Below are our favorite photos from a few weeks in Bangladesh. You can also see more photos on our four flickr albums of cycling the country, The Delta, Boat Journey to Dhaka, Dhaka, and Dhaka to Agartala.
We rushed from the Sundarbans to Dhaka in order to attend the Gobeshona Climate Change Conference. This conference, organized by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and held at the Independent University of Bangladesh, gathered people from all over the world doing research on climate change in Bangladesh.
Due to mechanical trouble (one of the boat’s three engines failed), we arrived later than intended, but we still managed to attend a number of sessions, not to mention meeting and interviewing some of Bangladesh’s major climate change researchers. The conference website has most of the presentations available, so rather than going through details I’ll provide my takeaways here.
It was encouraging to see so many good minds addressing Bangladesh’s vulnerability to climate change. When we were visiting communities near the Sundarbans, it was obvious that the people living there face an array of problems, some of which are related to climate change. For example, people talked about how their usual sources of drinking water—the river and wells in their village—had become too salty or polluted to use. When crossing the Delta, we also heard about how farming had become more difficult in the aftermath of frequent cyclones, including the recent Cyclone Aila. At the conference in Dhaka, we heard from researchers working on salt-tolerant rice and studying the various factors that cause salinity increases in people’s water supply.
One of the conference’s themes was about integrating climate change adaptation into the general planning process. Before this journey, I worked for several years for the State of California, and learned that even in a developed economy like California, our approach to building and maintaining infrastructure is fractured and inconsistent. I can only imagine the challenges in Bangladesh, where a severely under-sourced government has its hands full just trying to keep its people from starving and constantly trying to recover from a seemingly endless wave of natural disasters. The government of Bangladesh, like many national governments, thinks in terms of five-year plans, while planning for climate change requires a much longer view. People at the conference seemed to think that while progress is slow, there is potential and interest within the government for integrating climate change considerations into their planning process.
We also heard, in casual conversation, about roadblocks to progress. For example, Bangladesh has two major funding sources to help adapt to climate change: the Bangladesh Climate Trust Fund, an internally financed fund administered by the central government, and the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund, which is funded by foreign donors. Both funds support projects under the framework of the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, which is housed in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. While it is encouraging that a Plan and finance mechanisms exist, we learned that implementation is slow—the government, apparently, has not yet put in place sufficient institutional controls to manage funds from outside donors, so some donations have not been transferred to the Fund. In addition, where money is flowing, corruption prevents some of it from making it to its intended project. Cyclone shelters, for example, might be built with only a percentage of the budget allocated them, because corrupt officials along the way pocket sizable chunks of the funds before construction even begins.
In the week before arriving in Dhaka, we saw embankments and levees protecting settlements and fields, and at the conference we learned that the government has been setting aside funds to increase their height. I am skeptical about solutions that rely exclusively on building one’s way out of a problem as serious as flooding, especially when the solution—in this case, raising the embankments that were built to ‘reclaim’ land in the Delta—is actually part of the problem. We learned that the embankments, built in the 1960s to enable people to live and farm in an area that otherwise would flood regularly, also prevent sediment carried by the rivers from spreading out across the land. This has resulted in one to one-and-a-half meters of subsidence compared to the nearby protected area that is not enclosed with embankments. The resulting lower elevation of the land increases its vulnerability to sea level rise and natural disasters.
Both of us have studied climate change literature, and from our reading we gained a wholly dismal picture of Bangladesh, with some articles basically saying that tens of millions of people will lose their homes in the next few decades due to rising sea levels and storms. Bangladesh is the poster child for climate change, especially sea level rise, and it’s no joke. Bicycling across a country is a visceral way to get a feel for its flatness. People already have water problems, for drinking and for irrigation, and whether salinity is increasing due to sea level rise, shrimp farming, groundwater pumping, the Farakka Barrage, or the silting up of the rivers (or all of the above), rising sea level is only going to make it worse.
Moreover, many people along Bangladesh’s coast (and elsewhere in the country) are poor, meaning they’re unlikely to have other options if they can’t grow crops, or that they won’t be able to rebuild if their homes, crops, or livestock are destroyed in a cyclone. So climate change adaptation, or resilience, is about more than seawalls and wells; it’s about basic economic development, and there are some bright spots there. Despite GDP per capita being lower than India’s, Bangladesh scores higher on most human development indicators—they have far better access to basic sanitation, for example, something we again experienced viscerally (in Bihar we saw countless men literally pooping along the road, while in Bangladesh we saw comparatively sparkling bathrooms in people’s homes and roadside restaurants); literacy rates are higher among both men and women, infant mortality is lower, and most people we talked to said that the economy is growing, that life is getting better.
And, after biking across the country, visiting the Sundarbans and the Bay of Bengal, and meeting many of the country’s climate change experts, we actually feel dimly hopeful. People, while poor in many of the communities we visited, seem resilient; the government is starting to pay attention to climate change; and the international community is concerned and engaged. While big infrastructure may often only be a Band-Aid, the country’s plans to raise embankments, build cyclone shelters, develop salt-tolerant crops, and promote alternative livelihoods, among other initiatives, could enable people to stay where they are for awhile—to send their children to school, to learn skills that will allow them to thrive elsewhere, and to become better prepared for what is to come.
The Ganges Brahmaputra Delta — the “Mouth of the Ganges” — is the world’s largest delta. It has been built over the eons by sediment from the Himalaya, and it hosts the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans. It is also home to Bangladesh, a country the size of Iowa with about half as many people as the entire population of the United States.
When we planned our journey, the Delta was our goal, and it was where we’d end our ride across Asia. Since then, we’ve extended our journey, and we will instead finish about a month and a half later in Myanmar. Nonetheless, reaching the Delta still felt significant. For months since leaving Turkey, we had told people we were going to Bangladesh, and now we were there. From a climate change perspective it is also an important destination. Few people in the world are more at risk to rising sea levels and stronger storms than the roughly one hundred and fifty million people living in this mega-delta.
We left Kolkata early in the morning after being interviewed for a local TV station. The reporter and cameraman met us at our hotel at 6:30 am and then followed us for a few blocks as we cycled away from the city’s tourist ghetto. Intermittent rain made the city feel both less and more disgusting—the stray dogs (more than I’ve seen in any city, anywhere), rickshaws, and trash on the sidewalks got somewhat washed, but road grime covered our bikes and panniers. We passed a market where wet live chickens were sold in bulk out of baskets to men who would carry a dozen away attached creatively to a bike rack. We saw many people transporting items by rickshaw that should probably be carried by truck—wood, sand, people. We biked on some of the roads in Kolkata that are illegal for bicycles, as the city has outlawed cycling on many of its major roads. (In our TV interview, I did something I never do in such media interviews—I criticized the city of the people interviewing us. I said that Kolkata should be ashamed that it is making it more difficult for bicycles). We enjoyed seeing what Kolkata is like and we enjoyed making new friends there, but we will not miss biking in the city.
Outside of the city, the 80 kilometers to the border with Bangladesh were relatively uneventful. Once we left the urban area, the intensity of traffic decreased a bit, and the road was pleasantly lined with trees that mostly shaded us. But although the surroundings felt more rural, traffic still crowded the road—buses with extra-loud horns, motorbikes, and rickshaws. It didn’t feel as dangerous as some of the other highways we had biked in West Bengal, as the traffic was traveling more slowly, but we could never relax.
We ate a late lunch near the border, where a “reporter” met us and paid for our lunch. We thought he wanted to interview us, but he asked us no questions, partially because he didn’t speak much English. His photographer, who drove the motorbike both of them rode on, snapped pictures of us every two minutes—they clearly planned to write an article about us, even though the language barrier prevented him from actually asking us questions. We assumed he would make up the stories, much like the reporter in Bihar did.
