Before the Flood

Rising sea levels will displace millions of people over the next century. In Bangladesh, the mass migration has already begun.

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Dobir Uddin remembers sitting on the riverbank near his farm in southern Bangladesh, admiring the puffy clouds scuttling across a big sky, the feel of a rain-scrubbed breeze on his face. Raindrops would lure fish from the river's depths. If he sat still, very still, he could catch one with his bare hands.

"I had everything at home," Uddin says, sitting on the bed of his one-room shanty in a Dhaka slum. Now, he says, he feels like he's "trapped in a cage."

The skinny 42-year-old, his beard and hair dyed orange-red with henna, struggles with fatigue, a wracking cough, and the depressing pall of pollution that hangs over the city skyline. When he can muster the strength, he pedals a rickshaw carrying passengers through Dhaka's chaotic, exhaust-choked streets, so he can earn money to buy rice and lentils for his family and pay rent on the corrugated-metal shack where they live.

Dhaka is the world's most densely populated megacity, with more than 15 million people as of 2011, the most recent year for which a number is available. The overstuffed metropolis struggles to accommodate its current residents. Power outages and blackouts are frequent. The streets are clogged. Sewage pipes, when they exist at all, often back up and spill into the streets.

Despite its dysfunctions, Dhaka is packing in more people every day. Precise numbers are elusive, but tens of thousands of rural migrants arrive every month, crowding into its slums, according to demographers at the nonprofit Population Council. Some newcomers are following the global pattern of urban migration, lured by the opportunity of the big city when the family farm has been subdivided so many times among sons that the parcels are too small to support the family.

Many more arrive in the capital with no other place to go. They are forced from their homes, fleeing droughts, floods, and other ravages of a changing climate. Uddin and others are part of a new wave of environmental refugees that experts predict will swell into the tens of millions by midcentury, due to elevated temperatures, rising seas, and violent weather. Half of Bangladesh's population lives less than 17 feet above sea level, putting this country at the forefront of this harrowing development.

The path that brought Uddin and his family to Dhaka has become crowded. Uddin was surprised at the familiar faces he saw on the ferry that carried him upriver from the southern district of Barisal. Most of his new neighbors in the Bou Bazar slum also come from rural areas to the south.

It took a lot to pry Uddin from his land. Bangladeshi farmers are renowned for their resilience. They are masters at adapting to storms from the sea, floodwaters from swollen rivers, wilting heat that can sap the strength of farmers and their crops. That kind of adaptation is necessary on the vast flood plain that stretches as flat and green as a pool table to the Bay of Bengal.

Barisal takes pride in its reputation as the granary of Bangladesh. The fertile delta has long taken its nourishment from the water and nutrient-rich sediment from the Himalayas washing down the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and 800 other rivers and tributaries that braid their way to the sea.

Uddin's farm was located next to one of these tributaries. Like his father, he dug and maintained canals to divert floodwaters during the monsoon season, which lasts from June to October, to flood his rice paddy when he wanted it and drain his land when needed.

His farm was tiny, less than a quarter-acre, because he inherited only a fraction of his father's land. The rest was divided among his three brothers. He made up for it with hard work. He coaxed four crops a year from his tiny parcel of land: Two crops of rice during the monsoons, and two crops of lentils during the dry season, irrigating from well water. By trading some rice and lentils for vegetables and a little meat, he was able to provide for himself, his wife, their son, and their three daughters.

Then an insidious change began to undermine Uddin's livelihood and his resolve: encroaching salt water from rising seas.

About a dozen years ago, Uddin says, his crops began producing less and less. The pink lentils he grew emerged ashen gray. His rice stalks came up pale and yellow, not the usual deep green. Disease and insects attacked the salt-weakened plants.

"The land itself changed," Uddin says. "It used to be muddy. It became more dusty." A landscape frosted with salt residue. When he could no longer grow enough food to feed his family, he borrowed money from a loan shark. Then, to pay his debts, he began to sell off part of his land.

Sea levels have risen slowly -- roughly 8 inches globally -- over the last century as a result of the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The pace has picked up, nearly doubling since 1993, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Scientists forecast that if high greenhouse gas emissions continue, sea levels could rise another 3 feet, possibly much more, by the year 2100. So far, half of the rise has come from expanding oceans -- warmer water takes up more space -- due to seawater absorbing the extra heat in the atmosphere. The other half has come from melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets near the poles. Predicting future melt is an inexact science, leaving wide uncertainty about how much meltwater will pour into the oceans off Greenland and Antarctica.

