The Gathering Storm
By the end of the first day, it's already become an ingrained reflex: brace for impact as yet another suicidal rickshaw, luridly painted with pictures of birds, animals, and Bollywood stars, swerves suddenly into our path. Our driver bangs on the horn, shimmies to the right, avoids an onrushing bus by a matter of inches, then calmly resumes his navigation of the demented streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. I relax my death grip on the dashboard and exhale. Mostafizur Rahman Jewel, our translator, raises an eyebrow in amusement.
"No problem," I say, feigning nonchalance. "Piece of cake."
"Piece of cake?"
"It's slang. Something really easy, no sweat. Like not killing that rickshaw-wallah. How do you say that in Bangla?"
"Panir moto shohoj," he answers. "Easy like water."
Easy like water. This is ironic, to say the least, because water, from the rivers, from the ocean, from the ground, is this country's existential curse. Bangladesh and its 150 million people -- the world's seventh-largest population, compressed into an area the size of Iowa -- have somehow contrived to have too much water, too little water, and more and more water of the wrong kind.
The long-range apocalypse facing the country is global warming and the accelerating sea-level rise that will accompany it. Think of the computer-generated image midway through Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which shows an inexorable blue wave engulfing a great swath of coastal Bangladesh. But while the Four Horsemen gather their forces, the daily short-term menace is the steady northward creep of salt from the Bay of Bengal. Today the land is saturated with people; little by little it is also becoming saturated with salt.
It all begins with topography. In his novel The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh, who grew up in Bangladesh, recounts the Hindu legend of how the Ganges Delta was formed. The goddess Ganga, from whom the river takes its name, descended from the heavens with such force that she would have split the earth apart had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent by weaving it into the ash-covered strands of his hair. But then his braids unraveled and the river divided into thousands of channels. Now consider the map of Bangladesh, where three formidable rivers -- the Brahmaputra, the Meghna, and the Ganges (known, once it crosses the Indian border, as the Padma) -- converge to form a vast, tangled delta that I will spend a week exploring with the photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, half on water and half on land. There is no other landscape like it on the planet.
Bangladesh's problem, like Lord Shiva's hair, has many strands. All three of its great rivers rise in the Himalayas, from which they carry a huge load of sediment, made worse in recent years by the deforestation of the Himalayan foothills. Because Bangladesh is as flat as a pool table, most of it no more than a few feet above sea level, the flow of its rivers is sluggish. Riverbeds clog with silt and water levels rise; shorelines erode, swallowing up farmland; islands of sand and mud form, disperse, reform elsewhere. From May to November, the monsoons blanket the country with torrential rain, pushing the rivers over their banks, driving people from their homes, drowning them. Some years Bangladesh is lucky and only a third of its territory is flooded. Sometimes it's half; sometimes it's two-thirds or more.
However, try asking the millions of people in the Ganges Delta if they have too much water -- at least of the kind they can use. Over the last few centuries, the natural course of the sacred river has shifted eastward, redirecting the surge of freshwater that used to dilute the salt inflow from the Bay of Bengal. Siltation has compounded the problem, closing off major rivers such as the Mathabangha, the Bhairab, and the Sialmari, which once channeled much of the flow of the Ganges to the Indian Ocean. Then in 1970, India made things worse by building a diversion dam across the Ganges at Farraka, a few miles short of the border. Indian engineers did this to increase the flow of water into the Hooghly River, which runs through Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata, the old capital of the raj. Their purpose was twofold: to provide a reliable supply of drinking water to the city and to flush out the silt that threatened to block navigation. Each of these natural and man-made changes has deepened Bangladesh's freshwater crisis, as not only the main distributaries but also many of the smaller rivers and channels that used to thread through the Ganges Delta have dried up and disappeared.
It gets worse. There's also the scourge that comes from the other direction, from the Bay of Bengal, in the form of catastrophic floods and cyclones. (One cyclone in 1970 killed 300,000 people; in 1991, another 138,000 died.) And here's another cruel twist: beginning in the 1960s, Bangladesh constructed a huge web of dikes and embankments to protect against flooding. But these have had a perverse effect. A solid wall of earth may stop the rivers from inundating valuable farmlands, but at the same time it blocks drainage on the land side, and that increases flooding and waterlogging. The problem will only worsen with climate change, with heavier monsoon rainfall on the fields and fiercer storm surges on the river. It's a classic double whammy.
Simply put, no country in the world will face greater devastation from global warming, and nowhere will the potential political fallout be harder to manage. Millions of people will be permanently displaced, made into environmental refugees. The great majority of them will be destitute Muslims, and in that regard it's hard not to recall a videotaped message from Osama bin Laden in late 2007, in which he added global warming to the list of plagues that Western countries have inflicted on the Islamic world. Put all this together and, without being alarmist, you can't help but wonder if all these dots may not, over time, begin to join up.
So how bad will it be? How quickly will it happen? And what can we do to stop it? On my second morning in Dhaka, I put these questions to Mozaharul Alam, a senior climate expert at the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, the country's leading think tank on environmental issues.
The air-conditioned offices, where rows of scholarly heads are bent over computer keyboards, offer some relief from the heat and turmoil of the Dhaka streets. Alam -- Babu to his friends -- is a dapper, good-natured man with a neatly trimmed mustache. He chooses his words with care. We toss around some of the numbers that are out there -- the percentage of territory that will be permanently lost, the magnitude of sea-level rise, the mounting intensity of monsoons and cyclones, the number of people who will be driven from their homes.
Alam says he always prefers to err on the side of caution. Climate modeling remains an imprecise science, and some of the projections may be overstated. The government's chief adviser, the prime minister in all but name, has talked of 25 million environmental refugees. That's probably an exaggeration, Alam thinks.
As for the disappearing land, "It's hard to say. Personally I'm not in favor of the language of 'permanent loss.' The hydrological dynamics of this country are very complex, and it hasn't been easy in the past for the models to incorporate things like local rainfall patterns and the infrastructure that's already in place to protect against floods."
We look at a wall map together, tracing a route through the vulnerable coastal regions that I'm planning to visit.
"But the bottom line?" I insist. "The most conservative estimate of how much of Bangladesh is going to be permanently submerged?"
He thinks about it. "Well, at the moment the sea level is rising at about three millimeters a year" -- a little more than one-tenth of an inch -- "but that's going to get worse. The current projections deal with three grades of sea-level rise -- 30 centimeters, 75 centimeters, one meter." He pauses. "Under the most benign of these three scenarios, there's going to be a permanent loss of 12 percent to 15 percent of our surface area, with a present population of five million to seven million." (The United Nations, it's worth noting, projects that by 2015 the country's population will grow by almost a quarter. So make that upper number closer to nine million.)
And that's the most benign scenario.