Parveen: A Fearless Woman Fighting Climate Change

Photo: UNFPA Bangladesh

I met Parveen in a Khulna slum back in August 2021. It was the height of the monsoon, hot and humid. The narrow, meandering mud road that led to her home was waterlogged by the trapped rainwater mixed with the saline water that the encroaching sea was pushing inward and the thick, blackish fluid oozing from the leaking sewer. We hopped from one brick to the next which was laid on the path about a foot apart for walking.

Parveen emerged from her humble home, a tall, strong woman with a beaming face. She invited us inside.

As we entered her house, stooping through the low entrance, we found ourselves in a narrow, small room with a bed. Someone was lying down, covered from head to toe in a Kantha—a blanket made of old sarees. It was a particularly muggy monsoon day, and seeing our quizzical look, she told us that it was her husband who was sick and could not work anymore.

We sat down in the back room, the only other room in the house. She made us tea and apologised for not having anything else to offer.

She told us that she had moved to Khulna city in 2009 from her village in Barishal after Cyclone Aila had washed away her family home. Her family had built it on a relative’s land; they did not own any land. Her husband was a hawker, selling trinkets to village women. The cyclone also washed away his merchandise. So, Parveen and her family moved to Khulna city in search of work.

In Khulna, her husband became a construction worker. Many construction sites take in people as day labourers who require little or no experience. Their jobs mostly involve physical labour including loading and unloading construction materials from one place to another. Parveen’s husband was inexperienced in this trade since he had never worked as a construction worker before, and he would always come home exhausted and often wounded. He became permanently ill after her youngest son drowned in the Rupsa River, next to their slum. The river is famous for burgeoning agriculture and fast industrialization in Khulna. The incident was four years ago. Ever since, she had been working as a maid in the city. Now that her husband worked no more, her meagre salary, 4000 taka per month ($42.60 per month), was their only lifeblood.

With her husband and son, she built her shack, bit by bit, on the land she rented for 1000 taka per month. Her electricity bill was astonishingly high—1000 taka per month for using just two fans and two light bulbs. She said that it was the norm here. A local strongman brought them illegal electricity and charged them for usage. That the poor always pay way more than the rich—per square foot of housing, per watt of electricity, per gallon of water—is extensively documented. Yet, a fourth of the income going towards such low usage of electricity seemed just too high to me.

However, I could not help noticing the stubborn hope in her eyes despite everything. She told me that her employer was very kind and helped her with rice and other lifesaving food during the worst phase of the COVID-19 lockdown. She got her job back after the lockdown was lifted. Many did not, she informed. Her older son was now working as an apprentice in a furniture store and could help his mother a little. She said she was grateful to God for all that He gave her.

We noticed a couple of large plastic drums at one end of the room and asked what they were. She said that she stored the harvested rainwater in those drums. She put up a simple rainwater harvesting system—a gutter catching the rain falling on the roof and then a pipe channelling it into a drum. The system provides most of the drinking water for her family; because, the water available in her slum through tube wells was saline and undrinkable. She told us that she learned this technique in her village when she was a child.

We were visiting the slum to learn about the people BRAC has been working with under the urban Ultra-Poor Graduation programme. At BIGD, we are partnering with BRAC to find solutions to and do research on the issues of urban poverty and climate migration.

Storms and salinity—getting more intense over the years due to climate change—are driving people like Parveen out of their villages and placing them in cramped, unhygienic, expensive slums in cities. Among the myriad problems these new migrants face, saline water seems to pose one of the gravest challenges in Southern cities like Khulna. Alongside working on the economic empowerment of these migrants, BRAC is also trying to find sustainable solutions to their water problem that’s likely to get worse.

Parveen was proud of her rainwater harvesting project. It exuded from her face as she was explaining the contraption to us. And rightly so. We sorely need resilient and resourceful people like Parveen in our quest for safeguarding the people vulnerable to climate change.

Now that Parveen is becoming a member of the UPG program, she is determined to bring better days for herself and her family.

Nusrat Jahan is the Head of Communications and Knowledge Management at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)