The team followed us to the border, riding just a bit ahead of us on their motorbike. India has built a long fence in an effort to keep immigrants from Bangladesh out of the country. Bangladesh is incredibly poor and densely populated, and tens of millions of people in the country live with a meter of the sea level. As the sea level rises, it’s hard not to wonder where these people are going to go.
Our reporter friend shepherded us through India’s border control. He walked into the office and told the border patrol agents about us, saying something in Bangla about us working on climate change (I only know because to me it sounded like he said “blah blah blah climate blah blah”) and the mustached patrol agents then waved us through with minimal inspection. The reporter was able to communicate to us that he is also a truck driver, which explained his familiarity with the border guards. We got our exit stamp, and in the no-man’s land between the India and Bangladesh the reporter gave us flowers, shook our hands, and then had the camera man capture the moment from several different angles.
We passed a duty free shop, where we bought two warm cans of Heineken (assuming that we’d be unable to find alcohol in Muslim Bangladesh), and then rolled our bikes into the Bangladeshi customs office. Bangladesh now offers visa on arrival for U.S. citizens (as well as for citizens of much of the developed world), and all we had to do was pay the $50 per person visa fee. We were supposed to somehow pay at the bank, he told us, but the bank was now closed. They would “figure something out,” he said, but we would have to wait a bit. We gave them a crisp Benjamin, waited around for about 20 minutes (in which time our first border agent drew us a map of Bangladesh, told us about the good places to visit, and taught us how to say hello, good morning, and thank you in Bengla), and then we were free to enter the country.
We followed the main road for about a kilometer until it entered Benapole, where our first administrative tasks were amazingly easy: the ATM worked, and I was able to buy a sim card and one gigabyte of data with less hassle than anywhere else we’d been. It gives you confidence in a country when such tasks are easy. People—almost all men, as usual—crowded around us, much like in India. But it felt different. The men had beards and many wore the skullcaps we’ve seen in many Muslim countries. Also, unlike in India, they greeted us and smiled instead of staring blankly. What a difference that makes! So many crowds in India had formed without talking to us or showing facial expressions. Now they actually seemed to be welcoming us, even if it was shyly and there were far too many of them. We also felt safer than we had just across the border, but that is partially because we were told Bangladesh had less crime than the parts of India we had recently cycled through.
We went straight to the hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet, and didn’t explore the town. Through India and now Bangladesh we had stayed in hotels almost every night. Hotel rooms are the only places in these population dense countries where we have “our space” and no one can stare at us.
The $15 room had two beds and windows that closed just well enough to mostly keep out the mosquitoes. A poster in the hotel lobby told us to “Visit Bangladesh before the Tourists Come.” I wondered how long it took the Bangladeshi Tourism Board to come up with this slogan. It’s like an empty restaurant telling you to come and eat before all their tables fill up.
Since then, I’ve been trying to come up with alternative slogans. Maybe: “Feel Like A Celebrity: Visit Bangladesh” or “Never Be Lonely: Cycle Bangladesh.”
The next day, we charted our course toward Khulna, the capital of one of Bangladesh’s seven districts, where we had a contact with the head of a local NGO that works with communities in the Sundarbans. As usual, we looked at the walking directions on Google Maps and choose the route that looked the most squiggly.
We turned off the main highway and started riding the narrower winding lines we saw on Google Maps. Bike touring with a smartphone feels like a luxury—there’s no way we’d be able to ask directions along this web of back roads. But a pulsing blue dot on the screen instantly shows us where we are, and we can even click to see the satellite view to assess (to a limited degree) the quality of the road ahead.
What we found was mostly paved one-lane roads that were raised pathways through semi-flooded fields of rice. We couldn’t stop without a crowd forming, but that seemed to be okay, as again, people smiled and greeted us. In one case, a woman ran away from us and returned with flowers, which we tucked into ourhandlebar bags(a friend of hers also tried to give us a dead snake—we declined). We saw some people plowing fields with a three-wheeled machine that sechurned up mud as it slowly moved down each furrow. Others used oxen. It had rained recently, and in one place we had to push our bikes through mud.
Where Google Maps had said there’d be a ferry, we found a man with a pole on a wooden boat that could carry about a dozen people. We loaded our bikes and were pushed across what appeared to be an oxbow. He asked for 40 cents from us. We gave him the money, and later learned that we had probably overpaid by a factor of ten.
Along this route, we tried to interview a number of people about climate change, showing them a sheet we had printed out with our questions written in Bangla (Are summers warmer or colder than when you were a child? Are winters warmer or colder? Does it rain more or less now than when you were young?) Much like in India, we found that many people couldn’t make much sense of our questions. One person would read the worlds slowly, as if sounding them out. It was as if they were just showing that they could read, and not trying to answer or respond to what was written. According to official statistics, less than sixty percent of adults are “literate” in Bangladesh, and I would guess that the number is lower in the countryside. In China and parts of central Asia and Turkey the literacy rate was much higher, and we could see it in people’s eyes when we handed them our questions. They know how to read and respond to them. In Bangladesh there was more confusion. It was sad to see.
We stopped in a small town for lunch at a restaurant that sold rice and dal. As we ordered, a crowd formed and pushed into the place. The crowd of twenty acted like a two thousand watt heater, warming the already hot restaurant. After we ate the meal, we wanted to sit and relax, but the owner told us we had to leave; the crowd was hurting his business.
We spent our second evening in Bangladesh in Khulna, where Mowdudur, the founder of the Centre for Coastal Environmental Conservation (CCEC), an environmental NGO that works with communities near the Sundarbans mangrove forest, treated us to a feast at his home and also let us interview him about his work.
The Sundarbans are the world’s largest mangrove forest, a huge stretch of uninhabited tidally-flooded forest in what is otherwise one of the world’s most population dense nations. The large tides in the Bay of Bengal (about 10 feet!), combined with the huge amount of sediment deposited from rivers, have resulted in a large expanse of land that is just barely above sea level, and which is flooded daily by the tides.
Mowdudur told us that CCED helps find “alternative livelihoods” for people in these communities (basically helping them find work), and that they promote environmental education, helping people learn how to live in better harmony with the forest. Environmental harmony can be a tricky goal, as the mangroves are home to about 400 Bengal tigers, which actually kill a number of people each year.
Early the next morning, we cycled 40 kilometers to Mongla, the location of one of Bangladesh’s two ports and the entry point for the Sundarbans forest. Hiroke, a 25-year-old employee of Mowdudur’s organization, took the bus and joined us in Mongla along with another employee of CCEC (who spoke little English, and whose name we didn’t get). The four of us boarded a boat, and then we motored across the wide river to the Sundarbans visitors’ center.
The visitors’ center included a large map of the mangrove forest, a skeleton of a tiger, a fenced-off pen with about two dozen spotted deer (the most common ungulate of the Sundarbans), a family of monkeys in a cage, and a pond with crocodiles. A raised wooden pathway led from the center through the muddy, partially flooded forest. In the forest we watched water flow through a small canal in the mud, responding to the twice-daily tidal shift in water levels. We then climbed up a tower to gaze across a small part of the forest. On the return to the visitor’s center, some monkeys eyed us from the trees, and one of our guides threw some paper into the forest to lure the monkeys closer, as they were clearly used to tourists feeding them (it’s upsetting to see people who work in the environmental sector throw trash into the natural environment, at a wild animal—although littering is something we’ve seen so regularly on this trip, it also isn’t too surprising). We saw a number of Bangladeshi tourists, but no foreigners. In fact, a few of the Bangladeshis took pictures of us as if we were another type of exotic animal.
