Bangladesh, home to 150 million, is the seventh most populous country in the world, although it's only about the size of Louisiana. Most of Bangladesh is less than 40 feet above sea level. For many months each year more than ten percent of the country's surface area is water. In 1988, and again in 1998, more than half of the country was flooded. With sea level expected to rise up to three feet in this century, an additional ten to twenty percent of Bangladesh could be permanently lost, displacing millions of people and destroying farmlands and fresh water supplies.
Ainun Nishat, Bangladesh's representative to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, calls his country, where droughts, heat waves and floods are common, "nature's laboratory on natural disaster." Nonetheless, he complains that foreign non-governmental organizations over-emphasize the hazards of the slow and steady climb of sea level as a possible catalyst to future refugees and chaos. "I believe that's Western agenda," he says, "not Bangladesh's agenda." Nishat says the world has underestimated how resilient his country will be in the face of adversity, such as the natural disasters, its people have faced for millennia. He says his country will develop the necessary infrastructure to protect its people from the slow but inexorable rise of the sea.
Experts say it will take a concerted effort and billions upon billions of dollars for Bangladesh to adapt to the new conditions being brought by global warming. Among the ideas being discussed include creating and introducing new crops like rice bred to withstand saltier water. One researcher thinks floating gardens made of packed water hyacinths might help. An architect in Dhaka is building a fleet school boats. Some people are suggesting ways to capture sediment flowing through the Bangla Delta before it goes out to sea and using it to counter the effects of rising water.
Daniel Grossman explores how Bangladeshis are innovating and dealing with raising waters and river erosion in Dhaka and beyond.