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The fifth in a series of stories on Bangladesh and climate migration.
DHAKA, Bangladesh – Bangladesh may be Mother Nature's punching bag, but in the battle for survival against climate change, this tiny, riverine nation isn't going down without a fight.
Already, Bangladesh has invested 10 million taka, the equivalent of about $150,000, to build cyclone shelters and create a storm early-warning system. Earlier this year, it allocated another $50 million to the country's agriculture and health budgets to help "climate-proof" certain development sectors. The nation's agricultural research centers are devising salinity-resistant strains of rice. And the South Asian nation was one of first to deliver to the United Nations a strategy outlining what it needs in order to cope with the worst effects of climate change.
"They're not waiting," said Saleem Huq, lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most recent report on sustainability.
Leaders throughout Bangladesh say the nation desperately needs money from the West to adapt to problems that the world's leading climate scientists agree are caused by the emissions of industrialized nations. But they also point out that the country's history with catastrophe has in some ways given Bangladesh a head start in knowing how to cope with climate change.
Moreover, even as leaders here say they believe the West owes Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries compensation for global warming, they also bristle at those who view Bangladesh as just a hopeless, helpless nation forever in need of aid.
Learning to survive, one disaster at a time
"We had a terrible famine in the 1970s, we've had every cyclone you can possibly think of, a huge series of natural disasters," said Omar Rahman, dean of the Independent University, Bangladesh. But while poverty abounds, he pointed out, starvation is rare, and the country's food production has improved tremendously in recent decades.
Moreover, until the economic slump, Bangladesh's economy was growing at a pace not far behind India's, which Rahman attributed to a developing culture of entrepreneurship and a thriving garment industry. Indeed, in 2007 – some 30 years after former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger declared Bangladesh "an international basket case" – the World Bank predicted that Bangladesh could join the ranks of middle-income countries inside two decades.
"What I see is a country that has done spectacularly well in the face of very few advantages," Rahman said. "Bangladesh hasn't had a lot of things handed to it on a platter."
Added Rabab Fatima, South Asia representative for the International Organization for Migration, "This country is quite a miracle, I must say."
"It's completely people-driven. Despite all natural odds, despite bad politics and bad governance, people don't starve here. The country is almost self-sufficient in rice production. And for the size of this country, this tiny country, to feed 150 million people – that itself is a miracle," Fatima said.
Now the country's leaders are hoping to launch another miracle: survival of the greatest combinations of natural disasters that the heavens can rain down upon them.
Aiming resources at the local level
The current focus is on a method known as community-based adaptation, which Huq and others say will help the very poorest communities access funding and information. Advocates say the initiatives, still being formed, are aimed at helping villages most at risk launch projects, with the money going to them instead of trickling down through global and national funds.