We then crossed the river and met with people living in one of the communities right along the edge of the Sundarbans. With the help of Hiroke, we interviewed three of the community members, asking them whether the winters or summers had changed over their lifetimes, whether storms were worse, and whether the monsoons had changed.
The consistent message we got is that life is hard. The biggest problem, everyone seemed to say, is access to basic freshwater. In the dry season, water is saltier in the river than it was when they were younger. The result is that it is hard to find fresh water for many months of the year. They walk a few kilometers just to get water.
The increased saltiness of the river might be because sea levels have risen slightly, thus pushing salt water further inland. Or it could be because India constructed the Farakka Barrage, which siphons off water from the Ganges in the dry season, allowing less to reach Bangladesh. Or it could be because there is less flow in the river in the dry season due to changes in rainfall, or the development of shrimp farms along the coast.
The people we spoke to agreed that the water levels had been rising. They also said that monsoons are coming later and are less predictable than they once were. While we only interviewed a few people, these comments about the monsoons are fairly consistent with what people in Bihar said and with what experts have told us.
We asked one woman what she thought the future of her village would be. If they couldn’t get water, would people go elsewhere? She said they wouldn’t be able to go anywhere else. “We’re poor,” she said, and there were no resources to move. She also told us about how her children had suffered through cholera and various other ailments. Cholera, we thought. It sounded like something out of the middle ages, and it’s sad to hear of such basic ailments destroying somebody’s family.
We also later learned that one of the women we met was a “tiger widow”—her husband had been killed by one of the large cats. My view on conservation was a bit shaken. The world used to be full of predators that competed with—and sometimes even preyed upon—humans, and humanity has slowly wiped them out over the millennia. North America used to have saber-toothed cats and a bear that stood 12 feet tall. Both were wiped out (almost certainly) by Native Americans. These extinctions are sad, but they also make the forests of the world safe for outdoors people like myself. It’s easy to argue for conservation when the animals aren’t trying to kill us.
We motored on the boat back to Mongla, and before saying goodbye to Hikoke we recorded him, using the voice recorder on my iPhone, asking our basic questions about climate change. We would then use these recordings to interview people in the next few days.
The next night, we followed a small road along the edge of the Sundarbans, where human settlements butt up against the protected mangrove forest. Hiroke had told us that people could build embankments, drain parts of the forest, and then, after a few years, actually farm rice on the soil. Riding along the forest, it was clear that this is what people had done to the land that was currently settled. They had carved out land to farm by building small embankments.
A narrow tidal river, about 20 meters across, separated the settlements from the forest, and we stopped at one place where about a dozen people were crowded around a dock, selling fish. We used Hiroke’s recording to interview one man about climate change (we have no idea what he said—we need someone to translate the video), and then we accepted his offer to take a small wooden boat across the river to visit the forest (he spoke just enough English to invite us). Across the river was a small government building—maybe for hosting tourists, but we never really figured it out. And then we walked around the back, where they had a small pond for aquaculture, and where the forest began. We stood there for a bit, listening to the chirps and buzzes of the creatures in the mangroves. “It isn’t safe here,” said our new friend, speaking English. He told us that tigers had killed about 150 people in the communities in that area (or “at least 150 people”). We didn’t linger.
We biked to a mile-and-a-half wide channel, where we found a ferry ready to take us across the river. Google Maps hadn’t shown a ferry, but we’d assumed that such boats would be everywhere there was a river and settlements on either side, and we were right. In fact, the vessel even took us across the river and then 10 km up a canal to the town we had planned to visit, thus cutting off cycling we thought we would need to do. We enjoyed the ride. A woman veiled head to toe tried to talk to Lindsey, but it was tough because she didn’t speak any English (and us no Bangla) and because Lindsey couldn’t see her face, making communication through gesturing and expressions more difficult. At 5pm, a man went to the back of the boat and prostrated himself toward Mecca.
That evening we tried something we haven’t yet done in South Asia: We rolled into a village and asked people where to camp. We played a recording, again from Hiroke, asking in Bangla if we could set our tent somewhere. A crowd gathered. They seemed to suggest we camp by the mosque, a basic one story building with loudspeakers for the call to prayer and a nice grass lawn. I called Mowdudur, our friend in Khulna, and he helped translate over the phone. Mowdudur told us we should go back to the nearest town and find a hotel. We said we didn’t want to—we wanted to camp in the village. We handed the phone to a man who then talked to Mowdudur. When the phone was handed back to me, Mowdudur told us it would be okay to camp by the mosque.
We started setting up our tent, and the crowd (of almost all men) didn’t disperse. They just kept standing there and watching.
While Lindsey went off to find a bathroom (led by some women, who had somehow materialized on the periphery of the sea of men), I set up the stove and cooked a pasta dinner. The crowd hovered and watched, almost closing in. I sat on the ground and closed my eyes for a second. The people of Bangladesh surrounded me, watching me. It was a strange meditative moment, a way to appreciate the sea of humanity that is Bangladesh. I opened my eyes and continued cooking.
Every now and then someone would take a picture of us with his phone. One young man who spoke English asked me “What is your qualification?”—a strange way of asking what I studied. His “qualification” was English—he was getting a master’s in English (although it seemed like he was far from being a master).
Lindsey returned and told me that we could stay with a woman who offered us her place and had indicated that there was gate that could be locked to keep out the crowd. I agreed we should probably go there, as the crowd did not seem like it would disperse. We first ate our dinner, as the crowd quietly watched us slurp the instant noodles.
We packed up our tent in the dark and rolled our bikes across the road to the gate of the woman’s home. Her husband was in Saudi Arabia, working. It seems like every family in the rural areas of every country we’ve visited has a family member working abroad. This family had a two-room house, each room probably two-thirds the size of Lindsey’s and my old bedroom back in the states. They also had an outhouse and a yard with a badminton net and two lights that they turned on so that we could hit the shuttlecock back and forth. The woman had said that she would lock the gate, and it was closed, but they kept on letting people in—most likely family and friends—and soon about eight people were watching us play badminton, and another dozen or so were in the house.
Lindsey was not feeling very well, and was hoping that the people would leave and let us rest. It was amazing how many people fit in the house. I worried the floor would collapse under the weight. And it became warm with so many bodies packed in.
Then a man came in who spoke more English. He said something about how he was the commissioner—or something like that—of the town, and somehow an important government official. He told us we had to go the station, and that it wasn’t safe where we were. We should not stay in the house. Right away, we didn’t like him. He seemed like someone who had an inflated sense of himself, who looked down on the family we were staying with. Our intuition trusted him less than the woman who was hosting us.
After a lot of back and forth—in which I told him we couldn’t leave because my wife was sick—he arranged for us to stay in a larger home just across the street where we had our own private room. We don’t know why the headman wanted us to go to another house. We guessed it was because he somehow didn’t approve of the woman hosting us—maybe because her husband was out of the country or something. Or because some men at the house were chewing betel nut and their mouths were red from the mild stimulant.
The house we stayed in had four rooms and a concrete squat toilet inside the home instead of outside. We are always amazed by how few things people have in their homes. We often feel like we have more individual items on our bikes than most people own (and we are definitely carrying around greater retail value). We got our own room (someone must have gotten kicked out of their bed), which we could lock. It was hard to be grateful to our new hosts (a family obviously approved of by the headman) when we had been forced to go there, and leave a woman who Lindsey had befriended and liked. However, the new family was friendly and generous, and served us breakfast the following morning. Our friend from the night before also came over, so we got to see her again.
