Thousands of people arrive in Dhaka each day, fleeing river flooding in the north and cyclones in the south. Many of them end up living in the densely populated slum of Korail. And with hundreds of thousands of such migrants already, Dhaka is in no shape to take in new residents. It's already struggling to provide the most basic services and infrastructure.
Yet precisely because Bangladesh has so many problems, it's long served as a kind of laboratory for innovative solutions in the developing world. It has bounced back from crisis after crisis, proving itself far more resourceful than skeptics might have guessed. Dhaka is home to BRAC, the largest nonprofit in the developing world, held up as a model for how to provide basic health care and other services with an army of field-workers. Bangladesh also produced the global micro-finance movement started by Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank.
And believe it or not, it's a population success story as well. To whittle its high birthrate, Bangladesh developed a grassroots family-planning program in the 1970s that has lowered its fertility rate from 6.6 children per woman in 1977 to about 2.4 today—a historic record for a country with so much poverty and illiteracy. Fertility decline has generally been associated with economic improvement, which prompts parents to limit family size so they can provide education and other opportunities to their children. But Bangladesh has been able to reduce fertility despite its lack of economic development.
"It was very hard in the beginning," says Begum Rokeya, 42, a government health worker in the Satkhira District who's made thousands of home visits to persuade newlywed couples to use contraception and plan their family's size. "This is a very conservative country, and men put pressure on women to have lots of children. But they began to see that if they immunized their kids, they wouldn't need to have a bunch of babies just so a few would survive. They like the idea of fewer mouths to feed."
Working in partnership with dozens of NGOs, Bangladesh has made huge strides in educating women and providing them with economic opportunities; female work-participation rates have doubled since 1995. Its economy is growing, helped by its garment-export industry. And Bangladesh has managed to meet an important UN Millennium Development Goal: Infant mortality dropped dramatically between 1990 and 2008, from 100 deaths per 1,000 births to 43—one of the highest improvement rates among low-income countries.
In Dhaka such successes are dwarfed by the overwhelming poverty and the constant influx of villagers, prompting organizations, including BRAC, to get involved in helping village people figure out how to survive in a deteriorating environment. "Our goal is to prevent people from coming to Dhaka in the first place, by helping them adapt and find new ways of making a go of it in their villages," says Babar Kabir, head of BRAC's climate change and disaster management programs. "Big storms like Aila uproot them from the lives they know."
Ibrahim Khalilullah has lost track of how many times he's moved. "Thirty? Forty?" he asks. "Does it matter?" Actually those figures might be a bit low, as he estimates he's moved about once a year his whole life, and he's now over 60. Somehow, between all that moving, he and his wife raised seven children who "never missed a meal," he says proudly. He's a warm, good-natured man, with gray hair cut short and a longish gray beard, and everything he says has a note of joy in it.
Khalilullah is a char dweller, one of the hundreds of thousands of people who inhabit the constantly changing islands, or chars, on the floodplains of Bangladesh's three major rivers—the Padma, Jamuna, and Meghna. These islands, many covering less than a square mile, appear and vanish constantly, rising and falling with the tide, the season, the phase of the moon, the rainfall, and the flow of rivers upstream. Char dwellers will set out by boat to visit friends on another char, only to find that it's completely disappeared. Later they will hear through the grapevine that their friends moved to a new char that had popped up a few miles downstream, built their house in a day, and planted a garden by nightfall. Making a life on the chars—growing crops, building a home, raising a family—is like winning an Olympic medal in adaptation. Char dwellers may be the most resilient people on Earth.
There are tricks to living on a char, Khalilullah says. He builds his house in sections that can be dismantled, moved, and reassembled in a matter of a few hours. He always builds on a raised platform of earth at least six feet high. He uses sheets of corrugated metal for the outside walls and panels of thatch for the roof. He keeps the family suitcases stacked neatly next to the bed in case they're needed on short notice. And he has documents, passed down from his father, that establish his right to settle on new islands when they emerge—part of an intricate system of laws and customs that would prevent a million migrants from the south, say, from ever squatting on the chars. His real secret, he says, is not to think too much. "We're all under pressure, but there's really no point to worry. This is our only option, to move from place to place to place. We farm this land for as long as we can, and then the river washes it away. No matter how much we worry, the ending is always the same."
Even in the best of times, it's a precarious way of life. And these are not the best of times. In Bangladesh climate change threatens not just the coast but also inland communities like Khalilullah's. It could disrupt natural cycles of precipitation, including monsoon rains and the Tibetan Plateau snowfall, both of which feed the major rivers that eventually braid their way through the delta.
But precisely because the country's geography is prone to floods and cyclones, Bangladeshis have gotten a head start on preparing for a climate-changed future. For decades they have been developing more salt-resistant strains of rice and building dikes to keep low-lying farms from being flooded with seawater. As a result, the country has actually doubled its production of rice since the early 1970s. Similarly its frequent cyclones have prompted it to build cyclone shelters and develop early-warning systems for natural disasters. More recently various NGOs have set up floating schools, hospitals, and libraries that keep right on functioning through monsoon season.
"Let me tell you about Bangladeshis," says Zakir Kibria, 37, a political scientist who serves as a policy analyst at Uttaran, an NGO devoted to environmental justice and poverty eradication. "We may be poor and appear disorganized, but we are not victims. And when things get tough, people here do what they've always done—they find a way to adapt and survive. We're masters of 'climate resilience.'"
Muhammad Hayat Ali is a 40-year-old farmer, straight as bamboo, who lives east of Satkhira, about 30 miles upstream of the coast but still within range of tidal surges and the salinity of a slowly rising sea. "In previous times this land was juicy, all rice fields," Ali says, his arm sweeping the landscape. "But now the weather has changed—summer is longer and hotter than it used to be, and the rains aren't coming when they should. The rivers are saltier than before, and any water we get from the ground is too salty to grow rice. So now I'm raising shrimps in these ponds and growing my vegetables on the embankments around them." A decade ago such a pond would have been a novelty; now everyone, it seems, is raising shrimps or crabs and selling them to wholesalers for shipment to Dhaka or abroad.
Sometimes, though, adaptations backfire. Throughout southern Bangladesh, villages and fields are shielded from rivers by a network of dikes built by the government with help from Dutch engineers in the 1960s. During floods the rivers sometimes overflow the dikes and fill the fields like soup bowls. When the flood recedes, the water is trapped. The fields become waterlogged, unusable for years at a time.
Decades ago things got so bad in Satkhira—so many fields were waterlogged, so many farmers out of work—that members of the local community used picks and shovels to illegally cut a 20-yard gap in an embankment, draining a huge field that had been waterlogged for nearly three years. In doing so, they were emulating Bengali farmers of earlier times, who periodically broke their embankments and allowed river water to enter their fields, rising and falling with the tides, until the deposited sediment raised the level of the land. But this time the villagers were charged with breaking the law.
Then a funny thing happened. The field, which had been left open, acquired tons of sediment from the river and grew higher by five or six feet. The river channel deepened, and fishermen began to catch fish again. Finally a government study group came to survey the situation and wound up recommending that other fields be managed the same way. The villagers were vindicated, even hailed as heroes. And today the field is covered with many acres of rice.
"Rivers are a lifeline for this region, and our ancestors knew that," Kibria says as he walks an embankment. "Opening the fields connects everything. It raises the land level to make up for the rise in sea level. It preserves livelihoods and diversifies the kinds of crops that we can grow. It also keeps thousands of farmers and fishermen from giving up and moving to Dhaka."