Hope and resilience in Bangladesh

Professor Saleemul Huq stands next to residents of a Dhaka slum, all of them with aspirations for their own lives as well as the future of their rapidly developing country. He is one of the newest signatories of the Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, the groundbreaking paper by lead author William Ripple on which our new documentary project is based. (Photo by Justin Smith)

I expected to travel to Bangladesh to portray stories of climate victims. I expected to see a graphic illustration of a nation that is dealing with climate change problems that they had no hand in creating. I expected to see frustration and maybe even righteous fury. But instead, I found hope, grit and determination.

When I visited recently with co-director/producer Justin Smith as we shot footage for our Second Warning film project, we did see poor people. We did meet climate refugees. But they’re certainly not victims. And while they may be frustrated that their country is on the front lines of climate change, their frustration with the developed world is overshadowed by their optimistic determination not just to survive, but to thrive.

Bangladesh is a “riverine country,” sporting more varieties of boats than you can imagine. River travel is a way of life and also the best way to experience the country.

Bangladeshis refer with affection to their country’s natural resources. They’re a “riverine country,” home to hundreds of major rivers and the world’s largest river delta. They’re also home to the world’s largest mangrove forest and the longest stretch of natural beach on earth. But all these geographic features belie the fact that the whole country lies only a few meters above sea level. It’s also the most densely populated place on earth. So with sea-level rise, unpredictable river flow due to dams and glacial meltwater in the Himalayas, storms of increasing frequency and ferocity, they’re ground zero for dealing with the impacts of climate change and access to fresh water. It’s a country with a massive population wedged into a land mass the size of Iowa. While they might have a wealth of resources, they have to slice these assets very thinly to share them with their 180 million fellow citizens.

During our trip to film some of these phenomena for the documentary, we didn’t find a passive people waiting for outside help. They’ve been busy in recent decades. Once plagued by cyclones that left hundreds of thousands dead in past decades, they’ve now have a warning system that’s the envy of the world. Despite millions being in the path of storms, the climate change-intensified events today result only dozens of casualties, not thousands. One researcher pointed out to us that the United States is much more poorly prepared for climate change-fueled storms, as evidenced by the tragic casualties of Katrina, not to mention more recently in Puerto Rico, Florida and North Carolina.

It’s true that refugees are forced out of the southern parts of Bangladesh by the elements. But when they leave, they head to crowded Dhaka, where the slums aren’t just warehouses of misery, but stopover points with intact family and community networks designed to foster those determined to lift themselves out of poverty. Many fail. Many just barely eke out a living. But others claw their way forward. Gritty concrete high rise buildings sprout out of the surrounding Dhaka streets like nematodes rising out of the mud of the tidal Sundarbans forests of the south. The ragged tops are covered with fingers of rebar indicating the intention to build more floors, showing that Bangladesh is a work in progress.

This work features the fastest growing economy in Asia. And many are determined to ensure that their growth remains sustainable. They don’t aspire to become a climate change contributing nation. But the choking smog of the world’s most densely populated major city indicates that they have their work cut out for them.

Dhaka is a Lego-block city poised for growth. It’s gritty, growing, disheartening and optimistic all at the same time.

One researcher told us that the country’s massive population isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength. The human potential is astounding. People are poor. I saw sights of misery. But they’re also young and well connected. The cell phone coverage is much better than back home in Oregon. And in truth, I’ve also seen plenty of misery, poverty, homelessness and hopelessness at home. And what’s missing from my own country is the infections sense of resilience and optimism that you find in Bangladesh coupled with its legendary hospitality. Oh, and the food on the sub-continent is superior, too. In so many categories, Bangladesh has an edge.

So there is much hope here. Saleemul Huq, a member of the IPCC and a leading climate scientist based in Dhaka, told us that Bangladesh is going to be an exporter of resilience in the face of the new realities of climate change. Today you can’t turn around without bumping into a multinational NGO determined to save Bangladeshis. We all seem to think that they need our help. And in truth, if we do our part to curb our addiction to fossil fuels, it could mean a lot less misery for this country. But someday soon they are the ones who will be teaching the rest of the world how to survive the new realities of a warming planet.

Travel by road is a delicately orchestrated form of chaos featuring lumbering, battered busses and pedestrians and everything in between.