Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 8 June 2009


Read the story in Dispatches magazine


Dump millions of people into low-lying slums between filthy, flood-prone rivers; raise the sea levels; unleash cyclones and climate-sensitive diseases; then double the population of those slums every decade. Dhaka is a climate change experiment writ huge.

By Andrew Marshall

THE mutiny begins at 9 on Tuesday morning. It is cool by Dhaka standards, yet high above the waking city the pariah kites already circle in the gathering heat. The streets are filling up with ill-tempered traffic, and soon they will be gridlocked. But Seven Mosques Road is empty. This is because at its southern end lies the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles, where rebel soldiers are butchering their commanding officers and spraying the surrounding streets with bullets.

I am in bed when the mutiny begins, and I wake to the sound of explosions and gunfire. The Bangladesh Rifles, or BDR, are the country’s border security force and their headquarters is a few minutes away by rickshaw. The main gate is swarming with rebels, who shout and brandish their rifles. Bullets ping off nearby buildings. The backstreets are packed with agitated young men, who edge out onto Seven Mosques Road to watch, then scatter when the shooting starts again. They are startled to see a foreign reporter; the world usually doesn’t pay much attention to events in Bangladesh. But then I’m not here for the mutiny.

I have come to report on Bangladesh’s extreme vulnerability to climate change, a looming catastrophe that threatens to make this volatile country more unstable still. The scenarios are terrifying. A one-meter rise in sea levels could put nearly a fifth of this densely populated nation underwater by 2050, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates. This could mean 30 million refugees. The cyclones that routinely ravage the coastline will grow more frequent and ferocious. Rainfall patterns will cause more severe floods and droughts. Fed by retreating Himalayan glaciers, the great rivers will swell, unpredictably and destructively, then eventually run dry. Cholera and other diseases will flourish. Crops will die, and millions of people will go hungry.

These scenarios are apocalyptic, but I find most Bangladeshis too distracted by politics, violence, corruption, poverty, and disease to even begin addressing them.

Then the mutiny starts. I see blood on the street and a man with his head blown apart. I hear reports that the rebels are digging mass graves inside their heavily guarded compound. I watch government tanks roll down Seven Mosques Road. Before long, I am distracted too.

BANGLADESH has always been synonymous with catastrophe. Indeed, much of the world knows little else about it. A cyclone in 1970 claimed 500,000 lives in what was then East Pakistan. By the end of 1971, hundreds of thousands, some say millions, had perished in Bangladesh’s war of liberation. The 1974 famine killed a million and a half people. Since 1990, 164 natural disasters have killed 160,000 more.

These tragedies have earned Bangladesh a permanent place in the global conscience. Permanent, but superficial. We see the headlines, shake our heads and perhaps donate some money. We can tell ourselves that Bangladesh is an unlucky country, cursed by geography and politics, and we bear no responsibility for its people’s suffering.

Not anymore. The industrialized world is directly to blame for the ruin of climate change. Bangladesh is acutely vulnerable to almost every dire aspect, yet its own contribution is negligible. The average American produces as many greenhouse gas emissions as 99 Bangladeshis.

The IPCC warns of devastating floods, drought, extreme weather, hunger, and disease across the world in decades to come. Bangladesh faces all of that already, and climate change will accelerate it. Once a byword for backwardness, Bangladesh is now a glimpse of everyone’s future.

Bangladesh sits on the confluence of one of the world’s largest river systems. Nearly all the meltwater from Himalayan glaciers drains through its crowded delta. Up to two-thirds of the country floods during the annual monsoons. Not counting city states or such doomed island nations as the Maldives, it has the world’s highest population density: more than 150 million people live within 56,000 square miles. (Imagine cramming the population of Russia into the state of Illinois.) If sea levels rise as predicted, where will the homeless go?

Dhaka, the capital, lies at the center of this country, this drainage system. It has 13 million inhabitants, and perhaps another 400,000 – more than the Maldives’ entire population – arrive yearly. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) calls it “the fastest growing megacity in the world,” estimating that 20 million people will live here by 2025.

Two overlapping forces drive this mass migration: one economic, one environmental. In Bangladesh, nearly half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Dhaka, with its offices, factories, and construction sites, is where most of the jobs are. Many migrants come here because rivers or cyclones have eroded their fields, wrecked their homes, and pauperized them.

“If you lose everything, you come to Dhaka,” says my friend Tawhid, himself from a family of rural migrants. “And even if Dhaka gives you nothing, you stay.”

Besides jobs, Dhaka offers safety in numbers and giant embankments to hold back the rivers. More than a city, it is an ark.

