Here in northern California, winter rainstorms have thoroughly soaked us. To the north of San Francisco, rivers flooded their banks and some areas were drenched with as much as nine inches of rain from a single storm.
I wasn’t affected much. Thanks to last year’s patching, my ceiling sprung no leaks this time. The neighbor upstairs wasn’t as fortunate.
It is winter, so the rains are no surprise. But even before the rains arrived, water was on my mind.
In early December, I finished putting together my collection of short stories, “Killing the water.” It contains ten stories of war and migration, linked through the metaphor of water.
Some nine years ago, after my friend Sara had read a few of my stories, she had asked me, "Why is there a river in all your stories?" I was surprised. But later when I looked at my entire collection, I could see that while there isn’t always a river, there’s always some form of water in my stories: rivers, ponds, lakes, rain. And the water always carries meaning.
To someone from Bangladesh, this shouldn’t really be a surprise. We’re delta people, from monsoon country, and our bodies and minds are waterlogged from birth.
Water’s always been part of my life. There was a pond behind our house, and channels of the river were not far away. We fished and played in the pond. But in the rainy season, our neighborhood would often flood.
I learned early that water, the giver of life, the source of food, the realm of play, was also the cause of ruin. One year as a teenager I joined a flood relief team to the northern town of Shirajganj. The riverbank where our boat moored one day was gone the next, swept away without a trace. The levees built with sandbags were no match for the mighty Jomuna.
In a season when rivers nearby are flooding and just a few months after Hurricane Katrina triggered the flooding of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, I’ve mostly been thinking about the troubles that water brings, and less about it as a source of joy or sustenance.
Scientists say much worse is ahead of us. Recently there was a large conference in Canada about global warming. No serious pledge came from it from the governments in a position to take effective steps. Unfortunately, the way politics works, here and elsewhere, it’s pretty clear that the effort necessary to prevent the ruin from global warming tomorrow will not be taken today. The costs are usually too high for politicians to contemplate until catastrophe stares us in the face with its death mask.
But the catastrophe has already begun.
There was a tiny item in some newspapers last month. It went largely unnoticed. The Guardian wrote:
“For more than 30 years the 980 people living on the six minute horseshoe-shaped Carteret atolls have battled the Pacific to stop salt water destroying their coconut palms and waves crashing over their houses. They failed.
“Yesterday a decision was made that will make their group of low-lying islands literally go down in history. In the week before 150 countries meet in Montreal to discuss how to combat global warming and rising sea levels, the Carterets’ people became the first to be officially evacuated because of climate change.
“Starting as soon as money is available to the Papuan New Guinean regional government, 10 families at a time will be moved by the authorities to Bougainville, a larger island 62 miles away. Within two years the six Carterets, roughly the size of 80 football pitches and just 1.5 metres high, will be uninhabited and undefended. By 2015 they are likely to be completely submerged.”
If what the scientists predict about the worldwide effects of climate change comes true, many low lying regions will go under water. Much of Bangladesh is just a few feet above sea level. One estimate says that if nothing is done about global warming, more than 15 percent of Bangladesh will go under water.
Where will the people go? We cannot predict exactly how the waters will rise, but those who survive will inevitably seek higher land; they will go upwards and outwards. They will flood into the the drier towns, and we are speaking of tens of millions of people.
Many will seek refuge out of the country, as they already are, seeking to stay ahead of hunger and misery. National borders made by some humans are just as stubbornly ignored by other humans. To stop the flow of migration, India has been building a fence around Bangladesh. Relatively richer countries are putting up all sorts of barriers to the flow of people. But can such fences or walls really stop people fleeing catastrophe?
If levees cannot stall the troubled waters, can fences stop troubled people seeking survival?
I doubt it.