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In Bangladesh, climate change is a matter of life and death

 DHAKA, Bangladesh – When I first met Kohinoor Shelim she was trying to feed rice to her young daughter, but the child just screamed and kept turning her face away. Instead, the girl demanding lentils – wanting anything else except for rice, the only food her mother had been able to afford that day.

Shelim told me that, Insha'Allah (God Willing), her husband, a rickshaw driver, would return later with enough money to buy more food.

Home for Shelim, her husband and two daughters, is a tiny corrugated shack in one of Dhaka's biggest slums, a maze of narrow, crowded alleyways lined with squalid shelters and open sewers, spilling down to a fetid river. She'd moved to the Bangladeshi capital with her family just two months earlier. When I asked her whether life was better here, she just looked away.

Her home near Bhola, a district deep in the river delta on which much of Bangladesh sits, was lost to the sea. "Over time, the river broke our house," she told me. "Until we had nothing to live in."

Video: Sinking below sea level in Bangladesh

'Global destabilization'
If climate change does lead to a 3-foot rise in sea levels around Bangladesh by mid-century, as some scientists predict, then Shelim's story could echo those of 20 million climate change refugees here. It's an aspect of global warming that's only now being more fully appreciated, but which Atiq Rahman, the country's leading environmentalist, calls one of the biggest threats facing not only Bangladesh, but the world.

"There will be global destabilization of populations," he told me. "The poor will be the most affected. They'll have very little to lose once they've lost their land."

Rahman heads the Bangladeshi Center for Advanced Studies and was also an author of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.

In Dhaka, the impact is already being felt, with some half a million migrants arriving in the city each year. That's about the population of Washington, D.C., pouring mostly into squalid slums. The biggest reason for moving is environmental degradation.

"People are moving, being displaced forcibly, because of climate factors," according to Rabab Fatima, the Dhaka-based representative of the International Organization for Migration.

Rebuilding an embankment in Garbura/ Ian Williams

The crowded and gridlocked capital, home to at least 12 million people (probably more, but nobody knows for sure) is already under stress because of the explosive rise in population. The number of people living in Bangladesh's capital has doubled in a decade.

"Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country in the world, the frontline state of climate change," Rahman said, pointing to a large map on his wall, a thick black line across the delta, cutting off a fifth of the county. "Anything south of this line is going to under water."

More than half of Bangladesh is less than 20 feet above sea level. Experts say it faces a double threat: Rrising sea levels as a result of the melting ice caps and glaciers, and more extreme weather, like cyclones and heavy rain.

Taken together this could generate more climate change refugees than anywhere else on earth.

Getting worse
The country is no stranger to floods or cyclones. Both are facts of life here. But travel across the water clogged delta, and people tell you that both have been getting worse.

Take the island of Gabura, or what's left of it: A May cyclone smashed the embankments that had protected the island, and now most of it is gone, taken by the sea. The houses that survived cling precariously to spits of land, while makeshift shelters made of bamboo and sticks line the top of broken sea walls.

It's here I met Amjad Gazi, with his wife and six children, who were lucky to survive the raging waters.

Living on a spit of land in Garbura /Ian Williams

"This one almost got swept away," he wife said, pointing at their youngest son. "There was water everywhere. The currents were so strong, and we were scared."

Gazi pointed out where his home used to be, and the land he had farmed for rice. All that's left is water, with a forlorn-looking cow stranded on a spit of mud beyond.

Gazi still clings to a hope that the water levels may fall, enabling him to return to the land. That hardly seems likely.

"I don't see how much longer we can live like this," he told me. "One day we will have to leave. What else can we do."

That will mean joining the mass exodus to the cities.

'Climate change has a taste'
Even where the land has not gone, it is becoming harder and harder to live on. A two-hour drive north of Gabura, we stopped in the village of Kamira Bazar.

Like much of the delta region, it floods each every year, but the flooding has been getting worse, the waters are staying longer, and contaminating the fields and the wells with salt.
I stood looking over the flooded fields that belonged to Sheikh Shetta. "It's never been this bad," she told me.

"We haven't been able to grow anything properly here for five years." Water from the local well is no longer drinkable.

As Rahman, the environmentalist, puts it: "Climate change has a taste, and it tastes of salt. Freshwater is being polluted and contaminated and overcome by saltwater."

This area borders India, where the authorities are building a border barrier, a high fence of reinforced barbed wire that cuts through the paddy fields. Soon it will completely encircle Bangladesh, 2,100 miles of it.

International migration, millions of poor and desperate people pouring across borders, is a sensitive subject here, but it is clearly one factor in India's thinking. The fence is due to be completed by March next year.

Water lapping homes in Garbura / Ian Williams

'Matter of life and death'
Can anything be done to avert disaster?

Already entire villages are being mobilized to raise and reinforce the embankments that protect their homes, which in the past have been very poorly maintained, there are plans to plant millions of mangroves, a natural defense against tide surges. The destruction of mangroves over recent years has made the area all the more vulnerable.

Other fixes, such as saline-resistant rice and better storage for drinking water are being discussed, and Bangladesh has launched an international appeal to pay for it.

UNICEF is supporting a program to teach children basic swimming skills, since drowning is now the biggest cause of death among children under ten in Bangladesh.

"(Climate change) here is a matter of life and death for the communities, for the people, for the ecosystem," Rahman says. "In the West it is an issue of minor lifestyle changes."