With a small paper fan, Morjina stirred the treacly air inside the room that she shared with her husband and two small daughters. On the ground level of a two-storey shack complex erected by an enterprising slumlord, we were encased by corrugated tin lashed to bamboo poles, which amplified an outdoor temperature hovering in the mid-thirties.
The family had moved to the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka a year ago, after struggling to support themselves in a southwestern home village dogged by heightened salinity in the soil and water, which was dragging down farm yields and the entire local economy.
The rice paddies amid which Morjina grew up had been steadily replaced by shrimp farms, better suited to the saline conditions but requiring far less labour and often owned by rich outsiders. “If I tried to wash in the water from our local stream, it was so salty it stung my skin,” she said, a bright red-gold headscarf thrown over a face that had weathered more than a 23-year-old’s fair share of upheaval.
So, in the crowded slum district of Bauniabadh, another young family had joined the countless thousands streaming into a capital city that is already, according to some estimates, the world’s most densely populated.
Bangladesh is about as vulnerable to climate change as any country in the world, routinely ranked near the top of grim rankings on that theme. It has double the population of Germany, squeezed into a land area smaller than Alabama – of which two thirds is less than 5 metres above sea level.
Several factors have conspired to create the salinity crisis in Morjina’s home district. Obstructions in India to the Ganges river have slowed the flow of Bangladesh’s Padma, meaning sea water can push far inland at high tide.
But climate change is now the major long-term threat to Bangladesh’s coastal regions. Inexorable sea level rise – already locked in, whatever the outlook for carbon emissions – will keep pushing up salinity levels while driving increasingly severe flooding. Increased heat energy in the atmosphere and oceans will make cyclones like Aila ever more frequent and ferocious. More powerful sea surges during storms will keep boosting the salinity while turbo-charging the erosion eating away at many coastal villages.
All this is set to push the country’s internal migration onto a new level. Last year the World Bank predicted that more than 13 million Bangladeshis could be displaced by climate change in the next three decades. Many are expected to pour into Dhaka, seeking work in its smoky brick kilns or garment factories churning out clothes for Western shoppers.
Experts I spoke to in the capital were aghast at the prospect, warning that Dhaka’s slums are already dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary, with children contracting cholera in their thousands.
“If the authorities can’t even cope with the situation now, then what is their strategy?” said Abdus Shaheen, country head for Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor, an NGO. “What is their plan?”
About 30 miles east of Morjina’s home district lies the port of Mongla, a rough-edged place with the feel of a frontier town. It’s split into two by a river, which can be crossed on wobbly wooden barges for 3 taka (4 US cents) each way.
Under searing sunshine I crossed the river, bracing myself against the boat’s rim for fear of falling in, before jumping onto the jetty and then a flat wooden pallet pulled by an electric cycle rickshaw. After a few skull-juddering minutes it pulled up to the town administration building, where I had an appointment with the mayor.
Like many opposition politicians in Bangladesh, Mohammad Zulfikar Ali is defending himself against criminal charges. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina is widely accused of presiding over a crackdown on democratic freedom - notably at last December’s general election, which was decried by watchdogs as a rigged farce. As the polls approached, the opposition Bangladesh National Party came under fierce pressure from the justice system. Its leader Khaleda Zia has now been detained for 16 months.
Mongla’s mayor has stayed clear of prison so far, but he said he’s still fighting bizarre charges of breaking a picture of the prime minister, brought against him last year. There were at least no signs of damage to the portraits displayed high on his office wall – in line with official edict – of Sheikh Hasina and her sternly mustachioed father, the country’s first president.
Still, Ali seemed less worried about his liberty than he was excited about the plans afoot to develop Mongla, which seems have become an arena for the regional rivalry between India and China.
During a visit to Bangladesh in 2017, Chinese president Xi Jinping oversaw a $550m deal to modernise the Mongla port. Over 100 acres of the town’s land, meanwhile, is being turned into an entirely Indian industrial zone, with operations from agri-processing to chemical production.
Where others despair at the prospect of a climate refugee influx, Ali is excitedly gearing up for the arrival of new residents from nearby districts seeking work. “The population of this place is going to double,” Ali told me happily, a shy, chubby man with bulldog jowls.
Mongla has just become the pilot project for a new scheme from Dhaka-based ICCCAD, the country’s most important organisation for climate-change related work. ICCCAD wants to develop 20 migrant-friendly towns across the country, providing a new life for the millions of expected climate refugees and avoiding catastrophic pressure on Dhaka. Ali is working with them to develop schemes for housing, schools and health facilities to support thousands of expected new arrivals from the troubled surrounding region.
While it might provide a relative haven for people from the most vulnerable coastal regions, Mongla itself is firmly in the firing line of climate threats. Weeks before I arrived, thousands of its people had spent three days hunkered down in the town’s schools, to ride out the latest cyclone. That storm passed without casualties in the town, but Ali is looking at ways to beef up the town’s defences against increasingly powerful storms.
Rising sea levels present another threat, which he has tried to counter with the most ambitious project of his eight years in power – a 12km-long embankment, 3.5 metres high, which snakes its way along the river on Mongla’s south bank. Ali took me for a brisk walk along it, with a minion trotting alongside him holding a parasol.
Well paved and lined with slender young trees, it reminded me of riverside parks in South Korea, except for the ducks and goats occasionally wandering onto it from adjacent farms. More important than its aesthetic merits, said Ali and others I spoke to in Mongla, the embankment has dramatically reduced the frequent waterlogging that used to dog the town. “The flooding was driving many people to move away,” Ali said. “I remember kids fishing in the streets.”
Now, he said, Mongla was far better prepared for the force of climate change – and for the thousands of new residents he expected to course in from a surrounding region in growing distress.
Whether Ali gets to see his vision through will depend largely on how well he navigates the country’s hazardous political system. But despite the photo-smashing charges, he insisted that he’d forged a strong partnership with the local ruling party lawmaker, who was recently appointed the country’s deputy minister for environment and climate change.
“We’re now in a position where people want to collaborate on this, whatever their political background,” he said. “Climate change is affecting all of us.”