By midcentury, as many as 1 billion people will find their lives disrupted -- and even might be permanently forced from their homes -- due to flooding and other climatic events, according to the International Organization for Migration. Yet it's easy to set aside such worries and postpone action because, despite the occasional destructive storm, the threats remain in the distant, hazy future.

Bangladesh offers a preview of a hotter, crowded world forced to deal with climate disruptions. From its perch on the Bay of Bengal, this country of 160 million people is considered one of the most vulnerable to climate change due to multiple factors: population density, poverty, and topography.

A 3-foot rise in seas would leave 17.5 percent of the country underwater and extend the reach of salt water up tidal rivers even farther inland during the dry season. In addition to spoiling farmland and sources of fresh water, it could increase outbreaks of cholera, said Peter Kim Streatfield, director of the Centre for Population, Urbanization and Climate Change at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh.

Some island nations, such as the Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu, face an existential threat of becoming inhabitable or disappearing beneath the waves. The difference with Bangladesh is how many more people live in harm's way. In the Maldives, leaders expect their 380,000 citizens will have to move at some point this century. In Bangladesh, the government estimates that as many as 25 million people will be permanently displaced if one-fifth of the country becomes inundated by a 3-foot rise in the seas, as scientists predict.

"It will be the biggest mass migration in history," says Maj. Gen. A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, a retired Army officer who is now president of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies in Dhaka. His country, he said, is not prepared to handle the basic food, water, and sanitation needs of so many displaced people.

Meanwhile, population growth adds to the pressure. The country's population is projected to reach more than 200 million by midcentury. The growth is not a result of high birthrates. The government has developed a successful family-planning program, resulting in a drop in fertility from an average of seven children per woman in the 1970s to slightly more than two children today. Instead, the growth comes from sheer population momentum, as millions of young couples enter their childbearing years. Even if they hold themselves to two children apiece, the United Nations projects that another 43 million people will be packed into a country about the size of Iowa.

In the Barisal region alone, more than half the farmland has become too laden with salt for growing traditional rice, according to researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in Bangladesh. Farmers have abandoned this land, uprooting their families and moving to cities.

Dhaka has taken up the most. Its migrant population grows by 6 percent a year, averaging several thousand arrivals a day, said Ubaidur Rob, country director for the Population Council in Bangladesh. Migrants don't file into the city in an orderly way. They come in pulses, often following the devastation of a killer storm.

Uddin was working in his rice fields on Nov. 15, 2007, when he noticed the first breath of wind. It picked up fast, furiously shaking the trees.

He looked up and noticed an advancing wall of water coming up the river. It was just a few hundred yards away. He ran to the house to find his wife and children. The first wave of water raced past him and beat him to it, lashing up and over the threshold.

He heard his wife scream and found her cowering inside. "I realized," he says, "that if we stay here now, everyone will die."

He gathered up his children to make a break for higher ground. He hoisted Tonni, his youngest daughter, onto his shoulders. He tucked Suraya, the second-youngest, under an arm and led the family through the roiling waters. It was a long, slow slog -- about 500 yards before they reached the school that sat atop a mound of silt and had become the de facto shelter for villagers and surrounding farmers.

Cyclone Sidr, which forced Uddin from his home, has been blamed for the deaths of 3,500 people and the displacement of more than 2 million.

Uddin's family and neighbors spent five days at the school, stranded on its hilltop grounds that rose above the floodwaters like an island. His eldest child and only son, Abul Uddin, was thirsty and drank contaminated water. Soon he grew sick and weak. No help came. His family was powerless. They watched him die of cholera four days after the storm. He was 14.

Uddin collapses on the bed in his 10-foot-by-10-foot shanty, reliving the story. Tears flow. His slender chest heaves with silent sobs. His son's death left the family lost and broken. On this day, like many others, he will try to summon the strength to climb on his cycle rickshaw and join 400,000 other rickshaw pushers competing on the streets of Dhaka.

A grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting supported research for this article.

Photo by MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images


Pipelines and First Nations

Can Canada's indigenous communities stop Prime Minister Stephen Harper from turning the country into a petrostate?

VANCOUVER, Canada — On Canada's western coast, where rain-forested mountains dip into gray-blue seas, the political anger is ready to explode. The indigenous people, whose ancestors have fished, hunted, and thrived here since the last ice age, are furious about an energy policy dreamed up in Ottawa that they fear could permanently damage their land and destroy their way of life."Opponents can mock our love of our home as sentimental, but it won't change what we feel," the award-winning indigenous novelist Eden Robinson wrote recently in the Globe and Mail. "[T]he mood in our base is simmering fury."