For the outside world, it is also a climate change experiment writ huge, with disturbing lessons for thousands of poverty-stricken coastal cities. Dump millions of people into low-lying slums between filthy, flood-prone rivers; raise the sea levels; melt the glaciers; unleash cyclones, storm surges, and climate-sensitive diseases. Then double the population of those slums every decade.

Much of Dhaka will be engulfed by even a “slight rise” in sea level, UN-Habitat says. Rural migrants now pouring into its slums could soon be flushed out of them. A recent Oxfam report says tropical megacities such as Dhaka could become “among the most dangerous habitats for poor people affected by climate change.”

But still they come to an ark that is overcrowded, unhealthy, rudderless – and leaking badly.

SOME people say the capital will soon collapse from overcrowding and dysfunction. Others say it is collapsing already. When I arrive, tattered election posters smother every building. December polls reinstalled a civilian government after two years of military-backed emergency rule, and Bangladesh is a democracy again. Nothing else has changed. The traffic is still unrelenting, murderous. Buses, scratched deeply on their flanks, stampede down fume-choked streets like wounded bison. Beggars and vendors crowd the intersections, waving leprous stumps or bootleg copies of Barack Obama’s Dreams Of My Father.

And everywhere, the rickshaws. Traffic police despise them. Other road-users bully them. But the trade employs a million people, most of them rural migrants, and the city’s fragile social stability depends upon it. Dhaka is a seething, fractious, heart-bruising place. Many of its residents seem to spend their days close to boiling point, waiting for someone or something to rattle their lids off. I am always seeing arguments and fistfights.

The best neighborhood belongs, of course, to the wealthy. This is Gulshan: shaded avenues, gated mansions, expatriate clubs, apartment blocks with names like Lake Castle, South Palace, Green Horizon. There are few people or cars on Gulshan’s backstreets. Koel birds hoot from the treetops. It feels like another city, almost another country.

Elsewhere, in ever-expanding slums along putrid rivers, the people drown in their own filth. Photographer Philip Blenkinsop and I hire a car and drive out from Old Dhaka, following the Buriganga River north. Tawhid, 24, a medical student and aspiring writer, comes along to translate.

The potholed road runs down an embankment built to protect the city’s western flanks from flooding. It is shored up in places by a meter-thick layer of smoldering, semi-compacted rubbish, picked through by women, barefoot children, dogs, and crows. Below is a small lake, a stagnant offshoot of the Buriganga, its water so thick and black that a boat barely disturbs its surface. It is fringed with shacks on six-meter-high bamboo poles to prevent flooding during monsoons.

We are in Kamarangir Char. A crowd on the embankment watches gray-black water trickle from a sewage pipe into the lake. People seem mesmerized, rooted to spongy ground.

“They are waiting for something to quench their visual thirst,” Tawhid explains. They are waiting for corpses.

That morning’s Daily Jugantor shows a weeping woman stroking the blackened face of her dead husband, an army colonel. The rebels shot him, then dumped the body down a sewer. It emerged not far south, through this sluice gate. The crowd is expecting more bodies.

We drive on through Hazaribhag, home to the city’s tanneries. The air is unbreathable, a toxic cocktail of rotting hides and chemicals. Dyes bleed into the lakes where people wash, turning them pink or orange. Sulfuric acid does worse.

A call to prayer punctures the noxious air. “We survive here because there is someone called God,” Tawhid says.

A tough-looking woman with graying temples and a delicate gold nose-ring runs a tea stall on the riverbank. Her name is Nurjahan, and she is from Bhola, a poor, cyclone-scoured island in the Bay of Bengal. In 1960, its area was 6,400 square kilometers; by 2004, it was half that. Many Bhola people end up in Dhaka. “They can’t make a living in the villages,” Nurjahan says, with a shrug. “They have no choice but to come here.”

We drive back through Mohammadpur, with its desolate memorial to intellectuals slaughtered in 1971. A sign points to a housing estate called Nobodoy. At first glance I think it says Nobody.

A DHAKA hotel is hosting a conference on climate change adaptation attended by international organizations. The mutiny overshadows it. The government amasses tanks, troops, and artillery outside the BDR headquarters until the rebels surrender. They have killed more than 70 people, mostly army officers and their wives. Some bodies have been mutilated.

Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the Institute for Environment and Development in London and Bangladesh’s adaptation guru, is at the conference. The IPCC defines adaptation as the “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects.” Huq will tell you that Bangladeshis have another word for it: life.

Until relatively recently, he explains, rich countries ignored adaptation to focus on mitigation – reducing greenhouse emissions.

