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The dramatic photos that document the devastation of a city due to rising sea levels

The geographic location and topography of Bangladeshi make this country one of the most prone to flooding in the world. That also means that it is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, one of the most serious consequences of climate change.

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For millions of Bangladeshis, the advance of the ocean is already a reality.

Jashim Salam saw floods all his life, but what the freelance photographer was witnessing in 2009 was eerily different. The floodwaters in Chaktai, the Chittagong city neighborhood where he was born and raised, continued to rise even after the rain had subsided.

“We were used to flooding from heavy rains or hurricanes,” Salam tells the BBC.

“But that day, I saw many flooded houses and it didn’t rain, the sun was shining.”

The flooding had been caused by a tidal surge in the waters of the Bay of Bengal and the coast of Chittagong, one of the oldest ports in the world, was particularly at risk.

Camera in hand, Salam began taking pictures of the situation on the streets of Chaktai.

particularly vulnerable

Documenting rising waters would consume much more of Salam’s time: the floods were a sign that rising sea levels, one of the most serious consequences of climate change, were becoming a constant concern for Chittagong and the rest of the world. Bangladeshi.

Between June and October, Chittagong often faces flooding twice a day. / JASHIM SALAM

Bangladesh is a low-lying country, which means that the most of its land is near or even below sea level.

That makes it particularly vulnerable to the process in which warmer global temperatures cause sea levels to rise by adding water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, and by the expansion of seawater as it warms. .

In the case of Chittagong, there is an additional factor: the coastal city It’s sinking.

Among the first 10

In March this year, it was published in the magazine Geophysical Research Letters an analysis of satellite data from 99 coastal cities around the world.

The researchers calculated how affected these cities were by land subsidence, a process in which land settles and compacts due to activities such as groundwater extraction, which is linked to population growth and rapid urbanization.

They found that 33 cities had sunk by more than a centimeter a year between 2015 and 2020, five times the global rate of sea level rise estimated by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Chittagong is in the top 10 on the list.

“Basically, people have had to learn to live with rising waters: going out at high tide is avoided as much as possible,” Salam explains. / JASHIM SALAM

The researchers noted that “the fastest sinking” was occurring in South, Southeast and East Asia. It is a reality that has already caused a major situation in Indonesia: due to high levels of land subsidence, Jakarta will be replaced as the country’s capital for a new one built from scratch on a different island 1,300 kilometers away.

“Chittagong is known as the financial capital of Bangladesh. There are more than 1,200 heavy industry businesses that rely heavily on groundwater,” Shamsuddin Illius, a Bangladeshi environmental journalist, tells the BBC.

“The land is sinking at the same time that the sea level rises. And every year the floods get worse,” adds Illius.

According to Salam and Illius, between June and October, streets and houses in various areas of Chittagong are often flooded twice a day, a situation that worsens during the monsoon season in July and August.

Jashim Salam began documenting the effects of tidal flooding in his Chittagong neighborhood in 2009. / JASHIM SALAM

Jashim Salam began documenting the effects of tidal flooding in his Chittagong neighborhood in 2009. / JASHIM SALAM

A 2020 survey by the Bangladesh Department of Public Works estimated that 69% of the city is affected by high tides to varying degrees.

The flooded areas include Agrabad, a neighborhood previously inhabited by wealthy Chittagong residents, from politicians to businessmen.

“Now it’s almost abandoned,” says Illius.

“Whoever could afford to move to higher ground has already done so.”

Jashim Salam and his brothers did not have the means to leave Chaktai, so they resorted to adaptations such as raising the floor of the house their families share. But the waters kept coming.

The photographer says it’s not just fishermen in Chittagong who need study the tide tables.

“Basically, people have had to learn to live with rising waters. Going out at high tide is avoided as much as possible,” explains Salam.

“It’s frustrating and surreal.”

More than an inconvenience

Surreal is an adjective that can also be used to describe his work: Salam’s images show people and families, including his own, trying to show that everything is normal. In one of the images, children watch television in a flooded room.

Salam's footage shows how people in Chittagong try to live as normally as possible when the waters rise.  / JASHIM SALAM

Salam’s footage shows how people in Chittagong try to live as normally as possible when the waters rise. / JASHIM SALAM

“I had to document what was happening to show people in Bangladesh and abroad that climate change is real.”

It’s more than an inconvenience, it’s a health hazard. The water from the sea mixes with the polluted Karnaphuli River and sewage before reaching the houses. Salam says that skin infections are common in his neighborhood.

Local hospitals in the lower areas are also suffering from flooding. One of the photographer’s most moving images shows an elderly man pushed through the water in a wheelchair at the Hospital General Maternoinfantil, a local medical center.

“Every year we hear that another part of the city is now flooding. I have a sister who lives 32 km from our neighborhood and has never faced rising waters. Now she does,” adds the photographer.

Local authorities are trying to mitigate the problem with a series of infrastructure projects to prevent seawater intrusion, from flood barriers to drainage control improvements such as dredging channels. Work began in 2017 but has been severely delayed by the covid-19 pandemic.

However, nothing delays the sea and the rain, Salam observes with a sigh.

Medical facilities in Chittagong are also struggling with rising waters.  / JASHIM SALAM

Medical facilities in Chittagong are also struggling with rising waters. / JASHIM SALAM

Bangladesh is often classified as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate-related disasters. A World Bank report found that 4.1 million people in the country were internally displaced in 2019 as a result of such events and that at least 13 million could face the same situation by 2050.

“I consider myself a climate refugee”

Salam has done it voluntarily. Since the beginning of the year, he has been working in New York to try to save money so that his wife and daughter can join him in the United States.

Jashim Salam dreams of a better future for his family, even if it means leaving his native country.  / JASHIM SALAM

Jashim Salam dreams of a better future for his family, even if it means leaving his native country. / JASHIM SALAM

“I consider myself a climate refugee. And I will do what I can to alert people that climate change is not only affecting Bangladesh. Just look at the heat waves and storms in Europe this year,” she says.

“But I need to give my daughter a chance at a better life. I want her to go to school without worrying about her health or safety.”

In the meantime, Salam’s family, and many others in Chaktai and Chittagong, will be keeping an eye out for tide information before leaving home.

Source: Elcomercio

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