Mapping Out Survival On The Front Lines Of Climate Change

How a village in Bangladesh is preparing against future disaster

Walking along a dirt road near the community of Panchgachi in rural Bangladesh last August, we arrived at an intersection. One path led to the rice paddies and fields and another led to the rest of the village.

At the center of this intersection sat a group of people under a plastic tarp held aloft by bamboo sticks. Here, both men and women took out hand-drawn maps of the village, pinpointing homes, schools, the local mosque, the river and the fields. The purpose of these maps? To locate the most at-risk areas in the community.

© WFP USA/D. Johnson for HUMAN

The families here live in one of the most disaster-prone countries on earth — one that faces typhoons and floods every single year. In fact, scientists warn that Bangladesh could literally disappear at the turn of the century because of rising sea levels and climate change.

Across the globe, climate change disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities like this one, especially small-scale farmers who rely on their own harvests for food. It’s a huge problem when erratic weather patterns and historic storms ruin farms and wash away entire villages. The ever-rising sea level, meanwhile, threatens to disrupt these livelihoods indefinitely.

That’s why humanitarian organizations like the World Food Programme (WFP) work with communities to plan and prepare for natural disaster through a variety of projects, from tree-planting to rainwater-harvesting to infrastructure-building.

By mapping out risky areas, the villagers of Panchgachi are able to locate areas prone to flooding, where they then work to raise roads. One such embankment is 5 kilometers—or 3.1 miles—long.

Under the supervision of WFP’s Enhancing Resilience program, some 700 villagers — 72 percent of whom are female — worked for about three months to construct the embankment. This raised road not only allows children to walk to school, villagers to transport their crops to market and families to safely make their way home, it also serves as a refuge for cattle and protects nearby fields and homes during flash floods. This is especially crucial during Bangladesh’s monsoon season between June and November.

© WFP USA/D. Johnson for HUMAN

Walking back and forth, the villagers — women clad in bright saris, men in plaid lungis at the waist — gathered clay from the nearby fields. Their feet caked in mud and dirt, they carried this earth in baskets on their heads and built it up in piles to raise the embankment higher. They walked so easily, freely, as though this were a normal part of life.

“I love working with the earth. It’s a better opportunity for me.”

“If God wills it, then I love working with the earth,” said Hamida Begum, the leader of a group of 300 participants. “Look around, this is a very poor village. In a poor village, what resources can I get? If I can work with the earth and receive some money, it’s a better opportunity for me.”

These participants receive a minimum wage of 145 taka per day — the equivalent of $1.86 here in the U.S. — for moving about 53 cubic feet of earth. For most people in this ultra-poor farming community, this embankment project serves as a much-needed source of income that they would not otherwise have.

Hamida Begum, the proud leader of 300 participants in the Panchgachi Enhancing Resilience program. © WFP USA/D. Johnson for HUMAN

At day’s end, participants collected their earned taka and headed back to their homes spread out across Panchgachi, returning to their families and children after several hours of hard labor.

These children will face a vastly different and more difficult landscape than the one their parents see today. The effects of climate change are evident along the paths they walk, both literally and figuratively.

But with the right tools, knowledge and support from organizations like WFP and supporters like you, the people of Bangladesh — and indeed vulnerable communities across the globe — will be able to weather whatever storms may lie ahead.

— Aliya Karim, World Food Program USA

Our future begins with food. With the support of people like you, we can do good better.