“Even Al Gore didn’t get it,” says Huq, who met the Nobel Peace Prize winner last year. “He’s from that old mindset – talking about adaptation is defeatist. But he has realized that’s no longer true.” Huq dismisses as outdated the notion that wealthy countries must mitigate and poor countries must adapt. “We have to talk about both,” he told me. “Initially, rich countries thought they didn’t have to worry about impacts, and if there were any impacts they’d be able to deal with them. That’s also beginning to change.”

Rich countries have pledged (but have yet to deliver) billions of dollars to help the developing world cope with climate change. Belatedly, the United States, Britain, and the European Union are devising strategies to help their own populations adapt, too.

Bangladesh, of course, is already dealing with the impact. Huq explains that rising seas will increase salinity in coastal areas and imperil crops. The monsoon season will get shorter and wetter, and the dry season longer and hotter. Paradoxically, this means Bangladesh will experience both more floods and more droughts.

“Bangladesh is in a class of its own in terms of the number of people at risk,” Huq said. “Everybody wants to come here and see the poor people who are going to be doomed. But this is also an extremely resilient country.”

He wants to make Bangladesh a “laboratory for adaptation.” Researchers and non-governmental organizations can team up to create projects with practical results, which can be replicated in other places at risk. This way, Huq hopes, Bangladesh will not be a nation of victims but rather a place where everyone can see how a nation can cope. Bangladeshis are planting an experimental breed of salt-resistant rice, growing crops on floating gardens of mulched water hyacinth, and raising ducks instead of chickens. But for millions, adaptation means something simpler: migration.

One night, Philip, Tawhid and I board a ferry for the delta to find out why so many people leave.

SADARGHAT pier in Old Dhaka is chaos. Its rusting pontoons are packed with ferries, their cracked and battered prows forming an arcade through which hundreds of passengers, porters, vendors, and beggars throng. Two ferries have already sunk this month. Ten died in the first. Passengers on the second – a ferry named “Happy,” which had left Barisal with 150 souls on board and struck a cargo vessel – are still being retrieved from the bottom of the Kirtonkhola.

Barisal is our destination, too. Our ship is an aging brute called Parabat 2, its hull scarified with a history of near misses. The name alone sets off a panicky internal monologue. (“What happened to Parabat 1?”) The bottom deck is the size of several basketball courts and tightly packed with passengers.

We head downriver at speed. The ship’s searchlight scopes the water for smaller boats suicidal enough to get in our way. A recorded announcement in Bengali is played over the loudspeakers. Don’t make friends with strangers, it warns, or take food from them. Don’t play cards. Keep your possessions close because thieves will snatch your bag and leap into the river. “Have a good journey,” ends the announcement. “May Allah protect you.”

Bangladesh’s rivers can be violent and unpredictable. One, the Aarial Kha, is notorious for shifting course by a hundred meters in a single night, devouring houses and land. But rivers also give life to the delta. They flood the fields with nutrients and create new land with soil and sediment washed down from the world’s highest mountain range. “Without the Himalayas,” historian Willem van Schendel writes, “Bangladesh would not exist. In a sense, Bangladesh is the Himalayas, flattened out.” River erosion, river siltation: these twin forces have sculpted Bangladesh for millenniums and sculpt it still.

Some big rivers, like the Mississippi in America or the Yangtze in China, begin and end in one country. But Bangladesh is a small nation, and none of its three main rivers originate there. Before it reaches Bangladesh, the Padma travels for 1,500 miles through India, where it is called the Ganges. The Jamuna originates in Chinese-ruled Tibet and passes through India as the Brahmaputra. The Meghna, into which they both flow – and along which we are now sailing – crosses over from India as two rivers: Kushiyara and Surma.

Tibet, Nepal, India, China: these nations own the roof of the world. Bangladesh gets the plumbing.

When it comes to water, then, Bangladeshis are at the mercy of others. A fourth of their rivers first pass through populous and thirsty India, which has built many dams, irrigation canals, and other obstructions. The most notorious is the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, built in the mid-1970s to divert water in the dry season from the Ganges into the Hooghly to flush silt from the Calcutta port. Environmentalists blame it for the degradation or death of 19 rivers in Bangladesh, particularly the Padma. India’s longcherished project to divert rivers to irrigate its parched interior threatens to deplete the Jamuna, which supplies Bangladesh with the bulk of its fresh water, and further throttle the Padma. Yet another dam project in the northern Indian state of Assam could cause a calamity for the Meghna. But tonight, from the shabby decks of the Parabat 2, the Meghna seems as vast as an ocean. When we pass its confluence with the Padma, the riverbanks retreat and are soon only a faraway, half-imagined blackness. “A very long way to swim,” Philip observes, voicing a calculation I have already made.

