus, this child becomes vulnerable socially, economically, and in vulnerable in terms of dignity. Because in the society, they did not get proper dignity.

Reetika: Right, and what are the various exchanges in question? Is it mainly money in the form of dowry or are there other material gains as well?
Syed Aminul Haque: Of course, it is money in our culture, money is the most one most factor, not other cycle or others. Cow buffalo, travel car is the direct money. You have to pay 100,000, you have to pay 200,000 sometimes—depends on the family capacity.

Reetika: So, when you mention the significance of dowry in this exchange, I wanted to understand more about the links between disasters and climate change on the one hand, and economic insecurity and poverty on the others, especially as the communities depend heavily on agricultural lands and oceans for their livelihoods.
Syed Aminul Haque: Actually, we are working in the coastal area, so, coastal area poverty is high. So, we have a survey on this issue. So, I think in small islands, those are living the poor people their average income per month, not more than 3000 BDT. Very poor amount per month income because their input or core income sources the paying delivery in the basement fishing boats, fishing boats or going to the sea and they are they are paying day labour, and for 15 days in a month or how long they are staying in the sea, this is our day labour. So, if it can ever it is one male, one family. So, if you ever raised in the fire, at least there are five to eight member per family. So, if you calculated the number is not will be more than 3000 to 4000 per month, so, this is one thing. So, how's the climate change in it? You know, the wind disaster come, so, they will lose everything. So, this will undermine their economic capacity not only the disaster, there is a regular climate change impact I can say you high tide and low tide because there is not embankment in the small islands. So, when high tide comes, the impact is damaging their standing crops. So, this is why problem of the climate change during the rainy season, flood is overflowing that small island, and they have no income at this time.

Reetika: Oh, okay. You earlier spoke about seasonal marriages, where local fishing communities give their young daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange of a small pot of money or some form of material security. How does this arrangement really pan out on the ground, and are there any specific age regulations imposed by the government on marriage?
Syed Aminul Haque: Because there is our marriage law, no female cannot get marry before 18 And in case of male it is 21 So we cannot say if someone looks one child maybe 13-14-15, because this family is poor. So offer money through the so-called local social leader and they force them to get married have their child as they are vulnerable, and they are fishing. They are they're paying day labour in the fish boat that’s why somehow they are forced to give their child marriage for the season and in exchange they are getting some money. Otherwise, he cannot he cannot survive in the small island, because he will suffer abuse, harassment any way. But there is no government rules and regulations who are properly and government does not surveillance and the monitor of the situation. So, you can, we can say so, after 13, any stage have is if they have a child, the seasonal marriage is happened in support of the so-called local vested leader.

Reetika: Okay, and who are the particular stakeholders that you engage with on the ground? Who has power to intervene or act?
Syed Aminul Haque: Especially, it's a small island, where we are working, there are some leaders, we can say the local Union Parishad Chairman, he is the leader on and control the island, for their own interest, they have control the lands, they have control the fishing activities, and they have some local hands. They are not formal and institutional of government rules, maintain and through this, they control the all economic and social activities. So, if we focus on the women issue, child marriage, and others, I think there are somehow hardly really engaged with the challenge, they are not interested with. But the chairman, he is the big interest on economic issues, he controls all the fishing activities, he controls all the land and their agriculture activities. But as the outsider come into the small area or small islands, here are some vested quarters engage with the child abuse.

Reetika: I have two final questions for you, focusing mainly on the lessons from the field and what we need to do in the time ahead. First, you’ve been working for over three decades in these vulnerable pockets. What are some key lessons for policymakers and government stakeholders on how communities understand climate change at the last mile, and what is in it for us to build our own understanding and response?
Syed Aminul Haque: They have no academic experience of climate change, on what we are saying. But they think that temperature is rising season change Water, water, sorry, cross patterning changes, crop output, etc, also chains and they have faced the salinity because we are working before 10 or 20 years ago, they did not feel such salinity, they have expressed their understanding in such a way. And then the think that as the temperature is raising, and also they have expressed their understanding to increase the frequency that means the disaster is happening more than like 10 years or 20 years ago, they have understanding. They have an understanding that the wind speed is higher than last lap before 20 years ago from compression saturate, they have tried to understand that climate change, they don't see it as the academic word climate change. They have seen the day our abasthā, our situation has changed, so we cannot survive, āmarā ēkhānē ṭikē thākatē pāraba nā. So, āmarā phasala cāṣa karatē pārachi nā, ēkhānē sabā'ikē cintā karatē habēto (everyone worries here), we cannot help as temperature and situation change. So, we cannot survive here, we have to go if government has support. So, what sort of support they are expecting in fact? Their first demand is the construction of the embankment. This is smaller than fully unprotected due to high tide because high tide is raised comparing last 20 years before so they their expectation to construction mmm embankment around the island that will protect the land during high tide and claustrophobia. They also expect they are able to fish at a just price because they are getting fish but unable to sell with the proper price due to the lender due to the landlord due to the others. So, they are experts such a government policy to survive and protect their livelihood.

Reetika: Right, and finally, even as 2020 will be remembered as the year the COVID-19 pandemic hit us, it was also a year of extreme rainfall, flooding and severe cyclones in Bangladesh. Child marriage became a cause and consequence of this very chain of disasters. What are some of your key reflections, and what do you see as the way forward?
Syed Aminul Haque: Because during pandemic people, people, poor people, especially if we look the small area people lose their job. And our government’s study say that around 40% Poverty increase in the coastal area. Governments don't have monitoring activities that the remote island area because we are working around 14 small islands, not only Bhola, Bhola is a Big Island, but in the surrounding area, there is a 50 or 70 small island we are working 14 Island, because government do not go there the monitoring their low law and regulation is very weak. Because this is controlled by the local moneylender, local Mahajan and local up to so here is the child marriages high and while pandemic is top their livelihood options especially job and employment. They seek feel to relieve their burden through their child if they are at risk to get keep them married. Bangladesh national level average because Bangladesh the national levels is that 52% As per VBS study VBS money means Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, they have done a study and they are they have shown that child marriages rate is 52% but some an international NGO, I NGO like UNICEF and Plan International They also conduct a study they have called treated 59%.
Since last two years, we are doing most of the national level advocacy and because we feel that without policy, we cannot change anything in the ground level. If we want to change at the macro-level, that is policy level, then we can talk about the ground level. So, I think policy already draft action plan is going to be draft. So, we have to focus on the local level that means working with the local government, who is the main stakeholder to development, implementing the development issues, along with climate change, displacement, everything is less than management. So, we have to work with the local government, they are the key stakeholder first, because we have to ensure transparency. Government is planning, government is allocating money budget, whatever is small or big amount, but in case of transparent use utilisation of money, local problem in case of climate change will be solved somehow. So, I think Union Parishad chairman is the first line stakeholder to work with on the child and gender issues. If they're motivated, many problems are the child issues will be solved.

Reetika: Right, so as you clearly point out, we do need to find ways to connect the very local realities and networks to more national-level policy and discourse to steer any form of change. Thank you very much for speaking with me. And here’s also thanking you and your team back at COAST Foundation for the very important work that you’ll have been doing over the years. Thank you.

The Climate Brides podcast is supported by the University of Cambridge Public Engagement Starter Fund 2021. If you want to learn more about today’s topic, head over to our website, where we will have full transcripts of the episode, a specially curated reading list, climate models and infographics. Until then, subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts. Follow the Climate Brides page on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to stay tuned, and stay updated.

Episode Credits:

Writer and Host: Reetika Revathy Subramanian

Music and Sound production: Siddharth Nagarajan

Illustration: Maitri Dore

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