DHAKA, Bangladesh (AlertNet): Mamtaz Begum still remembers the day 12 years ago when her husband Ansar set off from his village of South Tetulbaria, in Bangladesh’s Barguna district, for a seven-day fishing trip.
“It was a sunny day and there was no sign of storm. So my husband along with his colleagues began the trip to the sea,” she said.
But a sudden storm arose in the Bay of Bengal and the trawler carrying 24-year-old Ansar and other fishermen sank. All the men drowned, leaving Begum a widow in her early 20s, with children to care for and a precarious future.
“My husband’s disappearance left us in the sea,” she said. “We are now leading a very poor life.”
Serious storms off the coast of Bangladesh are increasing in frequency, endangering the lives and livelihoods of Bangladeshi fishermen. According to Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of the Dhaka-based Centre for Global Change (CGC), between 140,000 and 160,000 households of coastal Bangladesh depend on fishing for their livelihood.
Ziaul Hoque Mukta, a policy manager for Oxfam in Bangladesh, said that in each of the past three years the country experienced 10 to 14 storms significant enough to earn a Signal III warning level, which indicates the likelihood of very rough and potentially dangerous seas. Thirty years ago, just four or five such warnings were issued each year, he said.
“The increased number of dangerous signal storms indicates that (an) unstable situation has risen in the sea,” Mukta said. An Oxfam study suggests this is likely due to climate change, he said.
To address the growing problem, the Centre for Global Change and Oxfam, along with CARE Bangladesh and the Campaign for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods have teamed up with Airtel Bangladesh Ltd for a venture that aims to use the latest telecom technologies to make coastal fishermen less vulnerable to sudden storms.
Working together, staff at the rural livelihoods campaign and at the Centre for Global Change will look for signs of rough seas and try to generate warnings 48 hours in advance of incoming serious storms. Airtel then will use newly constructed telecommunication towers to disseminate recorded warnings through digital telecom devices supplied to each fishing boat.
If a boat is caught in rough seas and capsizes, Airtel will be able to track its position and forward the information to the Bangladesh navy and coast guard. The new system is due to begin operating at the start of the rainy season, which typically begins in mid-June.
Accurate storm warnings are essential to help fishermen maximize profits while remaining safe, experts say. Many fishermen take high-interest loans from money-lenders to purchase fuel and provisions for two-week trips. If a Signal III warning is issued by the government’s Disaster Management Bureau, they are required to return to shore.
Curtailing a trip can lead to a loss of income and drive fishermen into debt, but ignoring a signal can endanger their lives. More advance warning of coming storms could help them avoid such binds.
Ahmed, who directs the Centre for Global Change, cites the loss of life from super-cyclone Sidr, which struck the Bay of Bengal and coastal regions of Bangladesh in November, 2007, as an example how the tensions between protecting incomes and protecting lives can be difficult to resolve.
Before Sidr hit, taking more than 3,000 lives in coastal Bangladesh, many fishermen had repeatedly abandoned fishing trips, accepting financial losses, in response to bad weather during the monsoon season. By the time that the warning for Sidr came, many cash-strapped fishermen “remained in the sea with a hope that the warning would be proven false,” Ahmed said. For some, taking such a chance was a fatal mistake, he said.
Former fisherman Barek Dafader, of South Tetulbaria, fell into poverty after he lost two of his three fishing boats to a 2005 storm. The unreliability of storm forecasting played a role in his decision to stay at sea after a warning had been issued.
“The signals were found (to be) wrong many times. That’s why I didn’t return with my two trawlers even after the signal was given” during the 2005 storm, he said.
Dafader had to sell his remaining boat in order to repay his debts and support the seven members of his family. He is currently unemployed.
“I was working on other trawlers, but now my children don’t allow me to go to the sea since they don’t want to lose me,” he said.
Oxfam’s Mukta explained that the initiative with Airtel aims to increase the frequency of updates on storms, so that fishermen can make better-informed decisions about whether to start their return journey.
“This may help them save their lives and livelihoods,” Mukta noted.
Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org