Research support for this article was provided by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Anisur Rahman is the mayor of a village that is literally disappearing beneath his feet. He knows how this is happening but not why. His village, Antarpara, used to straddle one of the great rivers of Asia, the Brahmaputra. Like the Ganges, the Brahmaputra originates as snow melt in the Himalayas before pouring down through the low plain that is Bangladesh to the Indian Ocean. Centuries of practice have taught people how to cope with the annual flooding of the Brahmaputra. They even welcome it, despite the foot or more of water it sometimes leaves in their huts, because without it their lands would be less fertile.
But things are different now. “This river comes from India,” says the mayor as we look out at the muddy water. “For some reason, the water in India is increasing, so the floods here are bigger. The floods are sweeping away our houses, even the land beneath them. There were 239 families in this village before. Now we are thirty-eight families.”
Clustered around us are dozens of villagers, mainly women in cheap, bright saris–lime green, sky blue, scarlet–with children clinging to their necks. “I have had to move my house seven times in the last twenty-eight years,” says Charna, a mother of two. “I used to live over there,” she says, pointing toward the middle of the river, “but floods washed the land away and I had to move here.” But there is little room here either. Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world; its 150 million people–half the size of the US population–are crammed into an area about as large as Iowa. “We don’t even have land for a graveyard,” Charna laments.
Turning to say goodbye, I find that the mayor is holding a baby–his 18-month-old daughter. She is a pretty if solemn-faced girl and, yes, he definitely wants her to go to school one day. But it won’t be in Antarpara. “By the time she is old enough,” he says, “this village won’t be here.”
Halfway around the world, Beverly Wright is wondering how long her hometown of New Orleans will still be here, at least in a recognizable form. Wright, who can trace her family line back through eight generations of free blacks, used to live in New Orleans East, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the flooding from Hurricane Katrina. Her house took on eight feet of water; only now, twenty months later, is it almost ready for her to live in again.
Elsewhere in New Orleans East, one can still drive past block after block after block of empty, wrecked buildings. The same is true in the Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of the city. While Katrina also devastated mainly white areas such as Lakeview, it is the city’s former black majority, and its poor, who are having the hardest time returning home. “Most people want to come back to New Orleans, but they can’t,” Wright tells me. “They don’t have jobs or a place to live, and there is no money coming from the federal government.” Only 2 percent of those eligible for federal resettlement payments have received checks, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.