Robinson lives in Kitamaat Village, a small community some 400 miles north of Vancouver, near where the Kitimat River meets salt water. Its 700 indigenous inhabitants belong to the Haisla nation, one of 630 such recognized "First Nations" across Canada, which has called this coastal region home for thousands of years, going back to long before European settlers first arrived in the 18th century.

Lately the Haisla have had to reckon with a new unwelcome visitor: Calgary-based Enbridge, one of the world's largest fossil fuel transporters. If the Northern Gateway project the company has been proposing for the past decade goes forward, a pipeline pumping 525,000 barrels per day of heavy crude from Alberta's oil sands would end within walking distance of Robinson's home. Tensions in her community are so high, she wrote, that "people will spit at you if they think you support Enbridge."

It's likely they will also spit at someone they think supports Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In June, his Conservative government approved the $7.3 billion Gateway project, which would ship oil across the Rocky Mountains to the Port of Kitimat, load it onto supertankers, and sell it for a premium to Asian markets. To reach the Pacific, supertankers must first navigate the winding Douglas Channel. In 2006, a provincial ferry crashed and sank in the channel, and people living in the nearby Gitga'at Nation village of Hartley Bay fear that history will repeat itself -- but on a scale of environmental and cultural damage hard to fathom. They recently stretched a 2.8-mile crocheted rope in protest of Gateway across the Douglas Channel. "Each stitch is shaped like a teardrop," said blockade organizer Lynne Hill, "because this is a very emotional thing for us."

For Harper, Gateway promises a $300 billion GDP boost and the prestige of achieving his most important foreign-policy goal, to remake Canada into a global "energy superpower." But to many First Nations living along the pipeline's 731-mile-long route, Gateway symbolizes "everything that people don't want," Robinson said.

They intend to fight the pipeline in court by arguing for legal authority over land they've lived on for millennia and never surrendered to the federal government. A landmark decision from Canada's Supreme Court on June 26 may have brought groups like the Haisla one step closer to achieving that authority.

Tension between indigenous people and the pipeline project are nothing new. In 2006, Enbridge sent surveyors, chain saws in hand, into the ancient forest near Kitamaat Village to scout sites for an oil terminal. They felled 14 trees that bore living evidence of First Nations history: deep notches made by the Haisla hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of years earlier. "We compared it to a thief breaking into your house and destroying one of your prized possessions," Haisla Councilor Russell Ross Jr. told me in 2012.

The relationship between the Haisla First Nation and Enbridge only got worse. Five years after the tree-cutting incident, the company offered a $100,000 settlement, which was "almost an insult" in the opinion of Chief Councilor Ellis Ross, as he stated in a letter to Enbridge's president. Even worse was Enbridge's additional offer to make amends with a "cleansing feast." If such a ceremony was practiced widely in Haisla culture, Ross wasn't aware of it.

"I have never witnessed Haisla Nation Council initiate a cleansing feast and I doubt I ever will," he wrote to the firm. "I would appreciate it if your company's shallow understanding of our culture is kept out of our discussions."

All along the Gateway route, Enbridge was making similar cultural flubs. These gaffes, along with a negotiating style Robinson described as heavy on "talking points" and light on listening, had by 2011 caused 130 First Nations across British Columbia and Alberta to oppose the project, many of them not even directly impacted by it. "If Enbridge has poked the hornet's nest of aboriginal unrest," Robinson wrote, "then the federal Conservatives, Stephen Harper's government, has spent the last few years whacking it like a pinata."

The whacks began coming after Harper's Conservatives won their first-ever majority rule in 2011. Since then, his Conservative Party has made it easier to get oil and gas projects approved, has cut environmental protections, and has proposed contentious changes to indigenous education. "It's felt like the Conservatives have just been hammering us with legislation," Robinson said. Tension with the Conservatives are so widely felt among First Nations that in late 2012 there emerged a protest movement called Idle No More, whose sit-ins, rallies, and hunger strikes brought national attention to the cause of indigenous sovereignty.