WE arrive in Barisal before dawn and rent a small boat to explore the far shore of the Kirtonkhola. Barisal’s skyline of minarets and mobile-phone towers is reclaimed by thick morning mist. A long-snouted creature breaks surface nearby with a flash of metallic gray, the first and last freshwater dolphin I see on our trip.

At a village on the other side I meet another woman called Nurjahan. (It is a common name.) Her eroded teeth are stained red from betel. She is a big woman, and this makes her look ferocious. Fifteen years ago, she says, “the Kirtonkhola looked more like a canal.” Her village had a thousand homes then. Now there are fewer than 400, and the fast-flowing river has swallowed their fields and toppled their coconut and banana trees. The villagers can no longer grow enough rice to eat and many have left to seek work in Dhaka. All this happened in just two years.

The area is called Char Kaua Shatani. A char is an island created by sediment. The river had created the land on which Nurjahan’s village is built. Now it is taking the land away again.

How much longer will the river allow her to live here? The bloated corpse of a drowned calf bobs in the nearby shallows, and Nurjahan pulls a corner of her sari across her nose to cloak its stench. “Only the river and Allah know,” she says.

Further along the riverbank a woman in a red sari, named Maksuda, washes cooking pots. Her tin-shack home sits on a platform of compacted earth a few meters from the water. The river has eaten away her bamboo and bananas on its way to the house itself. Local authorities have twice shored up the nearby market with concrete blocks but failed to stop the Kirtonkhola’s advance. “If this land disappears too, I don’t know where I’ll go,” Maksuda says.

I ask if the government would give her land on another char. It might, she thinks. A new char on the opposite bank is already planted with crops, but it is too dangerous to live on. A freak flood could submerge it in hours.

Some scientists believe dams and channels could create huge expanses of land by trapping and redirecting river sediment. This might also elevate existing land to hold off rising seas. A Dutch diplomat I met later called the silt in Bangladesh’s rivers “a gift from God.” But others are less enthusiastic. New land is not created quickly enough to meet demand. And often, local godfathers grab it for themselves.

As we leave, Maksuda smiles and says, “Pray for us.”

WE head due south for Kuakata, a beach resort on the Bay of Bengal, a four-hour car journey. There are five ferry crossings. Even when you drive in Bangladesh you spend a lot of time on the water. The last river we cross, a muddy branch of the Andermanik, smells of the ocean.

Kuakata’s only real street is festive and teeming with people, the shops and restaurants lit by generators. We check into a hotel called the Neelanjana (“green-eyed girl”), a penitential hulk of unfinished concrete with a romantic touch: the rooms are named after rivers. I stay in Kumar, a tributary of the Padma. The hotel manager is named Ashik, which means lover.

My guidebook says the hotel has “sea views that alone justify the price.” But the next morning I scan the horizon and see nothing but fields and trees. The beach lies beyond, and we hire motorbikes to explore it. It is flat and wide and dotted with bamboo drying racks festooned with marine life at various stages of putrefaction: shark skins, fins, spines and jaws; swordfish skulls with eye sockets roiling with maggots. Beyond them is an earth embankment built about a decade ago to protect Kuakata from the sea.

Here I meet a fish trader named Mansur Ali Akand. He is 70, with a neat gray beard and a lace skullcap. Mansur has lived in Kuakata all his life. Advancing seas have claimed five of his houses. “You see that boat?” he asks, pointing to a speck on the ocean. “The shore was once five kilometers beyond that.” Cyclone Sidr brought it closer still. “Sidr was so powerful,” Mansur recalls, “if it weren’t for the embankment, everything would be in the sea.”

But it was the 1963 cyclone that defined Mansur’s life. “It was the worst I’d ever seen. Even the dheki were uprooted.” A dheki is a wooden rice-husking device, still found in many villages, with foundations buried deep in the earth. “All the houses were under 10 or 12 hands of water. Eighty percent of the people died.”

The storm surge was an unstoppable wall of water many meters high, driven inland by cyclonic winds. It killed a dozen members of his extended family, including his five brothers and sisters. His parents survived by clinging to driftwood. Mansur was spared because he was visiting another town. Now cyclone warnings are delivered by television, radio, and mobile phone so people can seek shelter. In the past, Mansur said, they simply prayed and died.

