Every year, fishermen and worshippers flood a faraway island in Bangladesh. Photographer Rodney Dekker went there to record traditions that may soon go under.
Most of the year, Dublar Char is nearly uninhabited. The remote island lies at the southern end of the Sundarbans, a vast tidal mangrove forest on the Bay of Bengal. Then, from mid-October to mid-February, thousands of fishermen sweep in from around Bangladesh. Hindu pilgrims come in their thousands too, for Rash Mela, an annual three-day festival with a 200-year history.
Last year, photographer Rodney Dekker joined the influx. “There were fishing boats everywhere. They are all connected and people walk over each boat to get to the land,” he says. The fishermen dry their catch on the broad beach, then bag and ship the fish to markets in the capital, Dhaka.
With the festival on, the island was vibrant. “There was dancing and singing, and people were worshipping clustered around a little temple,” Dekker says. “There was lots of energy and atmosphere.”
Situated in the fertile Ganges Delta, Bangladesh is one of the poorest, most densely populated and lowest-lying countries on earth. Exposed to rising sea levels, melting Himalayan glaciers and increased cyclone frequency, the country’s people are critically vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A Bangladeshi rights organisation, Equity and Justice Rights Group, estimates that 30 million people on the southern coastline are already facing its consequences.
That’s the reason for Dekker’s journey. “Dublar Island will be one of the first places in Bangladesh to be affected by sea level rise and this culture will be lost as a result,” he says.
The 34-year-old photographer is a former environmental scientist. In Australia, he has shot series on droughts, floods and bushfires. “My photographic interests come from my interest in environmental problems,” he says. “Part of what I’m trying to do is to show people what is happening in the world as a result of climate change.”
In November 2007, Dublar Island was lashed by Cyclone Sidr. Development organisation Save the Children estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people died in the storm. “It was the most severe cyclone on record in the Bay of Bengal,” Dekker says. “Cyclones are becoming more intense and frequent and the timing is different now. One of the fishermen I interviewed and photographed on Dublar Island was wondering why cyclones are coming in winter. He doesn’t know.”
The fisherman’s prospects aren’t good. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that 22 million people in Bangladesh will become climate refugees by 2050.
But it’s industrialised countries, including Australia, who are responsible for the bulk of historical greenhouse gas emissions. “The poorer countries are the ones who will feel the effects [of climate change] the most, and we’re the cause of it,” Dekker says.
Rodney Dekker travelled to Bangladesh with the help of a grant from the SEARCH Foundation. You can view an eyewitness account of his journey on the Oxfam website.