Public discussion of climate change often centers on ways to prevent its most devastating effects. But in many parts of the world, people are already struggling with the impacts of a rapidly warming climate. One such place is the Sundarbans region of India and Bangladesh.
Raka Sen, a doctoral candidate in sociology, traveled there this past summer to study firsthand how residents are responding to rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and salination of local water sources.
“My parents are originally from West Bengal, and I’ve always had a huge connection to the place,” says Sen, whose family has returned regularly to the state in eastern India along the Bay of Bengal.
Sen’s connection melded with a growing interest in the sociology of climate change—which looks at how global warming affects human societies—sparked by an undergraduate course at NYU, where she majored in sociology and urban design. After graduating, she worked for an institute called Rebuild By Design, which sponsored a design competition aimed at making the U.S. Northeast more resilient after Hurricane Sandy. At Penn, Sen decided to continue studying extreme weather events but shifted her focus to the Global South.
“The resources that New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have to cope with climate change just aren’t available in places like India and Bangladesh,” she says. “I had heard about Cyclone Alia, which hit the Sundarbans in 2009, and I’d watched a documentary called Kolkata 2070. I couldn’t help but feel called to see what was happening over there.”
After her first year in Penn’s doctoral program, she took a leap and booked a flight to Bangladesh. “It was a bit risky because we have to write a master’s paper based on our research in our second year,” Sen explains, “and if I didn’t gather anything, I would have been very behind.”
Through a colleague, Sen became a visiting researcher with the International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). Once in Bangladesh, ICCCAD helped connect her with local NGOs and people who aided her in finding villages in the Sundarbans where she could do interviews and observations.
Her trip was supported by the Center for the Advanced Study of India, the Gertrude and Otto Pollak Summer Research Fellowship, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships, and a 2019 Research for Change grant from a company that developed MAXQDA, a qualitative data analysis software.
The Sundarbans are a mangrove forest in the coastal belt that spans eastern India and southwestern Bangladesh, situated on the Bay of Bengal where several Himalayan rivers drain. Mangrove trees need a specific balance of salinity, and the problem, Sen explains, is that because of sea-level rise, Bay of Bengal waters are encroaching further and further into the forest, killing off the trees. This, in turn, destabilizes the coast, because it is the mangroves’ thick, intertwined roots that hold the soil in place.
“What that’s doing is weakening the embankments in the land that keep the Bay of Bengal away from the places where people live,” Sen says. “When Cyclone Alia hit, it brought in a tidal wave of saltwater, and with the salt intrusions that were already happening, people are realizing that there was almost no hope for the salt from Alia to slowly leave.”
Sen’s master’s paper examines the impact of rising salinity on Sundarbans inhabitants, including the role of cyclones. “We think of cyclones as moments of rapid change, but what I didn’t understand is that preexisting conditions before a cyclone happens are amplified by storms,” she says. “They then become more complicated because of how aid agencies rush in afterwards, each with its own agenda. As such, a cyclone is also a catalyst for new and competing ideologies.”
For example, Sen says that after Alia the Bangladeshi government and local NGOs began to promote shrimp farming in the region, which makes the environment even more salty. Traditionally, people in the Sundarbans have relied on small freshwater ponds beside their homes for both their water supply and as a place to raise small fish. But as these ponds and the region’s groundwater become increasingly salty, people must walk up to five kilometers each day to find fresh water—a task that usually falls to the women. But Sen soon saw how the changes have affected whole communities.
“The men do a lot of temporary migrations for work,” she says. “For some, it might be that they go live in the city for a few weeks or a few months—many working as rickshaw pullers—and some men just live in a different place and come home for visits of two or three weeks at a time.”
Sen became fascinated by the ways in which people were adapting to the changes in their environment. While NGOs reference “building adaptive capacity” in affected communities, she wanted to understand adaptation on the individual level. “For my research, I looked at the day-to-day changes people are making, and I categorize them in four different ways—changes in their occupational lives, household work, care work, and emotional work.”
The effects on Sundarbans children became evident in terms of education, with some forgoing school to help earn family income. Coastal erosion is another factor. “If the weather’s bad or the roads are in poor condition, they can’t walk to school that day,” says Sen. “Also, many well-trained teachers have left, and the quality of education is declining. Without a good education, it’s hard for young people to leave these areas.”
Many people will have no choice but to leave eventually—most of the villages that Sen studies are predicted to be completely underwater by 2050. In the meantime, something that binds people to the Sundarbans is the strong sense of community that Sen observed in a very personal way.
“At first, I couldn’t figure out why I was so happy to be there,” she says, “and I realized it’s because I was surrounded by people who are very, very caring. While I was there, I had a small car accident, and that night literally the whole village slept on my floor to make sure I was okay. I’ve always been fascinated with concepts of what solidarity can do in times of crises, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen solidarity like that.”
This sense of solidarity is evolving and giving rise to new connections as people respond to their changing circumstances. Groups of women—who previously had no public gathering spaces—congregate around government-provided water sources. Rickshaws drivers in the cities share sleeping quarters over makeshift garages as groups of women organize to cook daily meals for them.
Sen plans to return to the field next summer for more research. “I want to see what the notions of care and emotional labor look like,” she says, “because they are tied up in adaptation. Also, I care about the people and I want to tell their stories, because they’re not the ones contributing to climate change in any way, but they’re the ones experiencing it. I think that we need strong social science about the climate emergency to understand how people will react.”