Years ago, an Indian relief worker told me a story so horrific I’d assumed it was apocryphal. A powerful cyclone bore down upon a village in the Bay of Bengal. Terrified people had no concrete buildings for shelter so the women lashed their long hair to the central posts of their houses. They held on to their children and prayed. When relief workers arrived the next day the villagers had been swept away, the houses all but flattened. But the central posts remained standing, each tied with a woman’s hair and scalp.

Is the story true? Mansur doesn’t know. But during Sidr, women’s hair tangled up in broken branches and thorns, and many drowned. Mansur explained, “Allah tangled up their hair until they couldn’t move.” Mansur has seven sons, three daughters, and a dozen grandchildren. “If the sea keeps eating the land, there’s no point in staying,” he said. The earthen embankment is already crumbling. He urges us to go farther along the beach. “There you’ll see what the sea has done.”

WE reach the fringes of the Sundarbans, the mangrove forests that sprawl across coastal Bangladesh and into India. The embankment crumbles away to nothing. Our motorbikes slalom through the stumps of bamboo and coconut trees, the remains of a settlement reclaimed by the ocean.

The Sundarbans are the lair of the Royal Bengal tiger, an animal that might become as iconic a victim of climate change as the polar bear or the golden toad. Salinity in the forests has increased, causing the mangroves to shed their leaves. This allows poachers to hunt tigers more easily.

The creeping salinity is a major threat to humans, too. It destroys crops and farmland, and it poisons groundwater. Rising seas are one culprit. Bangladeshis also blame the hated Farakka Barrage. It drastically reduces the volume of fresh water flowing down the Padma and its tributaries, allowing salt to creep further up the river system. Cyclonic storm surges also drive the salt deeper inland. Bangladesh cannot afford to lose arable land.

Most of its population already survives on less than 2,122 kilocalories a day – the “nutrition poverty line.” And that population is still growing: it is expected to rise to 200 million in the next 30 years. Now the tigers are hungry, too. Their habitat is dying, along with their prey: fish, crocodiles, crabs. Starving and desperate, they attack humans with greater frequency. In the first half of 2009, 18 people were mauled to death.

We drive back to the Neelanjana Hotel. Like many concrete buildings near the sea, it doubles as a cyclone shelter. During Sidr, 150 people stayed there. “It’s true,” says Ashik the manager. “The sea is getting closer.” A decade ago, when they started building, the shore lay three or four kilometers away. Now it is less than a kilometer.

So my guidebook isn’t wrong, just premature: the Neelanjana will have its sea views yet.

WE return to Dhaka during a crime wave by eunuchs. Known in Bengali as hijira, eunuchs were once employed by Mughal courts to protect harems. Now some scrape a living by singing at family celebrations, but most rely on prostitution and crime. In recent days, one gang of eunuchs mugged a fruit trader in Mohammadpur. Another broke into houses in northern Dhaka, demanding money and threatening to abduct children. The police commissioner vows to stop “the harassment of city dwellers by the third gender.”

Crime plagues the city. So do power shortages. The poorer areas get only a few hours of electricity each day. Schoolchildren study by candlelight. Department stores swelter in their own gloom. Approach Dhaka from the countryside by night and you see no glow on the horizon. The city is a black hole, sucking in people and vehicles, a collapsing vortex of flesh and metal, emitting no light.

The capital still gets more power than the countryside, where electric water pumps lay idle and crops go without irrigation. Locals attacked one malfunctioning substation and injured three engineers. Police dispersed them with a baton charge.

Kentucky Fried Chicken has launched a campaign to raise awareness about global warming. It’s a sales gimmick. Men wearing wetsuits, masks, and snorkels distribute leaflets to warn customers that their country “would go underwater completely by 2100.” The campaign is called “Care To Drown?”

The traffic is back on Seven Mosques Road. Sitting in his dimly lit office at its northern end is a rural migrant named Nazul Islam. His family left a village in Faridpur, a jute-producing district on the banks of the Padma River, when his father, a high court official, was transferred to Dhaka. Islam studied geography at Dhaka University and today is a leading expert on urbanization and environment.

Cyclones and rivers had been dispossessing Bangladeshis for centuries. But until British rule ended in 1947, Islam says, “Dhaka was a very hostile, alien city for the poor. Most people would not have come here.” The population rose when the British left, then surged once Bangladesh won its liberation from Pakistan. Between 1974 and 2001, Dhaka’s population increased by 6 percent every year.

Islam sketches an outline of Bangladesh with its major rivers, then makes a dot in the center: Dhaka. The Mughals founded the city 400 years ago for its proximity to river and sea trade routes. The British brought trains and steamships; then came roads and bridges. Today, all transportation systems converge on Dhaka where every endeavor of importance is concentrated: industry, banking, commerce, administration, politics, education. A new bridge over the Shitalakhya will soon accelerate growth eastward.

