But every adaptation, no matter how clever, is only temporary. Even at its sharply reduced rate of growth, Bangladesh's population will continue to expand—to perhaps more than 250 million by the turn of the next century—and some of its land will continue to dissolve. Where will all those people live, and what will they do for a living?
Many millions of Bangladeshis are already working abroad, whether in Western countries, in places such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or in India, where millions fled during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence against Pakistan and never returned. Millions more have slipped across the frontier in the decades since, prompting social unrest and conflict. Today India seems determined to close and fortify its border, girding against some future mass migration of the type hypothesized in Washington. It's building a 2,500-mile security fence along the border, and security guards have routinely shot people crossing illegally into India. Interviews with families of victims suggest that at least some of the dead were desperate teenagers seeking to help their families financially. They had been shot smuggling cattle from India, where the animals are protected by Hinduism, to Muslim Bangladesh, where they can fetch up to $40 a head.
But if ten million climate refugees were ever to storm across the border into India, Maj. Gen. Muniruzzaman says, "those trigger-happy Indian border guards would soon run out of bullets." He argues that developed countries—not just India—should be liberalizing immigration policies to head off such a chilling prospect. All around Bangladesh bright, ambitious, well-educated young people are plotting their exit strategies.
And that's not such a bad idea, says Mohammed Mabud, a professor of public health at Dhaka's North South University and president of the Organization for Population and Poverty Alleviation. Mabud believes that investing in educating Bangladeshis would not only help train professionals to work within the country but also make them desirable as immigrants to other countries—sort of a planned brain drain. Emigration could relieve some of the pressure that's sure to slam down in the decades ahead. It's also a way to bolster the country's economy; remittances sent back by emigrants account for 11 percent of the country's GDP. "If people can go abroad for employment, trade, or education and stay there for several years, many of them will stay," he says. By the time climate change hits hardest, the population of Bangladesh could be reduced by 8 to 20 million people—if the government makes out-migration a more urgent priority.
For now, the government seems more interested in making climate adaptation a key part of its national development strategy. That translates, roughly, into using the country's environmental woes as leverage in persuading the industrialized world to offer increased levels of aid. It's a strategy that's helped sustain Bangladesh throughout its short, traumatic history. Since independence, it has received tens of billions of dollars in international aid commitments. And as part of the accord produced at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, nations of the developed world committed to a goal of $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of poor countries on the front lines of climate change. Many in Bangladesh believe its share should be proportionate to its position as one of the countries most threatened.
"Climate change has become a kind of business, with lots of money flying around, lots of consultants," says Abu Mostafa Kamal Uddin, former program manager for the government's Climate Change Cell. "During the global financial meltdown, trillions of dollars were mobilized to save the world's banks," he says. "What's wrong with helping the poor people of Bangladesh adapt to a situation we had nothing to do with creating?"
Two years after the cyclone, Munshiganj is still drying out. Nasir Uddin and his neighbors are struggling to wring the salt water out of their psyches, rebuild their lives, and avoid being eaten by the tigers that prowl the village at night, driven from the adjacent Sundarbans mangrove forest in search of easy prey. Attacks have risen as population and environmental pressures have increased. Dozens of residents around Munshiganj have perished or been wounded in recent years—two died the week I was there—and some of the attacks occurred in broad daylight.
"It's bad here, but where else can we go?" Uddin says, surveying the four-foot-high mud platform where he's planning to rebuild his house with an interest-free loan from an NGO. This time he's using wood, which floats, instead of mud. The rice fields around his house are full of water, much of it brackish, and most local farmers have begun raising shrimps or crabs in the brine. Deep wells in the village have gone salty too, he says, forcing people to collect rainwater and apply to NGOs for a water ration, which is delivered by truck to a tank in the village and carried home in aluminum jugs, usually balanced on the heads of young women. "You should take a picture of this place and show it to people driving big cars in your country," says Uddin's neighbor Samir Ranjan Gayen, a short, bearded man who runs a local NGO. "Tell them it's a preview of what South Florida will look like in 40 years."
As the people of Munshiganj can attest, there's no arguing with the sea, which is coming for this land sooner or later. And yet it's hard to imagine millions of Bangladeshis packing up and fleeing en masse to India, no matter how bad things become. They'll likely adapt until the bitter end, and then, when things become impossible, adapt a little more. It's a matter of national mentality—a fierce instinct for survival combined with a willingness to put up with conditions the rest of us might not.
Abdullah Abu Sayeed, a literacy advocate, explains it this way: "One day I was driving on one of the busiest streets in Dhaka—thousands of vehicles, all of them in a hurry—and I almost ran over a little boy, no more than five or six years old, who was fast asleep on the road divider in the middle of traffic. Cars were whizzing by, passing just inches from his head. But he was at peace, taking a nap in some of the craziest traffic in the world. That's Bangladesh. We are used to precarious circumstances, and our expectations are very, very low. It's why we can adapt to just about anything."