Misreading the Bengal Delta - Transcript

Transcript Nordic Asia Podcast: “Misreading the Bengal Delta”, Book talk with Camelia Dewan.


Opener  (00.00:02) 

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.00:09) 

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic Region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I'm a social anthropologist based in Oslo and also the coordinator of the Norwegian network for Asian Studies. In this episode, we'll be discussing a brand new book on Climate and Development in Bangladesh. The book in question is titled 'Misreading the Bengal Delta: climate change development and livelihoods in coastal Bangladesh', published by the University of Washington press, and I'm delighted to have with me the author of the book. Welcome Camelia Dewan postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, and not least, congratulations on your brand new book, I'm told the ebook version was just released a few days back.


Camelia Dewan  (00.01:00) 

Thank you, Kenneth. I'm very happy to be here and really appreciate this invitation.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.01:07) 

As we know, Bangladesh is one of the top recipients of development aid earmarked for climate change adaptation. It has also been described as a ground zero for climate change. And yet, as you point out in your book, Bangladesh's current environmental crisis goes much beyond just climate change. It extends to coastal vulnerabilities that are intertwined with underemployment, debt, and the lack of universal health care. But before we go into the details of your arguments, I'd like to know what made you interested in climate change and development in Bangladesh in the first place?




Camelia Dewan  (00.01:46) 

That's a great question Kenneth. I've been working on water in the coastal zone of Bangladesh for over a decade now, so I started off as a research consultant for the International Water Management Institute, looking at water governance of embankments, flood protection, embankments and sewer escapes, I was really interested in the siltation and dying rivers that had resulted because of them. So I wanted to do a PhD on siltation in dying rivers. But then I got the advice from a really reputable researcher, that whatever I want to do for my PhD, I should add climate change to my funding proposal, and I'll get funding. And I did get funding, three different PhDs actually, because it was still in 2012/13 quite new. And this made me wonder whether or not this climate change as a spice, as my interlocutors refer to it, or a password for funding, if this risked misleading environmental relations in ways that diverted attention away from where it was most needed. So for instance, that flood protection embankments can be seen as climate adaptation when actually they have a lot of environmental problems.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.03:01) 

Your book is essentially an ethnography of both Bangladeshi development professionals and also rural people in the coastal zone. Could you tell us more about your fieldwork experience, and trying to explore climate change issues in what are really two quite different settings in Bangladesh?


Camelia Dewan  (00.03:21) 

Yeah, no, it's, I very much inspired by the anthropology of development and ethnography of aid and I was a development professional myself. So I have quite a few contacts within the Bangladesh's development industry. But then I also wanted to do an ethnography with local people, rural people, these so called beneficiaries of development projects, to understand whether or not there's a disconnect or mismatch between what these development projects seek to do and what local people actually want. It's not always the case that these Bangladeshi development brokers and their projects match the needs of local people. Sometimes they are in the interest of them. So for instance, with Rural Employment schemes that excavate canals or sustainable forms of agriculture, so there is a disconnect that becomes quite apparent when you do this type of multi sited field work.




Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.04:24) 

This work in the coastal zone enabled you to explore a variety of environmental challenges in these areas. And you also point out that particular development projects may in fact end up making things worse and not better. In what way can this happen.


Camelia Dewan  (00.04:41) 

Again, this is about the disconnect. So I start the book off with talking about the flood protection embankments, but also brackish shrimp cultivation and the saltwater suffering, where basically some donors suggest that Bangladesh is going to drown in rising sea levels anyways. So Bangladesh might as well just import rice and cultivate shrimp or saltwater shrimp for export, and so on. But if you look at the local livelihoods in the coastal zone, these saltwater practices are really damaging to their everyday lives and reproductive activities, loss of vegetation, loss of local food, and so on. And they really don't want salt water cultivation, most of the poor landless people, it's more of an elite business. Then in terms of agriculture, there is still quite a push. I know it's quite different in Sri Lanka and India, there's more of a push towards organic agriculture. But Bangladesh is often cast, although it is overpopulated and with 100 and 60 million people, and the land mass is very scarce. So there's a really dominant narrative about higher yields to push as much yields as possible from the land. And what I thought was interesting was how people problematized all these high yield technologies. So for instance, there are high yielding rice varieties that people believe taste less, and that they taste less because they're grown with synthetic macro fertilizers like urea, which is basically just nitrogen. And there was this kind of morning of soil fertility because of too much fertilizer resulting in soil acidification. So, there's a lot of critiques of health, bringing in divine vengeance both for Muslims and Hindus, a critique of human hubris and greed. And also food is extremely important in this setting. So you know, the saying is rice and fish is what makes a Bengali so what happens when both the rice and the fish are perceived as corrupted, or adulterated. So there's this loss of taste that they also mentioned signifies a loss of nutrition in the food, and strength that goes from the soil and food to humans. So that people are eating this food and becoming weaker and with poorer health. And these kinds of things don't fit in a climate change narrative. And so, there are various issues one can go on with in terms of talking about higher yields. And in the book, I talk about a history of colonial agriculture and the introduction of the Green Revolution to Bangladesh and how people perceive these changes now. And the pressing problem now is climatic change. So if we have, instead of 30-40 different rice varieties, only two or three that is more vulnerable with unpredictable weather changes. If we see soil acidification and declining soil fertility, that is also a problem for the future that we need to address. So in order to be resilient, we need to have a healthy ecology, rich biodiversity both in soil our waters. So basically, if we continue with this dominant narrative of increasing yield through intensive practices and mono cultivation, this reduces soil fertility. So how can we then address these climatic vulnerabilities exacerbated by changing weather patterns. And I'm also interested in looking at the materiality of this critique, because anthropologists have long talked about, you know, these critiques against the Green Revolution as a social critique, critique of social change, things are changing, and that's why they're critiquing it. But I wanted to take the materiality of this critique a bit further, got interested in the multi species turning in environmental anthropology and thinking of Shakti perhaps as some sort of symbiosis. So this holistic interaction between different types of species including microorganisms, in cow dung, in the soil, and with earthworms, so a lot of things that just don't get space to be articulated through a climate change adaptation lens.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.09:25) 

