With rising Islamic fundamentalism, weak government, and not enough dry land for its 150 million people, Bangladesh could use a break. Instead, it must face the catastrophic threat of climate change.

Atop the Bay of Bengal, the numberless braids of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers have formed the world’s largest, youngest estuarine delta and one of its most dynamic. It is, in effect, the world’s biggest flush toilet. Once a year, over the space of four months, God yanks the handle. First comes the snowmelt in the Himalayas, swelling the three great rivers. Then, in June, comes the monsoon from the south, up from the Bay of Bengal.

Calamity threatens when the amount of water arriving by river, sea, or sky is tampered with, whether by God or by humans. India, for example, is appropriating Ganges water for irrigation schemes, limiting freshwater flows into Bangladesh from the north, causing drought. Meanwhile, to the south, in the Bay of Bengal, global warming appears to be causing a rise in sea levels that is bringing salt water and sea-based cyclones farther inland. Salinity—the face of global warming in Bangladesh— threatens trees and crops and contaminates wells. And the less fresh river water that comes down from India, the greater the hydrologic vacuum that sucks salt water northward into the countryside.

Yet Bangladesh is less interesting as a hydrologic horror show than as a model of how humankind copes with an extreme natural environment. Weather and geography have historically worked here to cut one village off from another. Central government arrived only with the Turkic Moguls in the 16th century, but neither they nor their British successors truly penetrated the countryside. The major roads were all built after independence in 1971. This is a society that never waited for a higher authority to provide it with anything. The isolation effected by floodwaters and monsoon rains has encouraged institutions to develop at the local level. As a result, the political culture of rural Bangladesh is more communal than hierarchical, and women play a significant role.

Four hours’ drive northwest of Dhaka, the capital, I found a village in a Muslim-Hindu area where the women had organized themselves into separate committees to produce baskets and textiles and invest the profits in new wells and latrines. They had it all figured out, showing me on a crude cardboard map where the new facilities would be installed. They received help from a local nongovernmental organization that, in turn, had a relationship with CARE. But the organizational heft was homegrown.

In a mangrove swamp in the southwest, at a fishing village of bamboo-thatched huts, I watched a local NGO perform a play about climate change. It emphasized the need to conserve rainwater through catchments and to plant trees against erosion. Hundreds of villagers were there. I was the only foreigner. Afterward, they showed me the catchments that they had already built to direct rainwater into their wells.

Through similar bottom-up, purely voluntary means, the total fertility rate in Bangladesh has been cut from seven children born per woman after independence to three now—a striking achievement, given the value placed on children as laborers in a traditional agricultural society. Polio had been eradicated, before a recent reinfection from India. Despite all of Bangladesh’s predicaments, it has gone from starving in the mid-1970s to feeding itself for the past two decades.

The credit for coping so well rests ultimately with NGOs. As familiar as their work now is, NGOs in Bangladesh represent a whole new organizational life-form; thousands of them fill the void between village committees and a remote, badly functioning central government.

Of course, this enhanced role raises ethical questions, not least because many of these Bangladeshi humanitarian enterprises have for-profit elements. Take Muhammad Yunus, who, along with his Grameen Bank, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering micro-credit schemes for poor women: Grameen also operates a cell-phone and Internet service. Then there is the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, which, besides doing bounteous relief and development work, operates dairy, poultry, and clothing businesses. Its head offices, like those of Grameen, are in a skyscraper that is some of Dhaka’s most expensive real estate. Yet to focus on the impurities of these NGOs is to ignore their transformative powers.

“One thing led to another,” explains Mushtaque Chowdhury, BRAC’s deputy executive director. “In order not to be dependent on Western charities, we set up our own for-profit printing press in the 1970s. Then we built a plant to pasteurize milk from the cattle bought by poor women with the loans we had provided them.” Now they’ve become a kind of parallel government, with a presence in 60,000 villages.

Just as cell phones have allowed developing countries to make an end run around the need for a hard-wired communications grid, Bangladesh shows how NGOs can make an end run around dysfunctional governments. Because Bangladeshi NGOs are supported by international donors, they have been indoctrinated with international norms to an extent unmatched by the private sector here.

The linkage between a global community on one hand and a village community on the other has made Bangladeshi NGOs intensely aware of the worldwide significance of their country’s environmental plight. “Come, come, I will show you the climate change,” said Mohon Mondal, a local NGO worker in the southwest, referring to a bridge that had partially collapsed because of rising seawater. To some degree, this awareness feeds a mind-set in which every eroded embankment becomes an indictment against the United States for walking away from the Kyoto accords. (Muslim Bangladeshis are in almost every other way pro-American—the upshot of their historical dislike for their former colonial master, Great Britain; frequent intimidation by nearby India and China; and lingering hostility toward Pakistan stemming from the 1971 war for liberation.) But regardless of the merits of this case, the United States can’t just defend its own position. As the world’s greatest power, the U.S. must be seen to take the lead against global warming, or suffer the fate of being blamed for it. Bangladesh demonstrates how developing-world misery has acquired—in the form of climate change—a powerful new argument, tied to the more fundamental outcry for justice and dignity.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy. His latest book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground.

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