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The Gathering Storm

Rice paddies emerge from the early morning  mist near the town of Chuknagar in southern Bangladesh.
Rice paddies emerge from the early morning mist near the town of Chuknagar in southern Bangladesh.
What Happens When Global Warming Turns Millions of Destitute Muslims Into Environmental Refugees?

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.

image of gblack
George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >

Always blame the rich countries. Why is it that everyone wants to blame the U.S and other countries. Third world countries are just as much to blame. From China that is killing its own rivers and polluting its own air. To india that use wood to cook with and dumps their trash every where. To Africa who also uses wood to cook and even though they don't have food they still manage to have about 10-15 kids.
The Koto agreement proves this point by telling the Americans to lower their Greenhouse gases but allowing China because its a developing country not to do anything.
Its my belief that China is the biggest human rights violator and biggest polluters of this century. They should be held to the same responsibilities that everyone else is.

Extreme poverty and Madarsa education in Bangladesh are posing problems to the comparatively rich India in the form of exporting terrorism and people.
Recent explosions in India are a case in point.

in response to eric. there is a huge difference between countries like the u.s. and european nations where people are making a CHOICE to live in an environmentally unconsicous and greedy way. while people in china and india are burning wood because that's ALL they can afford to do. have you ever been to china or india? go there, then talk about it. beside that, the u.s. and western nations have been pumping greenhouse gases into the environment for decades not to mention all the other crap we've been doing for a long time. like above ground nuclear testing in the south pacific in the 50s. read about the Marshall islands and what happened to the people there because the u.s. government wanted to find out how large a nuclear device they could manufacture. wake up and get some perspective on the issue. don't deceive yourself, don't make excuses and take responbility for it.

as somebody who travels to asia every year (maybe not this year because of fuel prices) and the imperative to conserve, middle class chinese are MUCH more environmentally aware than their US middle class peers....almost everybody has solar water heater and has for some time....a lot of people have five story apartments, I was just reading that some architect in US just proposed something similar to save land and it was "revolutionary"; in the countryside in China, of course, poor people, just like the growing number of poor here do not have envir. conservation as their first priority, that is supposed to be the role of neocons reframe this as "free market", or you're on your own....just like "globalization" is fine as long as we're winning....and then, now that we're not, we've become xenophobic, isolationist, and protectionist....under dubya.....mcbush would continue these policies, the sooner gm goes under, the better, as they sell chinese 30 yr old technology or getting rid of old crap, so they hopefully cannot compete, not realizing china will just revert to coal and exacerbate the climate crisis....people are not going to immediately stop populating this plant, so we need to really innovate....and fast....we cannot grow food any faster, most countries are already triple cropping and dubya pays farmers here to grow corn for ethanol or not at all!!!!!!

I agree the pollution in China is a problem, but have you tried to find toys in the US not made in China? or any other consumer goods?

If we curbed our consumption appetites and were willing to pay what it would cost for needed goods to be made in the US, we would have more jobs, more tax money to convert to sustainable resources and there would not need to be new coal plants in China.

he 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. love poems

I have to wonder if some people reading ‘The Gathering Storm’ may be missing the real threat pointed to in the article? As pointed out in the text the radical Muslim is making great headway into the Muslim world and is properly applying its resources by brain washing the worlds’ poor. This is what I see as the storm warning in the article – CHANGE YOUR WAY OR GET OUT OF THE WAY! It won’t be a political solution as much as a radical religious solution that brings down the western view of use of the planet.

Having grown up with the ‘threat of communism’ I seem to see the same thing taking place again; but with a most powerful difference, GOD! Communism could not truly win the peasant with its denial of the peasants God, but the radical Muslim has a much better equation!

The article's author, George Black, mentions research being done on rice that can grow in higher salinity areas--India has had such rice for decades, after their canals began salinating the land.

he also refers to "money...coming in from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries to build mosques... Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic political party, is very strong here. It's part of an international network." This plague on basically sufi/tolerate your neighbors Bangladesh ahs been going on ever since the country won independence from Pakistan in 1971. For more than a decade, despite academics warning about it, the move had been ignored or even denied by US government ambassadorial officials. Finally, the US had to face the muzak adn admit it, after assassinations and bombings began to run amuck. Mr. Black should have visited Comilla, where he could have seen ricksha backboard paintings of Osama bin Laden.

