Stories of Resilience Revealed by Bay of Bengal Reporting Project

Shefali Begum was forced to leave her village of Gabura near the Sundarbans delta in the southwestern part of Bangladesh after Cyclone Aila struck in 2009, devastating the land and leaving her destitute. 

The rising sea had made the soil increasingly saline, turning the entire 33-square-mile area of Gabura into barren land, with local people unable to cultivate any crops, including vegetables, for years. 

Rather than lose hope, however, Begum, a 42-year-old mother of three, reshaped her life by leaving Gabura for another village, Datnakhali, and following adaptive farming methods to return her family to economic stability. 

We know about this example of resilience in response to environmental degradation because journalist Banani Mallick went to the village where Begum lives and reported about her success. Mallick’s reporting was enabled by a grant from the Bay of Bengal project, which EJN has been running for the past three years with support from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.

In much of the Bay of Bengal region, climate change, overdevelopment and poor law enforcement have made it difficult for people to continue their traditional ways of living. Rising sea levels have infused land and water along the coast with so much salt that farmers can no longer grow the region’s staple crop, rice. Even the drinking water that residents pump up by hand has turned salty in many places, harming the health of pregnant women in particular by increasing their blood pressure to dangerous levels.

But aside from producing stories about the challenges these communities are confronting, journalists working in partnership with EJN have also been sharing stories about how people are responding, drawing attention to models that could be followed elsewhere and creating more awareness about resilience.

We recently evaluated more than 200 stories on resilience that local reporters have produced with EJN support to find some of the best examples of solutions journalism from the region. The journalists produced these stories after participating in EJN-organized workshops or through small grants for in-depth reporting.

Some have revealed how communities and individuals are taking action and – amid the challenges facing their environments – becoming beacons of hope. And some have led to changes of various degrees, illustrating how the media can help improve resilience by raising awareness of issues.

New ways of managing land and improving livelihoods

In the Andamans archipelago, small islands are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and farmers are finding it difficult to grow crops amid increasingly salty water and soil. Reporter Sharada Balasubramanian, who received an EJN grant in 2019, discovered that agricultural scientists were teaching farmers how to contour the land so that it would be more difficult for seawater to inundate their farms, even during a storm. Her reporting on this approach (article 1, article 2, article 3) appeared across various media outlets, encouraging farmers in other parts of the Andamans to reach out to the scientists to learn more.

Women unite to shore up islands

In the mudflats and mangrove forests of the Sundarbans Delta straddling Bangladesh and India, soil for farming is a precious commodity since silt deposited by the flow of the river quickly washes away. To keep the soil in place, a group of women in India’s West Bengal state started planting mangrove saplings whenever they spotted a mound of fresh silt rising from the water. Journalist Namrata Acharya reported on the efforts of this women’s group for one of India’s leading business dailies, The Business Standard, drawing the attention of other civil society groups working in the Sundarbans.

Confronting caste, patriarchy and climate change

In the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, a group of women living in the delta of the Cauvery River formed a farming collective where they gained help from researchers to grow crops on their increasingly saline soils. By working together, they then managed to bypass the caste-segregated male-dominated marketing system where middlemen keep most of the profits so they could sell their produce at higher prices. Namrata Kolachalam explains how it worked in this story.

Men migrate, women adapt

As climate change reduces farming possibilities in the Sundarbans, more men are leaving to seek work elsewhere. The women who remain, however, must continue to support their families, and many have come up with creative ways of coping. In this story, reporter Sahana Ghosh shows how women in West Bengal formed a dairy cooperative to ensure their cattle get only organic feed so the milk they produce can fetch a higher price in Kolkata. Following the publication of the story, academics began looking into climate-related migration among women with the aim of informing policy.

People join government to plant trees

Realizing the importance of planting mangroves and casuarina trees to keep a rising seas at bay, the West Bengal state government came up with a plan to distribute 10 saplings to each family along the coast and told people they could use the twigs and fruits of these plants as long as they took care of them. Dipendu Choudhury had this report on the success of this scheme.

Let’s build a coral reef

Scientists have clearly established that coral reefs are dying due to the warming of seas caused by climate change. Since these reefs serve as crucial fish nurseries, their degradation has hit fishers hard. A story by EJN grantee Jency Samuel showed how one research organization lowered a structure that mimicked the myriad crevices found in natural coral into the narrow stretch of sea between India and Sri Lanka to see if it could serve as an alternate fish nursery. In her story, Samuel explained how the artificial reef worked and spoke to fishers who wanted more of them, providing the research organization with the input it needed to continue building and placing these structures.

An alternative to overfishing

In this story, Ankita Sengupta wrote about how one group of fishers in Tamil Nadu got together and took collective action to stop the practice of catching juvenile fish before they have a chance to grow to maturity, which reduces their numbers in the long term. Her reporting has since spurred interest from other fisher groups, who want to know if they can avoid catching juveniles and still earn enough to make a living.

Options build resilience

When climate change made it too difficult for farmers along the Bay of Bengal coast to continue rice cultivation, they switched to growing shrimp through aquaculture. But in many months of the year the water is now too salty even for brackish-water shrimp. EJN grantee N. Vinoth Kumar reported on how farmers used advice from researchers to start growing vegetables and other plants such as cashew that can withstand saline water in the months when aquaculture is impossible.

Bringing back a beach

Around the world coastal towns and cities threatened by rising seas have been investing in sea walls to hold back the waves. But as Nidhi Jamwal reported, an alternative solution carried out by a citizen’s group in Puducherry, India, sought to restore the beach instead by planting creepers on the dunes to hold the sand together.

Workshops show how women lead adaptation efforts

An EJN workshop in 2019 on the problems facing fishing communities due to climate change culminated in a field trip to Mangamaripeta, a fishers’ village on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, one of the largest cities on India’s Bay of Bengal coast. Forced to deal with increasing levels of salt in their drinking water and the collapse of their home due to rising seas, the women in the community were brought together by a non-profit organization that made them more conscious of their rights. As this report by workshop participant Manon Verchot explains, they now know which official to go to when they want a fresh source of water or when they want their homes moved inland.

Government-owned All India Radio broadcast an eight-episode series on what life was like for fishing communities in coastal Visakhapatnam following the participation of senior journalist Monica Gulati in the same media workshop. Episode five looked at how women were taking the lead in finding alternate sources of livelihood, since fishing has become more expensive and riskier due to climate change.

And up the coast in Odisha, reporters participating in another 2019 workshop and field trip to the area produced several stories on how women’s groups are helping restore forests to act as wind breaks and protect their crops and coastal communities from cyclones and other extreme weather events.

When it comes to covering problems as seemingly intractable as the climate crisis, reporting on solutions that can help people adapt is important. It advances a story and provides new information that other communities could also put into action, but perhaps just as important it can provide something we all need at least a little bit more of: hope.