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The Tiger Widows of Gabura

The tiger widows broke out in peals of pitch-dark humour when I asked what future they saw for Gabura, their tiny island on the fringes of the Sundarban swamp forest.

“There won’t be a Gabura in twenty years,” said Shahida Bibi, the group’s 53-year-old central personality, a few strands of white hair poking out from under the crimson hem of her headscarf. “This place is headed for ruin.”

The five women were among about 80 on the island whose husbands had, over the years, been killed by tigers while foraging in the woods. After twenty years, and for all her normal ebullience, Shahida still wept as she recounted the day she lost her husband.

Shahida Bibi © Simon Mundy

His insistence on making a second trip to the forest to gather honey, dismissing her sudden gut feeling that it was too dangerous; her drift into an afternoon slumber, to be awoken by the cries of her son, pulled from his football game by the men slowly walking towards the house with his father’s body.

Since being widowed, all the women had battled to regain a foothold in their local communities – battling not least against the cruel local custom of shunning wives whose husbands died in such a manner. Now, they were the most vulnerable members of one of the Bangladeshi communities most exposed to climate change.

Increased coastal salinity, driven by sea level rise and more marine storms, is among the less high-profile effects of climate change. But it will hit huge swathes of the world, and nowhere more so than Bangladesh, whose coastal regions house a quarter of its 165m people.

Gabura provides a stark picture of how the intrusion of salt water can reshape an agricultural economy, worsening inequalities and driving jobless youth to seek work in the cities. On a stroll along Gabura’s western shore, Shahida recalled the rice farms that blanketed the island land when she was a child. Her tone hardened as she described what had replaced them – shrimp farms, owned largely by the island’s richest few men, and providing far fewer jobs than the paddy used to.

Compared with Montu Miah, a shrimp tycoon whom I’d met a few days earlier, the farms of Gabura’s elite were tiny, 20 or 30 acres each. But Shahida seethed we passed the pumps that they had illegally installed, to pump salty water over the embankment into their land.

Mujibur Sardar © Simon Mundy

“They just bribe and conspire with the local officials, and they get away with it because they’re so rich,” she said, turning to spit a blood-red burst from the betel nut she’d been chewing.

In the muddy shallows beneath us, a bearded bare-chested man named Mujibur Sardar was scooping up bowlfuls of river water like a Klondike gold panner, hoping to catch miniscule baby shrimp. A few dark specimens floated in his bowl, looking like tiny fragments of grass. He would sell them to the shrimp farmers for 1 taka ($0.01) apiece; on a good day, he might collect five hundred.

While some of Gabura’s poor were focused on servicing the shrimp farmers, Shahida was still railing against them. The displacement of rice cultivation meant there was little work here for her four sons, and they had left for Dhaka.

But the most alarming impact on the health of people forced to drink contaminated water. As recently reported by the excellent Dhaka-based correspondent Susannah Savage, concerns are mounting about rising rates of miscarriage in areas of Bangladesh with rising salinity. Strokes have become more common on Gabura, Shahida said, along with stomach problems and skin complaints.

In the monsoon season, Shahida collects water in a tank provided by Ledars, a local NGO. In the long summer months, she scoops her drinking water from local ponds, with salinity levels already far exceeding the safe limit stipulated by global health authorities. “That water is so salty,” she said. “But we just have to drink it. And every time we drink, we fear for our health.”