“Dhaka is too well-located,” Islam says. “A lot of people are already saying Dhaka is unmanageable. In a way it is unmanageable. But then still people come here.”

A previous government tried a campaign called “Let’s Go Home” to encourage new arrivals to return to their villages. It was scrapped within a year. The only way to slow Dhaka’s growth is to create better opportunities, with colleges, hospitals, industry, and agriculture. This is not happening. At night, the streets near Karwan Bazar teem with new arrivals, homeless and destitute.

BANGLADESH is fighting not just a national force but also a planetary one. Last year, for the first time, more people lived in cities than in the countryside. Over the past 20 years, UN-Habitat calculates, the urban growth in the developing world has averaged 3 million people per week. Climate change will speed up this dramatic migration. One day, Nazrul Islam explains, a wave of migrants larger than anything yet seen will flee Bangladesh’s coasts. “The future,” he says, “is very, very disturbing.”

Talking to Islam, you realize Dhaka is no ark. It is the mother of all bathtubs, overflowing with human waste and susceptible to sudden uncontrollable inundation.

He knows about floods. He did relief work as a Boy Scout in 1954 and has seen all but one major flood since. The worst in recent memory was in 1998, when two-thirds of the country was underwater. Dhaka’s floodwalls were breached. Sewers overflowed, and contaminated water caused an epidemic of diarrhea. Hundreds of boat plied the streets, and people lived on rooftops and in trees. Now Dhaka floods more frequently. Waters rose again in 2000 and 2004. “In 2007, there were two floods,” Islam says.

Floods now kill fewer people but damage infrastructure over a wider area. The water has nowhere to go.

Into the 1960s, Dhaka was a garden city crisscrossed with ancient rivers and canals. As it grew, these were cut off or filled in. Remnants of old waterways survive as lakes and bits of wetlands. Though highly polluted, they are vital sponges during the June-to-October monsoon.

But now these wetlands are also being reclaimed. Lakes that prevent flooding in Gulshan and Banani grow smaller each year as slums encroach from one shore and upscale apartments and offices advance from the other. This growth appears to be organic, but it isn’t. A Dhaka landscape architect once told me how it works.

A landlord buys lakeside land with help from a corrupt official. He erects shacks on stilts into the lake, installs tenants, and waits. Waterlogged land beneath the stilts slowly fills with garbage. Eventually, it is prime land on which the owner can build lucrative property. He sends goons to dislodge tenants and demolish shacks. Wetlands vanish so completely that only raw sewage backing up into new homes recalls that they ever existed.

Rivers no longer flow through Dhaka. They divert around it: the Balu and Shityalakhya in the east, the Buriganga in the south, the Turag in the west, and the Tongi (actually a canal) in the north. Giant embankments (New Orleans would call them levees) mostly keep them at bay. But attempts to keep one part of Dhaka dry result in floods elsewhere. And even if they hold out the rivers, they keep in the rains.

“The city is like a basin,” Islam said. “If there is heavy rain, the streets go underwater for days. If climate change brings even more rain, then we’ll have a big problem.”

Take Kamarangir Char. Embankments that contain the Buriganga trap enough rainwater to flood the area waist-deep. Sluice gates are useless when the Buriganga is high. It must be pumped out, which can take four days if there is electricity. I once asked a resident there what happens to his family’s belongings in flood. He gave me an odd look. “They float,” he replied. “On the water.”

In the countryside, people pile up earth to build houses on platforms. The resulting hole is a pond for washing and drinking. But in the city such wisdom has been abandoned. Instead, people rely on the embankments, which give them a false sense of security. Engineers plan to encircle Dhaka with dikes so it resembles a medieval walled city. But that would encourage more people to move here in the belief it was safe. What happens when the city is too big to be contained? And what if an embankment gives way?

Digging new canals and restoring wetlands might mitigate floods. But ever since French President François Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle, was stranded in 1988 and France offered billions of dollars to shore up every major river in Bangladesh, building embankments has been the idée du jour. Cash from foreign donors delights corrupt officials and contractors. Also, they take forever to build.

Anyone who lobbies for them will be long gone when they fail to work.

DHAKA people live in a megacity, but they are mainly rural folk who sense weather shifts in their bones. “The winters are shorter,” Gaurango Das tells me. He is 60, a boatman on the Shitalakhya River, east of Dhaka. “The rains last longer. The hot season is hotter. I can feel all this when I’m in my boat.” Das has never heard of climate change. He blames local industry – the jute mills, textile factories, and smelting plants. “They produce the heat,” he says. “We suffer.”

