20 November 2015
As the ferry I was travelling on chugged across the grey-green river in southern Bangladesh, my colleague pointed to a spot on my right. My gaze fell on a wooden cart. Upon it was a white, opaque plastic sack. “That’s the body of a child,” he told me. “He drowned.”
A ripple of chatter spread around the ferry. Some passengers said the boy was five or six years old. Others said he had slipped while playing near a pond or churning river.
Whatever the truth about his final moments, I could not help but think of his mother, or some other loved one, waiting at home for their darling boy to complete his final journey from the morgue.
The tragedy reflects a broader story. Every day almost 50 children drown in Bangladesh. That's one child dying every half an hour.
Low-lying Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to rising seas and climate change.
“With waters rising, vulnerability to drowning is at an all-time high,” said Farah Kabir, country director of ActionAid Bangladesh.
For mother-of-two Fatema, the fear of losing a child to the surging waters was all too real. Every time there was a bout of heavy rain it flooded her flimsy hut, made of jute.
“The water came up to my thigh,” the 21-year-old told me. “I was always scared that my son would drown.”
I met Fatema during the monsoon this year. But she seemed much less anxious about her children.
That’s because she now lives in a village that ActionAid has raised on a mud plinth. Fatema’s new home sits two-and-a-half feet above the highest recorded flood level and it has never been inundated.
Drowned on the way to school
Other mothers have not been as lucky.
Aasma, 35, wants her nine-year-old daughter, Shumona, to go to school. But she’s too scared to let her go. Three years ago, another local girl slipped from a bamboo bridge and drowned on her way to class.
Her death has cast a long shadow over the community. Aasma knows that school could provide Shumona with a passport out of poverty but she cannot risk her daughter’s life.
“There is too much water here,” said Aasma, who lives on a broken river embankment near the Bay of Bengal.
Long term solutions are needed
This year, the Bangladeshi government made swimming lessons compulsory in schools. It’s a positive step. But as sea levels rise, and villages continue to vanish under water, it is vital that a long-term solution is secured for vulnerable children.
This means providing financial support to enable communities to adapt to the effects of climate change.
ActionAid is helping women and children to stay one step ahead of the next disaster by raising villages above the flood level and training women on how to respond during cyclones.
Ahead of next month's Paris climate talks, ActionAid will be marching through London on 29 November to call for a deal that will put the poorest women and children first.
We’re asking the UK government to commit to a global goal on adaptation so that developing countries like Bangladesh can cope with the impacts of climate change.
In many ways, the fate of Bangladesh's children grotesquely mirrors the fate of the country itself.
Almost a fifth of Bangladesh could disappear if sea levels rise by up to a metre. This could leave around 30 million people homeless, according to the Netherlands National Committee for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development.
Bangladesh is a beautiful green country that has inspired the poetry of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It is home to the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger - and most importantly - the place where more than 150 million people live.
If we don’t act now the Bangladesh we know and love could be lost forever. And our children – both over here and over there – may never forgive us.
Today is Universal Children's Day. Please pledge to march with us on 29 November, and stand with the children of Bangladesh.