The next day was a series of ferries and short rides as we charted a course toward the Bay of Bengal. A man on a motorcycle befriended us in the late morning, as much as someone with very limited English can, and drove next to us for about a third of the day, including stopping with tea and helping give us directions for finding a boat to Dhaka, which we ended up doing two days later.
Toward the end of the day, about 15 kilometers away from the beach town of Kuakata, we found one of the narrow paved roads, suitable only for bicycles and motorbikes, that we had come to love. This one was one of our favorites. The population density seemed a bit lower here, perhaps because it was so close to the ocean and the fields were less productive due to saltwater or the increased difficulty in getting freshwater to irrigate.
About forty-five minutes before sunset we started playing people the recording of Hiroke’s voice asking if we could camp. The first people waved us on. The second group stopped and thought about it and told us to wait. I realized that the people there looked different—they appeared Southeast Asian, not South Asian. One girl, who looked to be in her late teens, had mud painted on her cheeks.
The houses also looked different. They were all wooden structures on stilts. One of the people in the group pointed up to one of the houses, basically saying we could stay there. Then we were led by a man who was probably in his fifties around a few of the homes (they were tightly clustered, with trees around them, with fields beyond the trees). He spoke some English and told us we could stay in a room there.
We wheeled our bikes around and brought our bags in. The room had a small shrine to Buddha, and a Buddha calendar.
Soon, a pudgy man in his sixties who spoke good English showed up. He told us they were Rakhine people, from Myanmar. Their people had fled Myanmar about 200 years earlier, and had lived in this part of Bangladesh ever since.
He had become an engineer and then went to Iraq in the late 70s to work. At some point he seemed to say he was making weapons, which he seemed not to like—or maybe he was tricked into engineering weapons. He had gone to a missionary school, which is why he spoke English. However, he wasn’t much of a listener, and preferred to talk at us rather than answer our questions, and he had a habit of finishing our sentences with things we weren’t planning to say.
He complained that his people, the Rakhine, were losing land at the hands of the other communities. He also told us about a machine he built that would produce more energy than was put into it using a system of gears and mechanical advantage. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his perpetual motion machine was impossible, as it violates basic rules of physics. He left us to go home and get the blueprints for this machine, temporarily leaving us alone.
While he was gone, we were alone in the room while the woman of the house did her prayer before the Buddha. At the same time, we heard crickets chirping outside, and in the nearby Muslim village a loudspeaker was conveying the call to prayer.
It was in this moment that “the magic” of the trip came back. Sitting in the Rakhine house on stilts, we were jolted into realizing where we were: in a remote corner of Bangladesh, hosted by people we had met that day, with people praying to different gods all around us. The mix of crickets, Muslim prayer, and Buddhist chants felt like a declaration about the beauty, diversity, and generosity of the world. Moments like this are a major reason why we rode our bikes across Asia.
Our friend returned with blueprints and a series of letters from various potential funders rejecting his requests for money. The blueprints were professionally drawn, clearly demonstrating that he had training in design. But it was still a drawing for a perpetual motion machine. I’ll believe in the Buddha before I believe in that.
Our hosts served us a dinner—an assortment of meats, some rice, and what we thought were eggs but which had a peculiar membrane connecting them, making us suspect that they were in fact organs of an unknown animal. We didn’t eat those. Our hosts, though, didn’t speak to us. They just gave us food and walked back into the kitchen, leaving us to hang out on our own.
We slept well that night, listening to the crickets.
In the morning, our hostess gave us a blanket that she had woven herself. She said it took her three days to make.
We followed a long route to the beach. I regretted this when Lindsey was feeling sick and we were pushing our bikes through the sand. But we also saw rows of boats and fish drying, recently caught, and we rode along the embankment that protected the farmland from the ocean. I found the embankment relatively unimpressive. I think it was supposed to be 5 meters (16 feet) tall, but it seemed shorter to me. I would definitely want more between me and the next cyclone.
We made it to town around 2pm, at which point we found the nicest hotel in town ($15 for the night) and took a nap. We then walked to the beach.
Kaukata is a tourist town for Bangladeshi tourists, not foreigners. It had the relaxed feeling of a beach town. But the shops were targeted at Bangladeshis. The little open-air booths sold knick-knacks such as shells and cheap necklaces. We saw only four other foreigners in the town.
The beach chairs were mostly empty. It was December and the temperature was in the high sixties, which is downright freezing if you’re a Bangladeshi. We strolled down the wide beach, walking by the rows of empty beach chairs. Although the beach wasn’t crowded, every now and then a group of Bangladeshis would approach us and request—no, demand—a picture with the foreigners.
It felt nice to sit on the beach, even if we could only do so for 20 minutes before being approached, and even if it wasn’t quite warm enough to enjoy the water. The Bay of Bengal was mostly calm, and the beach curved in such a way that we could watch both the sunrise and the sunset over the water. We chose to see only the sunset—we’ve seen enough sunrises on this journey.
We left town at about 11am the next morning and biked the 45 kilometers to a dock where a three-story boat, which we planned to take to Dhaka, waited for us. We rolled our bike along a wooden ramp to the boat, where we were led to a small cabin. For $10 each, we got a 24-hour boat ride and our own cabin. Our journey through the heart of the Ganges Delta had come to an end. We had achieved our trip’s goal of reaching the mouth of the Ganges.
Unlike the parts of India we had just recently traveled, I would recommend Bangladesh to other cycle tourists. When I now look at the impressive satellite image of the waterways snaking through the green islands of the mouth of the Ganges, I think not only of the country’s vulnerability to climate change; I think of how you can roll your bike up to almost any of these rivers and find a boat ready to take you across it. And I think of the one-lane roads raised above the flooded rice fields, the crowd of friendly men who surrounded our tent, and the cricket-Buddhist-Muslim music we enjoyed just a few miles from the Bay of Bengal.
Kolkata (Calcutta) was not directly en route from Nepal to Bangladesh, but we went there to get visas for Bangladesh (the embassy in Kathmandu could not provide them) and also so we could visit a large Indian city. Our experience of India was far less comprehensive than our time in China, which we crossed west to east in a serpentine manner, visiting roughly a dozen provinces over two and a half months. From Nepal, we crossed the border into Bihar, biked east across the state until reaching West Bengal, and then rode to Kolkata. While we didn’t get our visas there—we learned at the embassy that Bangladesh now offers visa on arrival (at least at the Benapole border)—we did manage to meet with several people working on climate and energy issues and celebrated the New Year with some lovely new friends.
Adaptation in the Sundarbans
We had the chance to discuss climate change in the Sundarbans with Asish Ghosh of Center for Environment and Development (CENDV) and Anurag Danda of WWF-India. The Sundarbans is a region of about 10,000 square kilometers that straddles the border of India and Bangladesh where the countries meet the Bay of Bengal. Lying in the enormous delta where the Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers empty into the Bay after their journey across the subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau, the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world. A large portion of the area is protected as a national park, wildlife reserve, and UNESCO World Heritage Site—the Sundarbans is the largest reserve for the Bengal tiger. The region is a vast network of rivers, creeks, and flat, low-lying islands, and the people living there are often held up as the poster children of vulnerability to climate change, and particularly to sea level rise.
