The sex workers of Banishanta, an island on Bangladesh's southwestern coast, stand to be washed away by rising sea levels.
Banishanta was once one of the biggest government-registered brothels in Bangladesh. According to its older inhabitants, some 1,200 women lived and worked at Banishanta during the early 1950s when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan. In those days, sailors and merchants from Britain to Indonesia docked at Mongla port, which at the time connected with many other international harbours. These sailors spent much of their free time and money on the island.
But since then the brothel has been battered by cyclones and inundated by floods. Sex workers who didn't die in these storms moved to safer inland brothels while large parts of the island continued to disappear into the Pasur due to river erosion. Mongla port fell into decline from the early 90s onwards, as a combination of labour unrest, river siltation, and the consistently bad weather saw the port's activity halve in the following two decades. Despite an economic resurgence in Mongla in recent years, there has been no knock on effect for the brothel.
Bangladesh, home to over 160 million people, was the sixth most affected country by global warming between 1997 and 2016, and scientists calculate that more trouble is to come. A three-foot rise in global sea level, which the United Nations projects will happen by the end of the century, would submerge almost 20 percent of Bangladesh and displace more than 30 million of its citizens nationwide. To add to this, the country also has to contend with river erosion, which annually displaces between 50,000 and 200,000 Bangladeshis. In Banishanta's case, Jyoti Halder, a representative of Bangladesh Society for Action and Development, a local NGO, told me that Banishanta's embankment has eroded some 100 meters in the last few years, and that it continues to disappear quickly.
Every year, Bangladesh's major rivers carry silt from the world's tallest mountain range and deposit it downstream and throughout a network of tributaries. These deposits raise the level of the riverbed, often creating sandbars, known as chars, which clog the river. When there are higher flows of water upstream from greater Himalayan snowmelt, or in the event of more frequent monsoon rains"both of which are linked to climate change"the rivers have less space to carry the increased volumes of water. The result is flooding and riverbank erosion.In the case of the Pasur, not only does it carry chunks of sediment from the Himalayas, but it also experiences build-ups of silt and clay pushed in from the sea by its tide. This makes Mongla port less accessible to large containers ships with deep draughts, costing the government millions of dollars each year to dredge the river, and hurting Mongla's economy. And it also means that the surrounding areas are vulnerable to forces of nature. If there is a storm or heavy rain, the Pasur will burst its banks.
Prostitution is legal in Bangladesh, in spite of its predominantly Muslim population and deeply conservative attitudes. Qazi Asad-uz-Zaman, a sociologist who worked with sex workers in Banishanta, told me there are 14 registered brothels in the country, but also many hundreds more unlicensed ones. The charity ActionAid estimates that some 200,000 women are working in Bangladesh's sex trade.
Many of these women are trafficked, sold to a broker who then sells them to a madam in a brothel. According to reports coming from inside these brothels, and the information that Banishanta's workers told me, madams can pay anywhere from $200 or more for one girl. Once a girl is bought she is bonded, and the madam provides her with food and shelter until she pays off the debt.