Day by day, the suffering gets worse. I can feel the temperature soar. Dhaka is 39.6 degrees Celsius (103.3 F), the hottest since 1995. The city longs for the kal-boishaki, a sudden dry-season storm with winds of near-cyclonic force, but also cooling rain. But an epidemic comes instead.

Thousands of people are arriving at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, which is still better known as the Cholera Hospital. Emergency wards made of bamboo and tarpaulins cover its parking lots. Hundreds lie on field beds, attached to drips. Hundreds more pack the hospital’s airless wards and corridors. It is the worst outbreak of diarrhea in the center’s 30-year history.

Tawhid and I watch a stream of cars, rickshaws and ambulances bring in the sick and semi-conscious: a glassy-eyed young woman, frog-marched into the ward by female relatives; a newborn, its forehead daubed with black ink to ward off the evil eye, cradled by an anxious father; a well-built youth, heaved into a wheelchair by hospital orderlies, his sodium-starved muscles barely able to cradle his head in his hands. The hospital reports many are dead on arrival.

“People who worry about swine flu should come here,” Tawhid says. “They would realize that other countries have health emergencies all the time. Some get exposure, some don’t.”

Dhaka routinely has two diarrhea epidemics every year: one in April, when it is hot, and one in September, at the height of the rainy season. The primary cause is a shortage of clean water. Why is this outbreak so severe? Local papers blame climate change, but unusual heat and lack of rain are only part of it. Dhaka’s water authority finds the rivers too polluted to purify and instead relies on 400 or so deep wells with pumps hampered by power shortages. And there is the simple equation: more people, more disease. Brian Cobb, who runs the hospital’s intensive care unit, also blames rising malnutrition. “Even in the best of times people in Dhaka live on the edge,” he says. “If food prices go up, or wages go down, it pushes them over. They don’t have the physiological resources to fend off disease.” He says some babies look like “skeletons with skin stretched over them,” and some he cannot save.

Bangladesh might seem like an extreme case, but it is actually a harbinger for humanity. Climatesensitive diseases – malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea – kill over 6 million people worldwide every year, the World Health Organization estimates. These deaths are mainly in the developing world. But WHO cites what it calls “images of the future.” Bangladeshi epidemics made the list. So did the 2003 heat wave across Europe, which claimed 70,000 lives more than usual.

Water is an obvious crisis when scarce, but even in Bangladesh – with its rivers, floods, and monsoons – safe supplies are growing harder to find. In the 1970s, the government launched a campaign to dig millions of tube-wells, many of them more than 100 meters deep. This broke the traditional Bangladeshi dependency on rivers, canals, and ponds, with a dramatic drop in water-borne diseases.

But groundwater in many countries, including parts of America and China, is contaminated by naturally occurring arsenic. Nowhere is this as severe and widespread as in Bangladesh. Between 28 million and 77 million people – up to half the population – are believed to have been exposed to high levels of arsenic. WHO calls this “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”

The most obvious signs of arsenicosis – chronic poisoning from drinking tainted water over long periods – are melanomas and hyperkeratosis (increasing thickness of the outer skin). Cancers of the lungs, kidneys, and bladder are harder to detect and treat. It is too early to assess the damage done, but one study suggests that arsenic in drinking water will kill 270,000 Bangladeshis in the coming years.

Diarrhea alone already kills 100,000 children here each year. This poses a terrible choice as population pressure grows: Do you risk a slow death by arsenic-caused cancers or a fast one by typhoid or cholera?

GOVERNANCE, that bureaucrats’ word, grows crucial as these crises worsen. On Nazrul Islam’s advice, I read a 2004 study on megacities to find out who actually runs Dhaka. The answer? In effect, nobody. An elected mayor heads Dhaka City Corporation, which collects garbage and dumps much of it straight into the rivers. DCC is responsible for surface drains, but a separate water authority rules the sewers. Both blame each other for Dhaka’s waste disposal problems.

The Capital City Development Authority, known by its Bengali acronym RAJUK, is responsible for 1,500 square kilometers, including the city and its outskirts. RAJUK divides its jurisdiction into 26 zones. The DCC uses different boundaries to delineate 10 zones. The water authority has seven zones; the power authority has three, and the tax department has six. An attempt to create a coordinating body failed, the 2004 study concludes, because “most of these officials, out of bureaucratic vanity or departmental jealousy, never turned up.” In essence, the DCC and RAJUK must save Dhaka. But while the DCC has a special department for slums, it does not address climate change. RAJUK was supposed to complete a detailed plan in 1997. It did not begin on it until 2004. Five years later, it is still a work in progress.

