If you asked for one word to describe Bangladesh, it would have to be “water.” It’s everywhere, more than any place I’ve ever seen, and not exactly where it should be. It’s June, and the beginning of the monsoon season, a time when water begins to swallow up massive portions of land. It’s breathtaking in a bad sort of way.
In particular in the south, it looks catastrophic from the air. Much of the landscape is only identifiable as land by bits of manmade items barely protruding above the waterline. Houses and herds of cows stand in the middle of what appears to be wide bays and channels, but in fact, is just land gone under. When this kind of flooding happens in the western world, a State of Emergency is declared. In Bangladesh it’s a yearly event, lasting for months. People leave their flooded homes and fields, returning when the water recedes.
Statistics on Bangladesh are staggering. Perhaps the most important, to put it all into perspective, is this:
Bangladesh is the size of Iowa with a population approximately half the size of the United States. Imagine that for just a moment.
Now add this:
During a ‘normal’ monsoon season, approximately 18% or more of the country goes underwater.
But ‘normal’ is fast disappearing. In the 1998 monsoon season, two-thirds of the country experienced severe flooding resulting in death and destruction of property and agriculture. The sea is rising and cyclones are becoming more prevalent with climate change. If the sea rises just one meter, 17% of the country will disappear forever. In many southern areas, water is too saline to grow rice, let alone drink. Can it get any worse? Why, yes. Arsenic contaminates much of the groundwater as well.
Where do people go in a country this size, and this populated? Neighboring India fortified their borders with Bangladesh by constructing a 4000 km wall, and prior to 2011 had a policy akin to ‘shoot and ask questions later’. Bangladeshis call it the ‘Wall of Death’.
It surprised me how often I saw smiles and joy on Bangladeshi faces, despite all the hardships and recurring tragedies they experience. Children, especially, flocked to the MAF floating plane, danced in front of the cameras, performed flips into the water, and laughed often (even after I accidentally knocked a boy over when I opened the car door). These things tend to put life into perspective for me. I hope I remember this the next time I can’t get a hot shower, or think that US tap water doesn’t taste good enough, or complain that it rains too much in Oregon.