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.

That's something that could help in places like Gabura in southwest Bangladesh, where nearly six months after a tidal flood rocked the village and left thousands homeless, a local environmental activist continues to send out e-mails pleading for philanthropists and others to help the people who live there.

Exactly how much funding Bangladesh needs overall is unclear. Leaders here estimate it will cost $500 million just to raise embankments in some areas about 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) – a level that by the time construction is complete might not even be high enough to keep growing storm surges at bay.

"Adaptation sounds very easy, but it's a costly proposition for us," said Hamidur Rashid, former director-general for multilateral economic affairs in Bangladesh's foreign ministry.

Ainun Nishat, Bangladesh representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, called food security the country's top short-term priority.

Two years ago, he said, Bangladesh lost 10 percent of its crop to flooding. The IPCC estimates that Central and South Asia can expect a 30 percent drop in yield by 2050. For a country that depends on rice for survival, a major loss of production could translate into a widespread nutrition crisis.

Sitting in a glass jar on the wooden ledge of a bare classroom, the 47th strain of salt-resistant rice developed by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute doesn't look like much at the moment. But it could help save the country.

It is a product of the waist-high plots of numbered and labeled rice paddies at the institute on the outskirts of Dhaka. Researchers at BRRI said they have spent more than 15 years testing new, high-yielding varieties of rice that can grow in the salty waters that, because of rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal, have already moved into rice-producing areas, causing crop yields to shrink.

Cyclone warnings via cell-phone system

Meanwhile, in the heart of town, engineers with Bangladesh's Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services are creating a storm early warning system that can be sent out via cell-phone text message. Cell phones are widespread, even in remote villages.

Already, vast improvements in the country's early warning storm systems already have been credited with saving countless lives during Cyclone Sidr in 2007. Ahmadul Hassan, senior water resources planner at CEGIS, said the cell phone is ideal for disseminating warnings even more rapidly.

Even so, Hassan said, more development aid is required to address the threat of climate change. Warnings are important, and so are the building of new cyclone shelters and the strengthening of embankments. But the real work of preparing for climate change, he said, lies in population control, increasing access to education, and raising income levels.

As night fell in Dhaka, Nishat sat at the rooftop table that he said was the place where Bangladesh's leaders agreed on how best to prepare for climate change. He said he is eager to see his country do things that won't cost much money but that could spark dramatic changes in governance – like establishing climate change divisions in every ministry.

"We're not talking about additional manpower. We're talking about making climate change an inroad into everything," he said. "Climate change is still something abstract to people."

Rahman, meanwhile, is busy setting up a major center for studying adaptation at his university. Spearheaded by Huq and leading Bangladeshi scientists like Atiq Rahman, the proposed center works on the theory that students will learn more in the living laboratory of Bangladesh than in a sterile classroom in Cambridge or Oxford about what vulnerable countries need to cope with climate change.

A record 'of doing very complex things'

Omar Rahman pointed to the country's successful, decades-long campaign to drive down population growth as a measure of what Bangladesh can accomplish. Three decades ago, he noted, the average family had seven children. Now the average family has three, and the number is reducing still. There's a climate change lesson in that, he insists.

"We have established a record of doing very complex things," he said. "In a traditional, conservative country, to make it acceptable to talk about birth control shows that we are capable of sustaining social change, if we have enough support."

He said it's important to him that Bangladesh's achievements be understood, and to avoid having his country labeled as an "eternal victim."

"You basically give up as soon as you label a country a victim. There's fatigue," Rahman said. "Bangladesh is a resilient country. We have shown the world that we can adapt, that we can confront things, that we are not just passive victims of disasters."

Sarder Shafiqul Alam, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, said there's a larger picture to consider. Alam said he doesn't want the world to become so focused on helping countries cope that it ignores the need to reduce emissions. All the cyclone shelters in the world, he said, will only go so far.

"Our adaptation will not last very long," Alam said. "Adaptation has some limit."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500