The monsoon arrived while I was in a shallow-draft boat traveling over a village that was now underwater. In its place was a mile-wide channel, created by erosion over the years, separating the mainland of Bangladesh from a char—a temporary delta island that would someday dissolve just as easily as it had formed.
As ink-dark, vertical cloud formations slid in from the Bay of Bengal, waves began slapping hard against the rotting wood of our small boat. Breaking days of dense, soupy heat, rain fell like nails upon us. We started bailing. The boatman, my translator, and I made it to the char before the channel water that was splashing into the hull, heavy with silt, could threaten the boat’s buoyancy. It was a lot of work just to see something that was no longer there.
On another day, in order to see a series of dam collapses that had forced the evacuation of more than a dozen villages, I rode on the back of a motorcycle along a maze of embankments framing a checkerwork of paddy fields that glinted in the steamy rain. Again, the sight that greeted me—a few crumbled earthen dams—was not dramatic, unless, that is, you were holding the “before” picture in front of you.
Yet from one end of Bangladesh to the other, I saw plenty of drama, encapsulated in this singular fact: remoteness and fragility of terrain never once corresponded with a paucity of humanity. Even on the chars, I could not get away from people cultivating every inch of alluvial soil. Human beings were everywhere on this dirty wet sponge of a landscape. Squeezed into an Iowa-sized territory—20 to 60 percent of which floods every year—is a population half the size of that in the United States and larger than the one in Russia. Indeed, Bangladesh’s Muslim population alone (83 percent of the total) is nearly twice that of either Egypt or Iran. Considered small only because it is surrounded on three sides by India, Bangladesh is actually a vast aquascape, where getting around by boat and vehicle, as I learned, can take many days.
I went through towns that had a formal reality as names on a map, but were little more than rashes of rusted-corrugated-iron and bamboo stalls under canopies of jackfruit trees, teeming with men wearing skirt-like lungis and baseball caps and women in burkas that concealed all but their eyes and noses. Between the towns were long lines of water-filled pits, topped with a green froth of hyacinths; the soil had been removed to raise the road a few feet above the unrelieved sea-level flatness. Soil is a commodity so precious in Bangladesh that people dredge riverbeds during the dry season to get more of it. When houses are dismantled, the ground on which they stand is transported through slurry pipes to the new location.
In every respect, people were squeezing the last bit of use out of the land. One day I saw a man carried by on a stretcher moments after he had been mauled by a Royal Bengal tiger. It is not an uncommon occurrence. As fishing communities crowd in on one of the tigers’ last refuges in the mangrove swamps of the western Bangladeshi-Indian border area, and as salinity from rising sea levels reduces the deer population on which the tigers feed, man and tiger have nowhere else to go.
The Earth has always been unstable. Flooding and erosion, cyclones and tsunamis are the norm rather than the exception. But never have the planet’s most environmentally frail areas been so crowded. The slowdown in the growth rate of the world’s population has not changed the fact that the number of people living in the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters continues to increase. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 was merely a curtain-raiser. Over the coming decades, Mother Nature is likely to kill or make homeless a staggering number of people.
American journalists sometimes joke that, in terms of news, thousands of people displaced by floods in Bangladesh equals a handful of people killed or displaced closer to home. But that formula is now as unimaginative and out-of-date as it is cruel.
With 150 million people packed together at sea level, Bangladesh is vulnerable to the slightest climatic variation, never mind the changes caused by global warming. The partial melting of Greenland ice over the course of the 21st century could inundate a substantial amount of Bangladesh with salt water. A 20-centimeter rise in the Bay of Bengal by 2030 could be devastating to more than 10 million people, says Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.
While scholars debate the odds of such scenarios, one thing is certain: Bangladesh is the most likely spot on the planet for one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in history. The country’s future, however, and the fate of its impoverished millions, will be determined not necessarily by rising sea levels, but by their interaction with, among other things, the growth of religious fundamentalism, the behavior of its neighbors and other outside powers, and the evolution of democracy. So, I came to Bangladesh.