The Indian Sundarbans are experiencing sea level rise and temperature increases at a faster rate than the global average, and farmers are already noticing changes. Data shows that while overall precipitation amounts have not changed, the timing and intensity of rainfall has, with short periods of very heavy rainfall occurring sporadically throughout the rainy season. CENDV is working with other deltaic regions in the world to help develop adaptation strategies. One of the major challenges the region faces is cyclones, which are projected to grow more intense as a result of climate change. In 2009, Cyclone Aila hit the region, destroying over 1000 km of the embankments that normally keep saltwater out of people’s villages and farms. After the cyclone, farmers were unable to grow rice in fields that had been inundated with saltwater, and CENDV helped locate and disseminate salt-tolerant varieties of rice. CENDV also studies migration, which is already occurring as people leave the villages in search of work or because their homes were destroyed, and which is anticipated to increase as climate change and natural disasters make it more and more difficult to sustain livelihoods in the region.
Dr. Danda told us that WWF works with communities near conservation areas that the organization supports. The Sundarbans, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and reserve for some of the world’s most charismatic megafauna, receive a lot of attention when it comes to wildlife conservation, but the people living nearby are not so lucky. If their villages become uninhabitable, the nearby protected area is off limits for migration, and they can’t count on the government for protection. We learned that while some of India’s islands are likely to be protected for strategic purposes (because their very presence serves to maintain / expand the country’s territory at sea), the four million people in the Sundarbans, and the area itself, are not high on the government’s list of priorities.
Projections indicate that at least a quarter of these people will have to leave their homes in the next 30 years due to sea level rise, erosion, extreme events, and increases to the already large population. To help prepare for this, WWF helps young people—who for the most part only know farming and fishing—develop skills that will serve them if agriculture is no longer viable, or if they migrate to urban areas. These skills include basic education—the organization helps promising students find scholarships to advance their studies and pursue professions such as engineering and medicine—as well as training for work in the hospitality sector, construction, and driving.
These meetings were our introduction to the Sundarbans, which we would later visit on the Bangladeshi side of the border. What we learned is that climate change is already being felt in this area, both in the dramatic way portrayed on the news—with islands disappearing as sea level rises—as well as in more subtle ways. Changing rainfall patterns can destroy crops, tidal surges erode islands, and increased salinity—which has a variety of causes, including sea level rise and flooding during cyclones—can make farming impossible in some areas. It was encouraging, though, to see that organizations such as CENDV and WWF, along with others, are working to soften the blow. Developing or discovering rice varieties that can tolerate salt, submergence, or drought improves food security, while skill development gives people options outside of farming and could make it easier to survive if migration becomes necessary.
We had the opportunity to visit the offices of SwitchOn and ONergy, a joint NGO-business organization that helps bring renewable energy to rural people in eastern India, where 50% of households are not connected to the grid. SwitchOn, the NGO, was started in 2008 to do outreach, policy advocacy, and capacity building around climate change and sustainable livelihoods. ONergy, the business side of the organization, was started in 2009 to provide solar energy to underserved communities. ONergy uses innovative approaches such as distribution centers and micro-finance to make solar electricity and technology affordable, while SwitchOn helps build capacity among communities to install, maintain, and maximize the benefits of the technology.
The vision for SwitchOn began after founders Ekta and Vinay Jaju traveled with a friend from Kolkata to New Delhi by bicycle, following India’s coal belt. Along the way, they spoke with experts, activists, and affected communities about the impacts of mining coal. What they learned—about sinking towns, burning ground, and other effects—are detailed in the video, Why New Coal.
Upon returning to Kolkata, Ekta and Jaju started SwitchOn and later ONergy, which have so far affected about 200,000 lives, with a goal of affecting one million lives by 2016 and ten million lives by 2022. The major benefits of solar electricity come from simply having convenient access to light. Instead of kerosene, which is smoky and provides poor quality light, SwitchOn/ONergy’s beneficiaries and customers can flip a switch and have high quality light for studying, working, and entertainment. The organization also provides street lighting, water heating systems, and cook stoves, as well as solar-powered technology in the agricultural sector, such as cold storage and irrigation systems.
We also spoke with Subhro Sen at WWF, who works on rural electrification in the Sundarbans. The program he described uses distribution centers and financing models to make the products affordable and to ensure that they are well maintained and provide the intended services to customers. One of our questions for both organizations was whether these sorts of projects could actually result in delaying connection to the grid for the communities they served. We learned that grid power and diesel, which is often used in generators and to pump water, are highly subsidized and therefore very cheap, making it difficult for solar power to be cost-competitive. Ekta told us, though, that over time solar is cheaper than diesel, and the hope is that eventually some of ONergy’s customers can become producers of solar energy. Then, if the government expands the grid to them, they can sell power back to it.
While it’s inspiring to learn about the positive impacts these organizations are having on people’s lives, it frustrates me that the government isn’t able to deliver such services. I am a strong supporter of renewable energy and this type of work, and I can definitely see the case for new electrification to be sustainable and low-fossil fuel. However, I can’t help but note a disconnect—maybe even an irony—in that the people who will be most affected by climate change, and who have contributed basically nothing to causing it, are the ones using renewables while much of the developed world goes on using fossil fuels. If the market is large enough, perhaps it will contribute to bringing down the cost of renewables and mainstreaming them, but this is something that everybody should be contributing to. Nonetheless, these sorts of projects are inspiring in that they are helping to improve people’s standard of living without contributing to climate change, which David writes about extensively in The Bicycle Diaries, and which is such a contentious and important issue in the international climate negotiations.
Our final meeting in Kolkata was with ITC, one of India’s largest companies. We met with Dr. Ashesh Ambasta, Vice President and Head of Social Investments; Sanjib Bezbaroa, Vice President and Head of Corporate Environment, Health and Safety; and Nazeeb Arif, Vice President Corporate Communications, who told us about the company’s ‘triple bottom line’ approach to business. ITC’s products range from paper to food to hotels, and what stuck with me is that the company is able to support millions of what they call sustainable livelihoods as part of their business practices. For instance, they are “carbon positive,” “water positive,” and “solid waste recycling positive.” This means that they use a high percentage of renewable energy sources and sequester more CO2 than they produce through afforestation projects; ‘create’ more water than they use through rainwater harvesting and other means to capture runoff for use in irrigation; and recycle more waste than is produced from their operations.
They showed us a video of communities where the raw materials for their products are grown, with testimonials of how people’s lives had improved. For example, the company provided saplings for trees that could grow in degraded farmland that was no longer productive, and the farmers were then able to make a living planting and tending the trees before selling them for paper production. This is done in a seven-year cycle rather than through clear-cutting, and more trees are now grown than the company can use, so farmers sell to other companies as well. ITC began this project at a time when most pulp was imported, and they are proud of creating both demand for and supply of domestically produced pulp, as it provides livelihoods for local people and, when managed correctly, improves the environment where the trees are grown. There were many such examples of triple bottom line practices that the company has implemented, often in partnership with civil society. In communities where they source agricultural products such as wheat, for example, the company has invested in infrastructure to harvest rainwater for irrigation, at the same time training and empowering local people to build and maintain such systems.
Interestingly, the company’s motivation does not come from its customers. While organic and fair trade labels are gaining in popularity in US and European markets, the people we met with at ITC said these issues are not really on the radar of Indian consumers. Instead, the company is motivated by the idea of ‘country before company’ and by profit. ITC is proud to support producers within India and contribute to the country’s economy—as they say, businesses can’t succeed in societies that fail. By creating sustainable livelihoods and supply chains, they are creating a secure base for their own operations. ITC, a $45 billion market cap company, is one of the top three companies on the Indian stock exchange. From what we learned, this success appears to be in part because of—rather than in spite of—their investment in sustainable livelihoods around the country.
After a whirlwind two and a half days in Kolkata, we rode out of the city on a rainy morning, accompanied by a camera crew for eTV and bound for Bangladesh. Stay tuned for updates from the front lines of climate change, the Sundarbans themselves.
