Living on the frontline of climate change: the story of Hena

Originally published on Thomas Reuters Foundation News

With President Trump attempting to reverse global progress on climate change, it has never been more important to give a voice to those living on the frontline. Almost 41 million people have been affected by flooding and landslides in Bangladesh, India and Nepal in recent months. The UN has warned the situation could worsen. In Bangladesh, at least 140 people have died and 8 million people have suffered from the severe flooding that has submerged a third of the low-lying country.

2017 may have seen the worst flooding to hit Bangladesh in the last 40 years, according to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. As part of my research on urban climate change resilience, I spent months in the Duaripara slum in Dhaka interviewing more than 600 people to understand how climate change affects their lives and what solutions they have found effective. Duaripara is affected by flooding, waterlogging, overstretched drainage systems, and heat stress. My study found that more than 4 out of 5 slum dwellers experience severe heat stress and almost 2 out of 5 face severe flooding, waterlogging or drainage congestion. But these statistics conceal real people with real lives and real loss. The stories of their daily lives on the frontline of climate change need to be heard and considered.

“You asked me how flooding affects me”

I met Hena* in July 2015 outside her house in the Duaripara slum. To get to her house, my translator Farzana and I walked over a makeshift path made of sand bags – the ground felt spongy and unstable under our feet. The area used to be part of a lake, which had been filled in with rubbish to extend the slum. The stench was overwhelming.

Hena’s house is located in a low-lying part of the slum that gets flooded regularly in the monsoon season from June to September. She pays about £15 per month in rent and cannot afford housing in areas that are less vulnerable to climate risks like flooding. Like most others, Hena’s house is made of tin and consists of a single room about 8 by 7 feet in size. If you look closely, you can see faded lines on the wall that show how high the waters rose in each flood. There were three holes in the roof, with a plastic bucket underneath the largest one. The bed in the far right corner was raised with three bricks stacked under each leg to provide Hena and her family a dry place to sleep above the polluted floodwaters. That July, the water was up to our ankles.

It was hotter inside than outside. Hena used to have an electric fan, but she hadn’t been able to save enough money to buy a new one to replace the one that broke. It was a sweltering 46°C inside when we arrived to stay with her and her family on 29th July. There were six of us sharing the house: Hena; Selma, her 5-year-old daughter; Rakib, her 6-year-old son; Lucky, her 8-year-old daughter; Farzana; and me. Farzana and I would use Hena’s house as our base as we interviewed her neighbours over the next two days.

After introductions and some tea, we began with Hena’s interview. We talked about the floods and how Hena felt climate change was affecting her and her family’s lives. She seemed withdrawn, like she was somewhere else. Eventually, I asked if she was still comfortable with talking to us and assured her that we could stop if she wanted to. She insisted that she was fine. I noticed we had listed four children for her, but only three were in the house, so I asked, “When will I meet Joti?” Hena stared blankly at the floor while tears rolled quietly down her cheeks.

She told me through tears that she did not want to say she had only three children because she had four. Her youngest daughter, Joti, had died. She gestured for Farzana and me to sit down on the bed and told us of the night when Joti, a toddler of almost 2 years old, fell off the bed into two feet of floodwater. The words tumbled out of her faster than Farzana could translate.

Hena had woken up in the middle of the night and couldn’t find Joti anywhere: “I heard crying. It was dark; I was confused. Then I heard nothing. I got my phone, so I could see. I saw something. Joti was floating on top of the water.” Hena tried to save her. “I got into the water; it was up to my knees.” She tried to make Joti breathe, took her clothes off, wrapped her in a blanket, screamed and started praying to Allah, reciting the Quran, repeating it over and over and over again. Joti died.

Then Hena stopped talking and the three of us just sat there, together in the silence. Eventually, she pointed to the spot in the room where she found Joti in the water. “No one talks about it to me anymore. You asked me how flooding affects me, this is how.”

Inclusive interventions

Joti’s death is one tragedy of living with climate change, but it is also the everyday reality for thousands in Dhaka, combining the daily effects of exclusion and poverty, exacerbated by a changing climate. The experiences from the frontlines must play a central role in climate change action. The “Pot Gan”, a form of indigenous performance theatre that I developed with the University of Dhaka and the accompanying documentary are my attempt to raise some of the voices and stories from Duaripara:

A recent study estimated that 122 million additional people could be in extreme poverty in 2030 due to climate change. Climate change and the inequalities of its impact are one of the biggest global development challenges we face.

We will not all face this challenge in the same way. People like Hena and Joti who are marginalised in society are especially vulnerable to climate change and they must not be left out of the solutions.

This death illustrates one point at which policy can intervene to make children like Joti, mothers like Hena, their families and their communities safer and more resilient to the effects of climate change.

We – policymakers, practitioners, academics – can’t just parachute in. To create effective climate resilient strategies we must engage the communities living on the frontline to ensure that the policies and interventions fit with their everyday experiences and understanding of climate change. We have to hear their stories.

*Pseudonyms have been used to ensure the anonymity of research participants.


Dr. Joanne Jordan is a lecturer in Climate Change and Development at the Institute for Development Policy and Management at the University of Manchester and a visiting researcher at International Centre for Climate Change and Development, Indepenent University Bangladesh. She is an environmental social scientist with experience in Bangaladesh, India, Nepal and Campodia, with a particular interest in the interconnected problems of climate change, proverty, and complex notions of risk.