Teaching and traveling are more than passions for Kate Woolever ’11—they are vital to her own education as a citizen of the world. Here Woolever reflects on a trip to Bangladesh where she was one of five U.S. teachers selected to study the environmental, social, economic, and political impacts of climate change.
Scenes from Bangladesh, a set on Flickr.
I found it was my curiosity that brought me to this country removed from the global mainstream in so many ways. While I was there I experienced a whirlwind of emotions, making it hard to share what I saw without the imagery of photos. I often ask others to imagine the realities of such a densely populated country; a country the size of Iowa yet half of our country’s population.
Living in a slum called Rayer Bazar located in Dhaka – the fastest growing city in the world – is a challenge to describe. So crowded…so crowded that nearly every park, footpath, and road median has been colonized. The mass influx of “climate refugees” is due to citizens in the outlying areas fleeing their flooded coastal lands left uninhabitable or too saline-contaminated to support crops. They brought their families and stories, searching for employment and safety.
During the days, I walked through the streets of Rayer Bazar interviewing climate refugees with the aid of a translator. The majority longed to go back to their farmlands, which sadly had been transformed into flood plains. These transplants now lived in indescribable squalor; slums of a thousand people per square kilometer. Cooking for 100 people was shared over three open gas flames along with one squat toilet for a public bathroom. Children filled the shadows yet their access to education was nonexistent. The guilt and the need-to-respond that I felt (coming from my bountiful country) constantly tugged at me.
In spite of the overwhelming poverty, Bangladesh is the home of some of the most resilient people. They watch… as sea levels rise, salinity infects their coastal aquifers, and rivers consume their lands and as cyclones batter their coast with increasing intensity. All these changes have been associated with global climate changes.
I learned much from these wonderful people. Instead of giving up, many of them invested in ways to adapt. Their survival measures could become our lessons lest we ignore the necessary commitments for change. The long-term risks could bring significant degradation to our lifestyles someday soon…if not the challenge to our world to survive.