Troubled waters

Feature story - 9 December, 2004
Right now, representatives of the world's governments are sitting in Argentina discussing climate change. But while they're talking, global warming is already distrupting people's lives. Here's a report from Greenpeace activist Matilda Bradshaw about what she saw recently in the Bay of Bengal.

George Bush is Singin' in the Rain in this Greenpeace mockery of US inaction on climate change.

We toured coastal Orissa, in eastern India, and found many people still traumatised by memories of the 1999 super cyclone. These people live in dread that such a cyclone will happen again but most don't have the means to move elsewhere. We also came across a lot of people who'd lost their land to encroaching seas and were struggling to feed themselves and their families - and many were losing their homes.

It was a 10km hike to the village of Kanhapur, which sat on its own in the middle of nowhere at the end of an isolated stretch of beach. We walked kilometre after kilometre through what looked like rice paddies. We later found out they weren't rice paddies at all. That serenity masked the scenes of past devastation.

This entire area used to be inhabited by Kanhapur's neighbours. All of those villages have been totally swept away by the sea. There's no sign of them at all. In one village, a sea surge (like a tidal wave but the wave doesn't break) not only took the entire village but killed thousands of people. Now it looks so beautiful, it's hard to imagine so much suffering happened here. At the end of the beach, Kanhapur is on its own, clinging to the last piece of slightly higher ground. Half of it has already been washed away. You can see signs of the stilts on which houses once stood all along the beach and the old village water pump, once the heart of the village, stands comically in the middle of the beach.

I was told it was unlikely that the people I'd meet would know anything about climate change - but it couldn't have been further from the truth. They couldn't talk of anything else. They're terrified of the weather and of the sea. They talked about how temperatures have increased since the 1999 cyclone and how the seasons have changed.

Environmentalists and development agencies as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are all concerned that millions of people are at risk from climate change and that it will have the greatest impact on the world's poorest people - such as the people in Orissa - because they don't have the means to adapt (for example, to build sea defenses). But these villagers have no choice but to lose the land on which they depend. Many people have had to leave their homes time and again to escape the rising tide. Now they're accepting they must give up everything they own yet again and leave their village to its watery fate.

Here, some of them tell their stories.

Murali Dhara Malick, 30, Casual labourer

"When I was a child, the village of Kanhapur was not on the beach, but among paddy fields. I know that my grandfather was born in this village and that people have lived here for at least one hundred years. Until two months ago, I lived in a house my father built 20 years ago. It used to take us a whole day to go out to the sea and come back home.

But the sea moved nearer and nearer to our home until it was only 100m away. On a full moon night two months ago, the whole house was destroyed by a huge wave. My wife and I had no time to save anything. Once the water washed over the house, it collapsed. One of my sons became trapped and I had to pull him from the mess. We ran for our lives.

I'm afraid of the sea and want to find high land. We're still searching for a safer place."

Bhagwati Pradhan, 28, Collector of areas villages

"The tube well nearest to our house can no longer be used because the land around it has been washed away. The salt water has affected the soil to the extent that we're no longer able to grow vegetables. We used to cultivate bitter gourd, aubergine and plantain and eat them everyday. Now we're eating a lot more fish and have become more dependent on potatoes and lentils. Vegetables have to come from outside the village so we can only afford to eat them a couple of times a week.

The sea's movement inland has also made it harder for the village men to marry. People are reluctant to marry their daughters to these areas because we're known to be prone to calamities that lead to a shortage of income and insecure lives."

Panchahan Sahu, 38, Farmer and Survivor of 1999 'Super Cyclone'

"Sea water was coming from all sides even though we were 15km away from the sea. I couldn't see anything and could hear only the whistling of the wind. I knew the tree was not going to save us and I managed to hold onto a branch of bamboo. All of my family died. Out of 482 people living in my village, 227 were killed. More than 200 of our livestock were washed away and 147 acres of our land was destroyed.

My two acres of land became salinated.

Since 1999, the temperature here has risen dramatically and malaria has increased by 10 percent. I'm afraid that the changes in weather will create storms that will force us to migrate from this place to yet another."

Life or death

For the people of Orissa, climate change is happening and is a matter of life and death. Taking action against the problem is not about abstract numbers or if rich countries and companies might be a fraction less rich - waiting is not an option if your life is being washed away around you.

--Matilda Bradshaw


Watch the video of the threat of raising sea levels to villages in Orissa - Quicktime (15.4 MB) | Real (8.5 MB) | Windows Media (10.3 MB)

Reports and background from the climate meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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An expanded version of this feature with additional photography is available for publication. Please contact Matilda Bradshaw at Greenpeace International: matilda.bradshaw [ @ ]