This May, a United Nations envoy deemed native distrust of Harper a "continuing crisis." On Gateway, Harper has done little to ease the problem. After the U.S. rejection in early 2012 of TransCanada's Keystone XL, a pipeline that was supposed to link Alberta's oil sands to Texas, the prime minister "expressed his profound disappointment" to U.S. President Barack Obama, Harper's office said in a statement. A week later, at the World Economic Forum, Harper vowed to export oil to Asia instead. Projects like Gateway were now a "national priority," he declared.

For Harper, the economics of the project provide good reason for its priority status. Enbridge estimates that, once completed, Gateway would boost Canada's GDP by $300 billion over the next three decades. Ottawa alone stands to gain $36 billion in taxes and royalties. And there is the issue of Canada's role in the world. One month after the World Economic Forum, in February 2012, Harper traveled to China, where an influential crowd of Chinese business executives that Canada is "an emerging energy superpower" eager to "sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy."

While Harper delivered that pitch in Europe and Asia, his then-natural resources minister, Joe Oliver (now finance minister), was declaring war on Gateway opponents back at home. In an open letter, Oliver lashed out at the "environmental and other radical groups" that in their protests against the pipeline project "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda."

It was a tactical stumble, wrote George Hoberg, a University of British Columbia professor who studies the Gateway standoff, that pushed "many moderates who were offended by the style of the attacks into strong opponents of the pipeline." Oliver's letter was mentioned again and again during two years of federal hearings on Gateway, for which 4,000 Canadians registered to speak.

By the time those hearings finished last December, Gateway had become one of the top political issues in Canada. Much credit for that is due to a sustained media campaign coordinated by British Columbia's major green groups, which deliberately evoked memories of Exxon's 1989 Valdez disaster. On the spill's 20th anniversary in 2009, they declared a "No Tankers Day."

"There will be a sacrifice we're asked to make at some point, and the [ecological] damage will be permanent," said Kai Nagata from the Dogwood Initiative, one of the leading groups in that campaign. "Nobody's come up with a compelling argument about why we should accept those risks."

The continual focus on Gateway's risks -- to one of North America's vastest wildernesses and to the indigenous people living within it -- allowed green groups to broker alliances with First Nations all along the pipeline route. They appeared together at joint press conferences and waged a two-front opposition to Gateway so effective that, by this June, nearly 70 percent of people in British Columbia opposed immediate federal approval of the project, according to a Bloomberg-Nanos poll.

"The reason why Gateway has become such a political albatross for Stephen Harper," Nagata explained, "is he's managed to find a way to align the majority of British Columbians with the majority of First Nations." Not to mention Vancouver's mayor, British Columbia's premier, and Harper's political opponents in Ottawa, all of whom have spoken out against the project.

None of that opposition has deterred the federal Conservatives, though. In mid-June Harper's government officially approved Gateway, deeming it "in the public interest." Within hours of the announcement, a coalition of almost 30 First Nations and tribal councils in British Columbia were vowing to "immediately go to court to vigorously pursue all lawful means to stop the Enbridge project," and promising that "we will defend our territories whatever the costs may be."

Unlike in the United States, where indigenous peoples were conquered and then settled on reservations, few along Gateway's proposed route have ever surrendered territory. What power they actually wield over that territory is legally disputed. Yet a Supreme Court decision on June 26 granting land title to the Tsilhqot'in First Nation gives greater legal standing to native groups with unresolved land claims.

The consequences of that decision, as well as the autonomy it ultimately provides to indigenous people, will be decided if groups like the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents eight First Nations across central British Columbia, challenge Gateway in court as unconstitutional. "What we'll really be doing is testing our authority and our jurisdiction over the land," said Terry Teegee, the council's tribal chief. "It's really hard to imagine this project going ahead."

Enbridge is still confident. "We are prepared" for legal challenges, the company's CEO, Al Monaco, said during a recent conference call, in which he contested the notion that people like Teegee speak on behalf of all First Nations. Monaco argued that 60 percent of indigenous people living along Gateway's route in fact want to see it built (a claim called "ridiculous" by the Coastal First Nations group). Those court battles that First Nations do bring, in Monaco's opinion, are likely to be resolved in Enbridge's favor over the next 12 to 15 months. Gateway's construction could begin shortly after. "This is not necessarily an endless process," he said.   

For indigenous people like Robinson, as well as the Unist'ot'en husband and wife now living in a wood cabin built intentionally along the pipeline's path, the fight against Enbridge stands in for a larger cultural struggle. So long as companies and governments continue to view the rights of First Nations "as an impediment to getting what they want," Robinson said, the struggle will surely continue.

Jennifer Castro/Flickr Creative Commons