One of RAJUK’s recommendations is to save the wetlands. But by the time the report is published, will there be any wetlands left to save?

ADAPTING to climate change – in Bangladesh and elsewhere – requires a nationwide, long-term response by a competent government strong enough to make it work. But Bangladeshi governments weak, often dysfunctional, and short-lived.

Politics revolve around a paralyzing rivalry between two parties, with the military adjudicating. One Western diplomat told me, “The first thing an incoming government does is declare all the policies of the previous government null and void.” Rather than rearranging Titanic deckchairs, politicians fight over them.

As I prepare to leave, the nation is still consumed by the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny. Hundreds of rebels are arrested, and senior officials peddle a theory that some foreign country is involved. “The game and conspiracies by the defeated forces of 1971 are still on,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declares. “We all must remain alert.”

She obviously means Pakistan, although some believe India orchestrated the mutiny. Either way, it is a matter of national security, and the murdered army officers are hailed as martyrs like those who died in the Liberation.

Invoking the Liberation adds meaning to the mutiny. But there is also a less heroic interpretation, that there was no plot, foreign or domestic. The mutineers simply wanted what every Bangladeshi wants: a bigger share of scant and dwindling national resources and a sense of dignity.

The massacre was unconscionable, but the motives behind it are easy to understand. There are violent protests every day across Bangladesh, by farmers, taxi drivers, dockworkers. What if ordinary Bangladeshis, like the BDR mutineers, had access to assault rifles, grenades, mortars? What happens when climate change makes these people ever more desperate?

AMID the squalor and madness, it is easy to forget that Bangladesh’s economy has actually grown in recent years. Clothing exports have doubled since 2004, while annual remittances by Bangladeshis working overseas have tripled. The World Bank claims that 6 million people were “lifted out of poverty” between 2000 and 2005.

Global recession now imperils these modest economic gains. Climate change could wipe out them out entirely, along with decades of development work in Bangladesh and other poor countries worldwide.

Oxfam estimates that the developing world will need $50 billion annually to adapt to climate change. This does not include humanitarian assistance, which Oxfam and others want to see tripled to at least $42 billion annually. Even this might not be enough.

By 2050, there will likely be 200 million climate refugees, according to the International Organization for Migration in Geneva, citing research by Oxford University. Oxfam, among others, it alarmed by the nearer term. It warns: “The predicted scale of humanitarian need by 2015 could completely overwhelm current capacity to respond to emergencies – unless the world acknowledges and responds to the growing threat.”

So will it? Some signs are discouraging. Americans questioned in a January survey by the Pew Research Center put global warming at the bottom of a list of 20 priorities. The top three were the economy, jobs and terrorism. “Helping the poor” was ranked 11th. Tackling “moral decline” was 13th. Climate change was a distraction, viewed as a marginal issue related to either the environment (rainforests, polar bears) or foreign policy (oil, China) and not for what it really is: a matter of human survival.

Bangladeshis will be among the first to be affected by the decisions made, or not, at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. Rich countries are the least affected by a problem they have done the most to cause. But the Global Humanitarian Forum, run by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, calculates they have pledged only $400 million to help poor countries adapt. This, its report notes, is less than the German state of Baden-Württemberg plans to spend on strengthening its flood defenses. California projects $14 billion in costs to shore up its own coastline. Upgrading the Thames Flood Barrier is expected to require $42 billion.

Will Bangladesh become what Saleemul Huq and others hope: a laboratory for adaptation, a global cause? Or will it be a wretched sideshow to the industrialized world’s struggle to protect its own cities, crops, and coastlines? The answer will provide a measure of the rich world’s conscience. Major polluters have a “great responsibility” to protect the world’s poorest, IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri wrote recently. Countries such as Bangladesh are “a warning signal of the greater suffering that lies in store for the rest of us if we fail to tackle climate change together.”

BEFORE leaving Bangladesh, I walk across one of its largest rivers. We are in the parched west, in the old town of Rajshahi. It is on the banks of the Padma, or rather was before the Farakka Barrage. During the dry season, the Padma is a puddle, a strip of water glimpsed beyond a vast riverbed of dunes.

I set out towards the water. It is late afternoon. This is Bangladesh, so even here, where the mighty Padma once flowed, there are crowds of people – strolling families, courting couples, boys playing cricket. I try to imagine millions of refugees one day taking this same route to escape hunger, thirst, and disease. But that’s impossible.

The air is cool and scented with ripening paddy. It is easy to forget that we are all strolling across the scene of an environmental catastrophe. It is easy to get distracted.

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