There is a large population of hindus living in the Sunderbans area of West Bengal. Climate change will not selectively target muslims or any religion for that matter. After experiencing severe cyclones, Bangladesh has done a lot to build storm shelters as also evacuate people when cyclonic warnings are issued. Cyclone Sidr is a case in point. The casualties were relatively low for a storm of that intensity and swath. On the other hand India inspite of having more resources is waiting for a tragedy to happen. Given the fact that water levels as also ground levels are rising, it would be worth considering a planned migration of the population northwards. Thius will have tremendous social, economic and environmental impact as the density of population of both West Bengal and Bangladesh is the highest in the world. There is however no alternative.

I would just like to point out a very small discrepancy in your report. i don't think the paintings you saw on the rickshaws are those of Bollywood stars. They are more likely stars from Dhaka's film industry (sometimes popularly called Dhaliwood). The rickshaw-pullers have to work from early morning to late at night to make enough money to feed their families for the day and the only form of entertainment they ever get is the low-budget commercial films made in Dhaka that deal with romance, social injustice and violence. And they feel very passionately about these films. In the films, the bad guys (the rich and powerful who exploit the poor always lose). While in real life, their fight goes on.

Hana -- thanks for that information! Sounds a little like the "blaxploitation" cinema that flourished in the States in the 1970s, like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft. It'd be great to have a look at the genre you mention; love to hear a recommendation or two.

i agree with both halfmonk and erik and the author of this article. i live in bangladesh and i know whats happening here. india and china is poor and wood is all they can afford. but that doesnt mean china should keep polluting the air. lots of people go to china to build a factory cuz they dont want to spend all their money on filteration on their factory waste and air. so, people should reduce the amount of pollution if they cant stop. have u guys been to beijing? the friggin air is like black. breathing there is like breathing in a smoking room in an airport. people should just stop pollution.

Dear George Black,

Thanks for telling the truth as you see it and for speaking out loudly, clearly and often about what everyone knows but precious few will say.

As you know better than most of us, "denial" is not only a river in Egypt. However we choose to look at the taxonomy of denial, you help us easily see that many too many leaders are collusively engaged in its practice. Even though it is perverse, denial is consensually validated behavior. If enough elite people remain in denial, something more, something illusory...can be put in place of what is more real and somehow likely to be more truthful.

Doing good work along the path toward a good enough future for children will not be an easy task for anybody. Evidently, everybody wants to be a somebody, but nobody in a position of power willingly assumes the requisite responsibilities and performs the duties of office. Such so-called 'leadership' is both ubiquitous and woefully inadequate.

Occasionally a great person can be found who goes against the tide of people with power who uniformly favor whatsoever is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable and religiously tolerated.

Certainly I share the view that everyone-in-power's silence with regard to what is happening in any "here and now" moment of space-time is the most formidable foe that the family of humanity faces.



Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

If a viable way is not found soon and immediately implemented to humanely accelerate the current decline in human fertility rates worldwide, other 'essential' concerns will likely not take on the significance they do now?

The current gargantuan scale and unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers in our time is the global challenge that dwarfs all other human-driven threats to human wellbeing and environmental health.

Please examine the science of human population dynamics.

How can we ably address the global challenges that appear to be driven by the overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities of the human species worldwide if the brightest and best among us choose to remain willfully blind, hysterically deaf and electively mute when the best available scientific evidence indicates at least one of the root causes of what is threatening humanity and life as we know it in our time?

I suppose it is a function of advanced age, but my conscience is screaming and I am becoming impatient with blogmeisters who hold powerful positions in the mass media, but willfully refuse to do all that can be done to disclose the best available science (rather than cloak peer-reviewed evidence in silence) of a potentially colossal threat to human wellbeing and environmental health which is presented to all of us... and precipitated by all of the form of grave and ominous global ecological challenges.

Will the leaders of the human community be allowed to keep adamantly advocating and relentlessly pursuing so potentially ruinous a road to the future, while everyone else silently consents to these leaders' egregious behavior and follows them down the soon to become patently unsustainable "primrose path" we are now taking?