There's a somewhat related argument in your book that I noticed and which may come across as perhaps somewhat controversial, namely, proposition that flood protection embankments against rising sea levels may actually increase flood risks. What more precisely do you mean by this?


Camelia Dewan  (00.09:45) 

The interesting thing that you call a controversial is that this is not controversial in Bangladesh, because this has been public knowledge in the country for more than 100 years. That in banking, hydrologically active delta that erodes and decrease, that this increases both siltation and flood risks. And in the book, I traced the history of embankments, how they started off as these temporary earthen structures that prevented dry season salinity from reverting newly cut mangroves, or newly cut mangroves had become rice paddy fields. So to prevent these new agricultural lands to revert back to these mangroves, cultivators would build embankments or very small embankments only for the dry season. So they're called eight months bunds, and then during the monsoon, they would be torn down again to enable flooding. So it's quite interesting to see from the time of James Randall in the 1770s to Gastral in the 1850s, how they don't talk about floods, they talk about the blessing of inundation of Bengal and that is the key to Bengals fertility. So it was not bad floods. But then you also see during the 1880s and 90s, a push towards railways and embanking the Bengal Delta, which is the historian Iftikhar Iqbal has written wonderfully about also in the south east coastal zone. And even then there were several colonial civil servants critiquing this saying, you know, this isn't a sustainable solution. And in the 1920s, there were so many reports about the Delta silting up where there had been embankments. So the colonial critique has been there for a long time recognized by the Bangladeshis living there. But then after independence from the UK, and the partition of Bengal, there was a lot of chaos that I also write about. And the system that was in place was disrupted, there was no irrigation authority, the landlords that would take care of these bunds had left. So in the 50s, there were a series of really damaging floods with salinity intrusion during the dry season, and a UN mission that recommended that the coastal zone be embanked with these Dutch style polders. So they built them throughout the 60s when Bangladesh was East Pakistan. And there were lots of problems. And I don't know how to best describe this also, because it's audio now and I don't have images, but what happens is, this is a silted delta. So, during the monsoon without any embankments, the sediment ladden river water merges with the monsoon rains and floods the flood plains and increases it, or increases the height of it. So when you embank these floodplains, then that silt can't deposit on the land it deposits on the riverbed raising the riverbed. So, you get a bit of a height difference, where during the monsoon, the land is lower inside the embankment than outside. So, the monsoon water gets trapped in a flood called waterlogging. So, there are three different types of floods to simplify the Bengal delta and that is barṣā, which is monsoon rains, then you have bonna, which is this irregular flood that happens with tidal surges and cyclones. And then you have jalābad'dhatā, which is waterlogging, drainage congestion, that is when the monsoon rains cannot drain out into the river. So jalābad'dhatā became a huge problem in these embanked areas. And so in the 1990s, when some donors led by the French wanted to promote the flood action plan and embank the Delta further, there were huge civil society protests in Bangladesh, and really huge, and actually it didn't materialize, so they stopped it there. So that's why I found it so interesting that now with climate change this exact same type of infrastructure, concrete embankments, to make them higher and wider, that this is cast as an adaptation solution. And several natural scientists have recently been engaging with this. So there's a study in nature by  Vanderbilt University, and they found that the un-embanked Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh, that it had been raising land levels or like keeping up the sea level rise to an extent. Whilst the embanked floodplains are silt deprived. So actually that embankments worsen the risk of floods. So that isn't my argument that is part of the scientific community. And now a lot of Bangladeshi scholars are working on nature based solutions or silt management. And a promising one is going back to tidal river management, which means cutting up embankments and letting silt in for a few years to raise land levels inside because in that sense, the Bengal Delta has this inbuilt mechanism. to withstand rising sea levels. So building higher and wider embankments creates a false sense of security. And it's very short term because the rivers have been eroding for millennia. So they move eastwards. So they erode on one side and accrete on another. What this has led to and what I wrote about in my previous research, was this constant and huge maintenance expenditure. You build the embankments, but you have to maintain them, because they will break, they will erode. So it's also very problematic with concrete in an eroding and accreting delta. So there are scientists looking at mangroves as more of a suitable solution too, so it's a very complex problem, no easy solutions.



Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.15:51) 

You've mentioned now a few times the inspiration you found in various strands of anthropology. And one thing I think we always expect from anthropologists is to come up with unexpected findings from the research. So asking this question, as a fellow anthropologist, I wanted to ask you about the most striking thing that you weren't expecting to find during your fieldwork.


Camelia Dewan  (00.16:14) 

You know, when you start off with the perspective of climate change adaptation, it could have limited me quite a bit. But that's why I find ethnography so wonderful, because that gives us such different type of insights. And one of the most pressing problems was a gendered problem in this area, because people are so dependent on projects, development projects, and there's a huge competition to get development projects. And most households are indebted to four to five NGOs. And what surprised me was how marriage had become a business for many men who are underemployed in a way or wanted to get a higher social status. So there were huge issues of domestic violence, child marriage and dowry related violence. Even though this is a Muslim area, mainly Muslim area, there's become this gifting, doting on the son in law, kind of a practice that basically works like dowry. And so all of these issues that I've found were unexpected ended up in the last chapter. As the actual livelihoods concerns were the coastal vulnerabilities through the perspective of my interlocutors on their most pressing, everyday life problems.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.17:32) 

In the introduction to the book, you are quite explicit that you see it as a decolonial project that explores these links between colonial forms of knowledge production, and the more recent knowledge production of climate change. But more specifically, how does your book contribute to these current debates on decolonizing development?


Camelia Dewan  (00.17:54) 

So I start the book with a bit of a personal story of how I myself am born and raised in Sweden to Bangladeshi parents. So growing up the portrayals of Bangladesh have always been victimizing, pauperising. And what I now realized was were simplifying the historical. So I wanted to provide a historical context to this country to show how colonial interventions and even development or development aid has impacted and shaped Bangladesh to what it is today, and also to show you know, the agency and resilience of Bangladeshis themselves. So, actually, I think what every chapter that I deal with when talking about historical context touches on and engages with the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and 90s in Bangladesh and the minimization of the public sector. And that is, I think, still clear today because we should see donors priority so if it was flood protection in the 1990s and climate adaptation today, how well aligned is this with local needs? And actually with the debt of my interlocutors there is such poor, basically non existent public health infrastructure in the coastal zone, people indebt themselves to keep their family members alive and healthy. Either going to India or Dhaka taking huge loans to do, so selling off land or what they have. And that is one kind of coastal vulnerability I engage with. If we look at the pandemic, it really shows how we cannot look away from structural needs and inequalities that we have to think about health as a right. And I'm very glad that Bangladesh was very proactive in the beginning of the pandemic because it's unclear how many people would have survived it or even dealing with long COVID. But we'll see how that goes. I think the issue of health care is a really important one in Bangladesh and how many citizen entitlements in other countries are seen as out of pocket expenditure in Bangladesh, and that can breed some sort of inequality. So in terms of contributing to decolonizing development, I hope that we can discuss more how to make development aid funding and earmarking more aligned with local needs and go towards more long term solutions rather than short term projects. Because establishing a proper health care system as a citizen entitlement is one that was basically stopped in its bud with structural adjustment policies.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.20:56) 

'Misreading the Bengal Delta' that we are discussing today is, of course, the culmination of many years of work on these issues of climate change and development in Bangladesh. I'm curious to know now that the book is out where you see your own research moving during the years ahead. I mean, I know that for the past years, you've been part of a bigger research project on the lifecycle of containerships project that ethnographically explores maritime working lives in many different contexts. So where do you see your own research moving during the years that lie ahead of you?


Camelia Dewan  (00.21:29) 

Working on this book, I got really interested in pollution, toxicity and health. So I'm really excited to be part of this project with Elisabeth Schober and Johanna Markkula, as well as a new team member, Elizabeth Sibilia, working on ports. And there I'm bringing with me my interest in environmental anthropology. Because shipbreaking really brings to light, uneven or unequal development. When a country is progressing towards economic development, Bangladesh is industrializing. It has an aim to become a middle income country. But what does that do for local poorer categories of Bangladeshis? So I'm really interested in how these industrializations or industrializing activities impact local livelihoods through the water and air and health. I'm intrigued and also wary about how very close to my field site there will be this coal plant, the Rampal coal plant, and other kinds of industries now starting and whether or not or how that will impact this kind of agrarian lifestyle that I witnessed during my own fieldwork. And another interest I have is exploring the issue of food further or tying this with food production and all these ideas of how polluted foods end up causing huge health problems not only in the kidney and liver but in terms of stroke and diabetes and cancer and so on.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.23:15) 

'Misreading the Bengal Delta: climate change, development and livelihoods in coastal Bangladesh' is already out in ebook form, published by the University of Washington press and I am told that the hardback version will follow very soon. This is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the global discourse on climate change, development and decolonization. Camelia Dewan, thank you for being with us today. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia


Closer  (00.23:51) 

You have been listening to the Nordic Asia Podcast.