The warnings about Bihar started as soon as I posted our planned route. A number of people told us to avoid the state entirely. One friend wrote us and said, “we’ve gotten advice from a number of folks in the know that biking through Bihar is a really bad idea (like a 50% chance of rape and/or assault and/or kidnapping idea).”
Bihar is one of India’s poorest and most densely populated states. Over half of the population lives under the national poverty line, and the state’s population density of more than 1,100 people per square kilometer is greater than that of Bangladesh. Bihar also fares poorly with respect to education, especially for women: About a quarter of men are illiterate, while almost half of the women are. The state is also highly vulnerable to climate change—its people are at very high risk to floods, and they rely heavily on agriculture. For our project, I wanted to ride our bikes across this part of the world and witness it firsthand. But first we needed to figure out if we would survive such a ride.
We receive many warnings about “far away,” “unknown” places, which often seem dangerous to people who haven’t been there. But the Bihar warnings were unusually strong and warranted more research, in part because they came from some people who _had_ been there, or were well-traveled and very familiar with India. We emailed everyone we could think of who might know people in Bihar. We wanted to find someone who knew the state well enough to tell us the safety of specific towns and roads in Bihar.
We found that person in Ashutosh Ranjan, a Clinton Global Fellow who grew up in northern Bihar and now lives in Delhi. After some equivocation, he told us which parts of the state were more troublesome than others and recommended a bike route. More importantly, he was able to find local contacts in almost every city we would spend the night in. These contacts could help us find hotels (Ashutosh, as well as everyone else we spoke to, strongly recommended against camping or traveling after dark) and assist us with other challenges we might face. Such local help is invaluable, and we decided to take Ashutosh’s advice and cross the state.
After two days of riding from Kathmandu, we arrived at the border between Nepal and India (and thus Bihar, as the state borders Nepal just south of Kathmandu), which we crossed early in the morning. It was the least patrolled border I’ve ever crossed. Indians and Nepalis don’t have to show their passports—they can freely cross. As a result, there’s little security. We biked across a bridge (where we had to wedge our bikes around parked trucks waiting to cross), only to learn that we’d accidentally left Nepal. We had to turn around and bike back a few hundred meters to the Nepal customs office, which we had passed without noticing it. The office was challenging to find, but a friendly man standing by a trash fire waved us into a small building. They weren’t very busy, and the officer offered us some tea.
We biked back to the Indian side and found the corresponding customs office in a small room with a low ceiling and a tangle of cables for two computers. The agent then told us that their Internet wasn’t working, and we’d have to wait for them to connect to approve our crossing. Then we got worse news. The Indian Embassy that issued my visa (in Dushanbe, Tajikistan), had written my passport number incorrectly—they had randomly added a “2” to the middle of the number on the visa. We hadn’t noticed this mistake until the customs officer pointed it out. Now this obvious error could prevent him from approving our entry. The officer made a number of calls to his higher-ups in Delhi, and we waited.
Four and a half hours later (during which time only one other tourist passed through the office), someone in an office in Delhi approved our passage. Now, though, we had a dilemma—it was 12:30 PM, and we had just four and a half hours to make it 50 km before dark. If the roads were good, it would be no problem. If they were dirt, we might have to start our ride in Bihar doing exactly what everyone told us not to do: ride after dark.
We started biking. The border town was gross. The street was crowded with people, almost all of them men. A few (holy) cows picked at the trash that lined the road. I looked for something to eat, but the food at all the stands appeared to have been sitting out for a few hours, and I didn’t think I could eat it without getting sick. A cool thick fog made everything even less attractive. The only part I enjoyed was watching a man parallel park his cart pulled by two Brahman bulls.
An orderless mix of trucks and rickshaws were backed up behind the train tracks, waiting for the people operating the gate to push it up. Bicycles and pedestrians were able to duck around and cross the pair of tracks, and we did the same. On the other side of the tracks, though, we had to walk far around the gate and cross a moat of black viscous water, using two narrow boards that had been laid down for this purpose. We passed a table where a dozen dead chickens, feathers plucked, sat for sale. Beneath the stand, another two dozen chickens lay, all still alive, but with their feet tied together. They seemed remarkably relaxed given their circumstances.
The road quality changed every few miles from smooth new pavement, to under construction (although it was unclear if anyone was actually working on the road, or if it was just a perpetual “work in progress”), to horrible dirt. We encountered numerous “spontaneous impasses”—a unique breed of traffic jam where vehicles tried to pass each other in each direction, leading to four vehicles stopped in place, facing each other in a pointless standoff. Trucks, vans, buses, and motorcycles would try to pass the stopped vehicles, ignoring lanes and filling every space on the road, making it impossible for people to back up and resolve the mess. On bicycles (or “cycles” as they are called here), we were able to maneuver our way around and pass, albeit very slowly.
We arrived in Motihari just before dark, and called Dushyant, the first contact that Ashutosh had arranged for us. I felt ill at ease—small three wheeled vehicles, cycles, and motorbikes moved through the streets like water flowing. To cross a street, you have no option but to walk slowly into the street, trusting that the traffic will flow around you like a rock in a stream. Dushyant found us a hotel where we could get a room for $10, and we met him there.
We didn’t leave the hotel for dinner—Dushyant said we would be surrounded by people, and it would be unpleasant (although not unsafe, he said). So he went to a restaurant, got us food, and brought it back to our hotel room. Like many people we met, Dushyant was surprised that we thought it wouldn’t be safe in his town. But he also then told us, and especially Lindsey, not to go out after dark.
For the next week, we traveled through Bihar following basically this routine: rise early, eat breakfast at our hotel, and bike hurriedly to a city where we knew we would be able to spend the night (and for some reason, we were always getting into town right before dark and feeling rushed, just like the first day). On arrival, we’d meet our local contact, usually at a hotel they’d recommended, eat dinner at the hotel, and go to bed. This was made possible because nearly all of the hotels had restaurants and room service, making it even easier to not wander into town.
It was difficult to stop along the road in Bihar, because a crowd would immediately form. The population density in Bihar is 30 times higher than in the United States. There are people everywhere, and they’re not accustomed to seeing foreigners. So, when we stopped, people would surround us within seconds. Sometimes someone would say “Which country?,” asking where we were from. But mostly they just stared, looking at us as if aliens had landed. One person even asked me, “are you human?” And of course, the crowds were entirely men—we saw very few women in the streets. We never felt unsafe with these crowds, but we always felt uncomfortable, and as a result, we almost never stopped for long on the side of the road.
I also spent about half my time battling some type of stomach bacteria. Two nights I felt so ill I thought we wouldn’t be able to continue the next day. Fortunately, rest and antibiotics gave me enough strength to keep riding. But it is a horrible feeling to be sick during the middle of the day and feel like you have to keep going because you have to make it to a hotel for the night.
Our longest stop was in the town of Tribeniganj, where Ashutosh had arranged for a group of volunteer social workers to meet us. The town is in a part of Bihar that suffered horrendously from floods in 2008 when an embankment in the Kosi River burst, unexpectedly flooding the homes of a few million people.
The volunteers brought us through a few villages for a tour and helped us interview people about climate change. It was amazing how many people live in these small villages—men, women (women were more present in villages), and children seem to materialize out of thin air when we stopped, emerging to stare at us. Having guides allowed us to follow small paths, sometimes paved, sometimes not, and talk to people living in the rows of small wooden houses. We asked people if the climate had changed over their lifetimes, if flooding was more or less frequent now, and whether these changes (if they noticed any) had made life harder or easier.
