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The third in a series of stories on Bangladesh and climate migration.
DHAKA, Bangladesh – The towering new orange condominium glistens in the sun, beckoning the city's wealthy to enjoy its luxurious rarities: central air conditioning and a heated pool. In the trash-strewn, sprawling shantytown just below, thousands of the city's poorest live crammed in rows of metal shacks the size of packing crates.
There are sharp contrasts here. The newest-model BMW competes for lane space with ancient wooden rickshas. Stylish teenagers flock to the gleaming mega-mall, watched by shirtless beggars crouched in gutters. The physical space between rich and poor is already narrow. It's going to get even thinner.
Nearly 500,000 people – about the population of Washington, D.C. – move to this city on the banks of the Buriganga River each year, mostly from coastal and rural areas. More than 12 million people live in Dhaka, twice as many as just a decade ago. It's one of the world's most densely populated countries on a planet that is seeing rapid urbanization.
No one knows how many people are being driven to cities by environmental factors exacerbated by climate change, but experts agree that before long we will find out. Global warming will be the dominant factor in moves from rural to urban regions in most developing countries.
"It definitely will play a greater role," said Fatima Shah, a World Bank expert who co-authored a sweeping study last year on climate change impacts on the world's so-called megacities.
"Daily, you hear stories that because of seasonal patterns changing, farmers are not able to sustain the same level of production as in the past," she said.
In Dhaka, migration experts say, climate change already is fueling urban arrivals. Coastal flooding is occurring with more frequency. Rice crops, in particular, are slowly dying because of creeping salinity levels, and in the worst cases, entire homes and villages are lost to fearsome storms.
City growth is most explosive in the slums, where an estimated 3.5 million now live, like 37-year old ricksha driver Omar Faruk.
'I don't have the means to go home'
Standing among the mazes of corrugated metal shacks with no running water or sanitation services, Omar said he left the town of Sherpur, north of Dhaka, "to earn a living." He came from a family of farmers, but when floods ruined the crops in his village last year, he borrowed 500 taka (about $7) to take the bus to Dhaka.
Now he, his wife and their two daughters live in a single room and share a flimsy wooden plank latrine with about 35 other families in the Karail slum, across the river from Dhaka's upper-class Gulshan neighborhood. He isn't likely to go back to Sherpur.
"I don't have the means to go home. I don't have a house or anything over there. It's not possible," he said.
According to the International Organization for Migration, about 70 percent of slum dwellers in Dhaka moved to the city because they experienced some form of environmental hardship.
"This year has been the worst so far because of the flood. The rising water just ruined all the crops," said Mohammad Abdus Salam.
Mohammad, 56, has lived in the Karail slum for nearly 20 years, watching the ebb and flow of migration. In the past, he said, people came to Dhaka, earned some money and returned home. Now, he said, fewer people are leaving.
Just a few months earlier, a storm in Mohammad's hometown of Barisol – a southern Bangladesh town that local scientists say is experiencing higher levels of tidal inundation linked to climate change – devastated the crops.
"Through the years, it's been getting worse and worse, but recently it's gotten very bad," Mohammad said. "This is the time when crops start growing, and these storms just flatten them out. People have come to the city because it's very hard for them to recover from these losses."