I am a psychologist. In our ethical code psychologists are instructed that there are rare occasions when we have a "duty to warn", for example, when life is in imminent danger. It appears to me as if the very future of life as we know it is being put at risk now by the proverbial "mother" of global challenges: the human overpopulation of Earth. If the human-driven global predicament looming on the horizon does not meet the standard for warning, perhaps I no longer see what set of circumstances would warrant the performance of such a duty.

I do not know if I am right or wrong to ask directly and repeatedly for truth, as each of us sees it, to be spoken loudly and clearly so that people can better share an understanding of the global emergency the human family could soon confront. But it does appear to me that if people with knowledge lose faith in God's gift of science by denying its presence, embracing silence and remaining electively mute while selfish, shortsighted leaders go forward on the basis of specious preternatural thinking, then the human community has virtually no chance of responding ably to the human-induced challenges before all of us.

Perhaps I am mistaken about the scientific research to which I draw attention. If that is shown to be case, I will end the AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population immediately. I make all of you the promise that from that moment forward you will not hear from me again. Given the human-forced global challenges that appear to be converging before humankind currently, it will just fine if it turns out that I am indeed the fool so many people take me for now. Such an outcome has certain benefits. Fool that I am, still I will be free of a "duty to warn" and gratefully released to fulfill the promise I made years ago to my long-suffering spouse: end the AWAREness Campaign I began in 2001.

I am trying to encourage the lighting of candles because the darkness enveloping the "primrose path" many too many misguided leaders are trodding is anathema to me.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

DEMOGRAPHIC TRANSITION: FACT OR FICTION? Please see below a note from a friend on the widely shared and consensually validated pseudoscience regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation (in quotation marks), followed by my comment on the scientific finding regarding food supply and human population numbers from the research of two outstanding scientists, Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel. "I agree that the Theory of Demographic Transition is just that, a convenient theory that holds out the promise of lower fertility in nations in due time if they just hop on the capitalistic development bandwagon. It's a non-threatening and positive theory and it's potentially good for business for the developed world. All one need do is take a look at population growth statistics, (2009 CIA table) and per capita income statistics of countries, and one can observe that a relatively wealthy country does not necessarily have a low population growth rate. Examples are US, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Kuwait, Bahrain and more. It can also be observed that many of the more developed and thus more wealthy and educated countries, mostly in Europe, have below replacement fertility (Italy, Germany, Japan). Many countries with a predominant religion furthering large family size have larger population growth rates like the Arab countries. The following paper concludes that "..that indicators of education, health, and family planning program effort have a significant independent effect on fertility" and that "No significant impact can be attributed to indicators of economic development once family planning efforts and social development indicators are held constant." Yet the National Geographic January 2011 issue on "Population - 7 Billion" features the Demographic Transition Theory, though it does briefly admit that fertility in some countries has fallen dramatically without significant economic development. Bangladesh is a major example. As I see it, in the absence of religious or social pressures, most people would prefer smaller families as they can better provide for them. Given the education and means to control their fertility they will readily try to do so. In many developing countries, the ubiquitous radio is the major source of news and entertainment. The presence of only a few radio stations makes this an ideal medium for education and behavioral change. Organizations such as Population Media Center and Population Communications International have been very effective on a per dollar basis in getting listeners to their culturally-sensitive soap operas educated on family planning advantages and seeking means to help them control their fertility." The food availability-population growth finding from the research of Hopfenberg and Pimentel shows us that there is NO demographic transition, NO population stabilization, NO benign end to population growth a mere four decades from now. That is the problem with the theory, which is preternatural not scientific and descriptive not predictive. Scientific evidence directly contradicts the demographic transition theory and indicates that human population dynamics could be essentially similar to the population dynamics of other species. More food equals more human organisms; less food equals less human organisms; and no food equals no humans. Skyrocketing absolute global human population numbers in the past 65 years provide bold and unmistakeable evidence of this fact. I fear that when the explosive growth of the food supply for human consumption we have witnessed during my lifetime can no longer be sustained by a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth, and comes to an end much sooner than any one of us would want, I believe this relationship between food and population numbers will become much easier for the people to see. And at that future moment in space-time people are not, definitely not going to like what they are seeing, I suppose. I also believe that at that time those with responsibilities to assume and duties to perform will look back in anger and utter disbelief at what those in my not-so-great generation have overlooked and denied, for a variety of self-serving excuses.