Other than the 2008 flood, people didn’t have a consistent answer on flooding. Most people said that the rains are more unpredictable than they used to be, and that the monsoon is coming later, on average, which in turn makes it challenging to plant crops at the right time. But when we asked “how have changes in the weather affected you,” they pointed out things that aren’t necessarily related to climate change. More than one person said that they needed to spend money on diesel to pump groundwater for irrigation (which could be more necessary as rains become less reliable) and use more fertilizer to grow their crops, and that the crops don’t fetch as good a price at the market as they used to.
One elderly man didn’t answer the questions at first. He said, in English, “Look how poor I am, look how simple my cottage is, how skinny I am.” At first I wanted to tell him how nice his cottage was, but I realized he was right. And this was my strongest impression from these visits—the poverty. So many people live incredibly simple lives, cooking meals over dung fires, using bulls to plow small plots of rented land, and hoping for a good harvest.
It was the poverty that got to me the most in Bihar. We saw many migrant families huddled near the roadside just outside their makeshift one-room huts, next to a small fire, trying to keep warm in the cool foggy December air.
And then there was the human waste. Bihar has a population of over 100 million. Ninety percent of these people do not have access to a toilet—that is, they shit outside. Almost every day—and sometimes several times a day—we’d see a man (never a woman, as it’s only considered appropriate for them to go just before sunrise or just after sunset) squatting in a field. Along some of the wider two-lane highways, we’d sometimes see rows of human feces at the edge of the shoulder near villages. It is a sight and smell I’d also like to forget. And it isn’t just gross—such lack of hygiene is a major cause of health problems in India.
We spent our last full day in Bihar in Purnea, a town of maybe one hundred thousand on the eastern edge of the state. We planned to only stay for lunch but were persuaded to spend the night by Gririndra, a friend of a friend of Ashutosh. Gririndra insisted we visit his farm and spend the night with his family. He had attended college and worked as a journalist (I think) in Delhi, but had returned home when his father became ill, and he then took over his father’s farm. He had an arranged marriage, like most other people we’ve met here, and one daughter. “My biggest dream,” he said, “is for a good education for my daughter.”
One thing that we struggled to understand is the caste system, which appears to still be in place to some degree. Gririndra, like many (though not all) of our contacts who hosted us and helped us, was well educated and a member of the Brahmin caste—the top of the ancient caste system (though there are many divisions within this and the other castes). People would freely tell us their caste if we overcame our own discomfort with the concept and asked. But many of the people crowding into huts were of lower castes. And there were clear distinctions. We visited one farm where the landlord had a nice, large house, and behind the wall that surrounded it were rows of small huts that provided shelter for a few hundred people. It’s sad to see such differences in wealth in a society, whether in India, Latin America, or the United States. And it is especially odious when there are social norms—in this case, the caste system—that help perpetuate this unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity.
We didn’t know it, but Gririndra was “interviewing” us. He wrote an article about us, which he published in the Hindustani Times. The article actually said very little about our trip’s mission, and made up almost all of our quotes. It was, though, very entertaining.
We never felt totally comfortable in Bihar, but we also never felt unsafe in the way that we worried about, based on the warnings we had received (of course, we never were outside after dark, which would probably be dangerous). A few people told us that in the past decade, largely due to better government that has cleaned up corruption and improved police enforcement, safety has increased dramatically—one person told us that people’s warnings would have been completely true in 2005, but not today. Also, numerous Biharis in almost every city we visited helped us on our journey, and we feel incredibly lucky to have made these new friends.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to look back fondly on our time in Bihar. I was sick for three and a half days, and an unpleasant, gritty fog hung over the landscape much of the time. I wish I could forget the images I have of grown men shitting outside, and the sight and smell of human feces along the edge of the highway. And the poverty—so many people live with so little. How many families did we see crowding around small fires by their huts? Or people plowing small plots of rented land using oxen? I’ve traveled through many poor parts of the world where the poverty doesn’t feel oppressive—often, my strongest impressions of rural, undeveloped areas is that the people are friendlier and smile more than I’d expect for people who lack electricity or basic sanitation. In Bihar, though, we felt like there was more of a struggle to survive, and that people were living closer to the edge. Perhaps more strongly than anywhere else we’ve visited, I felt lucky that I live in a developed, relatively un-crowded nation.
As Lindsey wrote, we were mentally unprepared for Nepal. After two and a half months in China, I had forgotten what it is like to be in a country with lagging infrastructure and rolling blackouts. We confronted the poor infrastructure immediately: What we thought would be a one day ride, from the border to Kathmandu, turned into a two day slog due to long stretches of chewed-up or nonexistent pavement. And when we looked for a hotel our first night, we had to search for one that had electricity.
Over our next two and a half weeks, we were reminded over and over that Nepal is a poor country that uses few resources and produces very little electricity. From a climate change perspective, this means that the country produces very little greenhouse gas emissions—but it also means that, as a largely agricultural society with little infrastructure, it is highly vulnerable to a warming climate.
To better understand these issues, while in Kathmandu we spoke with a few NGOs, an intergovernmental organization (ICIMOD), and a government agency. And during our week-long trek in the Annapurna region, we spoke with about a dozen people about how changes in the weather affect them. Here’s what we found from this cursory survey.
Electricity, Energy, and Emissions
Nepal produces very little electricity. If all the country’s power plants were running at full capacity (which is possible only during the rainy season, when there is enough water for the run-of-the-river hydropower plants), there would only be enough electricity for every Nepali to turn on a single, highly efficient, compact florescent lightbulb. No refrigeration, no computers. Just one bulb per person.
Because there isn’t enough electricity, Kathmandu has daily, scheduled, rolling blackouts, such that any given block has electricity for about two-thirds of the day. For this reason, people who can afford it have a battery (or even a generator) to keep the lights on. Many shops use such batteries to power a backup light, such that the streets at night become a row of well-spaced compact florescent bulbs hanging near the front of mostly-dark rooms. The lack of electricity means that instead of traffic lights, men in uniform stand and direct traffic at major intersections. At night these men have green and red light sticks which they wave like lightsabers, as if using the force to move the vehicles. Such power outages also challenge industry—factories need expensive backup generators.
If Nepal is to provide better services for its people, it needs to produce more electricity—much more. The country could accomplish this goal without dramatically increasing its greenhouse gas emissions by building a series of reservoirs in the Himalaya. The economically-feasible hydropower potential is immense—about 40,000 megawatts. That would give Nepalis similar electricity per capita as most western European countries.
But nobody we met in Nepal wanted to dam as many rivers as it would take to reach a fraction of this goal. Employees of Clean Energy Nepal, a local nonprofit, argued that big dams were not the answer—they would displace people and wouldn’t be sustainable because of the heavy sediment load of the Himalayan rivers. They said that they wanted to avoid “China’s path,” and focus on smaller scale solutions. They noted that there are 200 days of sunshine in Nepal per year, making solar a great option (especially in conjunction with small hydro—small hydro works better in the rainy season, solar power works best in the dry season).
We also met with the Alternative Energy Promotion Center, a government agency that promotes clean energy development. They support many small scale projects such as micro-hydro, improved cookstoves, and biogas (more on biogas in a minute). I asked them if they could develop their economy without using fossil fuels. The response was basically “yes, because we can use hydropower.” If they had enough hydropower, they could use the electricity to cook and heat, thus reducing some of the needs for fossil fuel. They said that distributed solar, biogas, and improved cookstoves were part of a solution, but not the entire solution to developing in a clean way—they also needed dams.
