Nomads of the Tides How Bangladesh Is Preparing for Climate Change

Dutch engineers are helping people in Bangladesh build dikes, polders and water-retaining structures to protect them against recurring floods. Despite climate change, the country could even grow. Ultimately, though, the greatest threat in Bangladesh comes not from water but from political chaos.


Fortunato Carvajal Monar is in the land-making business. And this Saturday morning is shaping up to be the beginning of a good workday.

The sun strikes the dirty water of the Ganges River, causing it to sparkle in golden colors. Carvajal Monar jumps energetically from a speedboat onto the sand. He walks a few steps before reaching an odd-looking ledge, which had already attracted his attention when he saw it through binoculars.

The ledge is half a meter (about a foot and a half) tall. Light-colored lines of sand are sandwiched between layers of dark clay. Carvajal Monar sticks his ballpoint pen into the soil to test the consistency of the material. "Less than a year old," the 59-year-old hydraulic engineer succinctly concludes.

He tugs on the coarse tufts of dune grass that have become established in the soft soil. "This island developed very recently," he says. Vast amounts of sediment were washed up during the last flood, and based on his experience, says Carvajal Monar, "the island will continue to grow."

A native of Colombia, Carvajal Monar has often stepped onto new land in this nation, which everyone says is doomed. He works for the Dutch consulting company Royal Haskoning in Bangladesh, a country that is considered to be one of the biggest victims of climate change.

Carvajal Monar sometimes finds the doomsday scenarios surprising. They simply do not coincide with his experiences in Bangladesh. "This country has tremendous opportunities to grow," says Carvajal Monar, as he spreads out an older map and points to the Bay of Bengal. "Down here, for example, not much on this map is correct anymore."

The country is as ephemeral as human life. "Land is disappearing everywhere, but new land is taking shape elsewhere," says Carvajal Monar. "The problem is that the politicians here lack a long-term strategy of gaining, developing and protecting new land." His fingers slide farther south along the map, far out into the Bay of Bengal, where the light color indicating water turns to a dark blue. This represents the beginning of the continental slope, where the ocean floor plunges hundreds of meters and, along with it, 2.4 billion tons of unused sediment that the great rivers in Bangladesh, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna, flush through their kilometer-wide riverbeds. Carvajal Monar has calculated that a year's worth of this sediment is enough to create 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) of new land.

"Nowadays," he says, "most of the sediment simply disappears into the deep sea." This, according to Carvajal Monar, is practically a mortal sin in a country that should have started a program long ago to use the fertile silt, mica and clay to protect its coastline, thereby protecting future generations from drowning.

It's no accident that he works for a Dutch engineering firm. The Netherlands and Bangladesh share a similar fate. Both countries are flat and much of their territory is below sea level, which constantly forces them to protect themselves against flooding. "In the Netherlands, this has long been seen as an opportunity, not a threat," says Carvajal Monar.

In fact, hydrologically speaking the Netherlands is a country that shouldn't even exist. But skillful engineering has guaranteed the Dutch a successful existence. Polders, dikes and water-retaining structures protect its territory against the sea. According to Carvajal Monar, "this is precisely what we could do in Bangladesh, but unfortunately we're moving forward far too slowly."

Aside from the morphological parallels, the Netherlands and Bangladesh have little in common. The Muslim country in the eastern corner of the Indian subcontinent, which liberated itself from Pakistan in a bloody war in the early 1970s, has been eaten up by a corrupt kleptocracy that was ousted in a military coup in January. An interim government controlled by generals rules the country today. The chaos in politics extends deep into ministries and the government bureaucracy, postponing decisions -- a great impediment to the construction of new structures to protect against flooding.

The Netherlands is already paying for a series of projects designed to protect the country's vulnerable flanks along the coast and riverbanks. A diagram outlining one of these projects is on a pinboard in Carvajal Monar's office in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. It is a plan that could expand the country's landmass by several square kilometers. In the Meghna delta region, through which up to 160,000 cubic meters (5.6 million cubic feet) of water flow every second, Carvajal Monar wants to connect newly formed islands with dams. The structure would force the river to deposit large amounts of sediment along its edges. "But the project has stalled," Carvajal Monar complains. "And that in a country of 150 million people where agricultural land is shrinking by one percent a year."

Things are moving forward at a faster pace in Hatia. Once they were two small islands in the Meghna delta, but then Dutch engineers came along and helped the Bangladeshis connect the northernmost of the two islands with the mainland. Now bulldozers are digging trenches to form the characteristic rectangular polder structure familiar to every tourist who has been to the Netherlands -- the difference being that in Bangladesh banana trees are planted on the dikes instead of poplars.

Zulfiquer Azeez is one of the engineers who, under the supervision of Carvajal Monar, is responsible for the construction work. He is familiar with the Netherlands' green rectangularity from a visit to the country a few years ago. "But here we would never dream of building golf courses on the newly reclaimed land," says Azeez, a 41-year-old Bangladeshi. "Almost every bit of it is used for fields."

A bulldozer is pushing the gray, sticky soil together. Only a few meters away, women from the village kneel in front of a piece of corrugated metal and turn red chili peppers to dry in the sun. The dike will soon protect the people here from spring floods and the giant waves that are regularly whipped up by cyclones. A protective bunker on stilts is as much a part of the basic equipment of the polder as its drainage ditches. "Without them," Azeez explains, "the land would become salinized."

But even the unprotected land in front of the dike is put to use as soon as it protrudes only about a foot above the water level. One of the daring is Shamsun Nahar, whose bamboo hut stands on a small earthen hill like a Third World version of the small islands in the North Friesian mud flats known as Halligen. She farms the fertile alluvial soil with her four children, and calls it "a gift from Allah." Nahar arrived here only a few months ago. Her husband works in the country's southeast, either on the docks or as a rickshaw driver. In fact, Nahar isn't exactly sure what he is currently doing, because, without a mobile phone, she has no way of staying in touch with her husband. She also lacks a radio that could warn her against cyclones.

She sends out her son to bring in the nets. Without catching fish, the family could not survive. The tide has reached the apex of the dike and water is swashing in front of her hut.

Nahar knows all too well how dangerous the vast amounts of water can be, and yet she takes the risk of living on the water's edge, hoping to become the owner of the reclaimed land. Under the unwritten laws of the nomads of the tides, the government will eventually turn over ownership of reclaimed land to the first to successfully take possession of it.

A gust of wind envelopes Nahar in a cloud of fine dust. The wind has changed direction and is now blowing from the south. The dry season, which typically lasts from November to April, is coming to an end.

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