Many of these small projects, while not being the entire solution, are improving people’s quality of life without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. One example is the country’s many successful biogas projects. A consultant/researcher at Winrock, an international NGO, told me about how Winrock, other NGOs, and government agencies have helped install biogas digesters all over the country — there are now 300,000 small digesters, which allow people to take cow (or other ruminant) dung and turn it into natural gas for cooking. Using such gas is much more efficient and better for people’s health than burning the dung, which is what most people without digesters do. Two cows can provide four people with enough gas for all their cooking needs. Also, the waste from the digesters can in turn be used as fertilizer. Moreover, Nepal has been paid for the program through the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. Basically, it is a win-win-win. (Interestingly, one challenge is that people think that cooking with dung is “clean” and cooking with gas is not — getting people to use these new technologies can be challenging).
Such small-scale projects are great news. In the long run, though, Nepal will likely need much more electricity than they can provide, and the easiest way to do that cleanly is through hydropower. Hopefully the dams needed for this will be built in a sensible way that benefits all Nepalis without causing too much harm to the people and ecosystems in the areas around the proposed reservoirs.
Vulnerability and Changing Monsoons
We asked the employees of Clean Energy Nepal (CEN) what worried them about climate change in Nepal. They said: reduced agricultural output, water scarcity, and weather-related disasters, in that order. The same employees at CEN had recently surveyed 4,000 villages in the country, asking if people were experiencing climate change. The people surveyed said that the rain had become more erratic, in turn making farming more difficult.
At ICIMOD, the Director General, David Molden, told us that people in the mountains are experiencing climate change right now. Here’s an edited version of his interview. The part I found the most compelling is how he compares the urgency of climate change here in Nepal to that felt in the United States. He also noted that climate change is just one of the many problems facing mountain people.
And finally, we went into the mountains on a week-long trek (see Lindsey’s blog entry) and talked directly with people ourselves. We found that people were experiencing exactly what Dr. Molden said they were — the rains had become more unpredictable, and were coming later. Some people said these changes in rainfall made it more difficult to farm; others said it had no influence. Everyone also said that it had gotten warmer, although they were split over whether this was a good or bad thing. Higher in the mountains, some liked the warmth because they could grow more crops. Lower down, many said it was too hot.
I’ve seen a number of different rankings of “countries most vulnerable to climate change,” and Nepal is often near the top. After visiting the country, I can now see why, but I also think the worst effects of climate change aren’t here yet. Our survey suggests that people are noticing that the climate is changing, but for many people in Nepal these changes do not yet pose a dramatic challenge, especially given the many other problems they must cope with on a daily basis. Whether they will pose a dramatic challenge in the future depends both on how the country develops, and on how much the climate changes over the coming decades.
We took a lot of photos in Nepal, especially during a week-long trek in the Himalaya. You can see all of these photos in our flickr albums, Nepal – Cycling and Kathmandu and Nepal – A Trek in Annapurna Below are some of our favorites selected from these albums:
We had done absolutely no research on Nepal, and were thus utterly unprepared – a fine thing, when your non-expectations end up wildly exceeded. If pressed to describe Nepal before arriving, I probably would have said something like ‘vaguely Indian, with big mountains. And maybe elephants.’ If asked for more, I may have mentioned landslides and a uniquely shaped flag. Crossing the border from China, we were greeted with so much more: an abrupt shift from order to chaos and cheerful exuberance, the scent of curry wafting over an unpaved road full of scattering chickens, and the sudden presence of children everywhere you looked. It was a welcome change, though we struggled with another difference – we were several kilometers into Nepal before we discovered that people drive on the left side of the street. The road leading away from the border was so potholed and narrow that everybody just seemed to drive wherever was most feasible, but after the third or fourth truck or motorbike tried to pass us on the right, we figured it out.
Our favorite part of getting into Nepal may have been the visa process. Unlike most of the countries we’ve visited on this trip, they provide a visa on arrival. For $40, and with no additional documentation, a man at a wooden desk wearing fingerless gloves to protect him from the chill of the Himalayan winter in the unheated customs building (another sharp contrast from China, whose glistening building had efficiently and electronically processed us moments before) placed a sticker in our passport that would allow us to spend a month in Nepal. Thus welcomed, we rode gleefully downhill through the Sun Kosi River valley for the rest of the day, passing endless terraces where people coax crops out of the unforgivingly steep valley sides. We crossed through the aftermath of the landslide that devastated a village several months before – we could tell we were getting close when the river stopped flowing, backed up into a listless pool by the dam formed by the landslide. We failed to take the new road – really just a rough dirt track through the slide – and ended up half pushing, half carrying our bikes through the mud and boulders, right through the remains of the villages that hadn’t been completely buried. I’ve never seen anything like it – an entire mountainside had given way, burying everything below it, blocking off the river, and plowing up the side valley on the other side. An excavator was clawing at the rubble, slowly removing the dam to allow the river to flow downstream again.
We spent the night in a small town farther downriver. For about $8 we got a room with a reeking but functional squat toilet, daal bhat (Nepali meal of rice, daal, vegetable curry and cooked greens) for dinner, and most importantly, electricity and wifi. Here we got our first taste of one of Nepal’s greatest challenges: insufficient electricity. In many of Nepal’s towns and cities, including the capital, the power is out for up to ten hours a day. People use everything from candles to generators to cope with this ‘load-shedding’ – there’s even an app that tells you when the power will go out in Kathmandu – and it’s just a part of life, for now.
We also squeezed some R&R into our time in Nepal – two friends who happened to be in the region came to Kathmandu while we were there, and we also took a week-long trek in the Annapurna Range. I got to join Kaija Hurlburt and her friend Christy Sommers for a hike in Dhulikel, one of the former kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley. The town is full of hidden temples and old brick houses with gently drooping wooden balconies, and the surrounding countryside was bright yellow with ripening mustard, dotted with small villages where people laughed and smiled as we picked up countless baby goats. Ian Monroe came up from India, where he had traveled for his startup, Oroeco; in addition to joining us at Bodhi, one of Kathmandu’s largest Buddhist sites, and a day trip to Bhaktapur, a ‘living museum’ town jam-packed with temples, he introduce us to many of Kathmandu’s energy experts and joined us for some meetings. A post on what we learned is coming soon.
When deciding where to go trekking, we consulted Amrit Ale, owner of Himalayan Quests and a friend of Christy’s. We told him we wanted to go through villages and get high into the mountains, and he suggested the newly established Dhaulagiri Community Trek and connected us with a local guide. It was exactly what we’d hoped for. After a day-long bus ride from Kathmandu to Beni, we met our guide, Prem, and went over the route, which would take us from an elevation of 800m in Beni up to 3700m on the flanks of 7,219m Annapurna South.
As we walked up countless stone steps, we met a number of villagers who Prem helped us interview about climate change. Nearly everybody mentioned that both summers and winters are warmer than they used to be, and that the rainy season has become irregular. At higher elevations, the warmer weather was helpful as it enables people to grow heat-loving crops such as chilis, which couldn’t grow in the colder weather that used to be the norm. However, people said that the changing monsoon makes it difficult to plan – planting seeds at the usual time could result in losses if the rains are late.
We stayed in community lodges most nights, which were built just a few years ago to encourage trekkers to visit the area and increase the benefits of tourism for the communities. We were treated to clear days for the first half of the trek, during which we encountered almost no other tourists and saw spectacular sunrises and sunsets. It started snowing as we reached our highest point, which meant we didn’t get to climb up to a nearby glacier as planned, but instead gave us the chance to read, play in the snow, play cards with Prem and the lodge staff, and take in absurdly beautiful views of the mountains and valleys as thick clouds drifted through. If any of our readers are planning a trip to Nepal, we definitely recommend Himalayan Quests and the Dhaulagiri Community Trek – it stands out as a highlight of our time in Nepal and the entire trip.