"We're trapped," said Mahe Noor, 25, wife of Nizam Hawlader, 35, and mother of three. The family are a typical example of environmental refugees. People forced to move away from home due to worsening weather conditions thought to be brought on by global warming.
The Hawladar's home in Nandikathi, a poor, waterlogged hamlet of about 3,000 people in Southern Bangladesh was flattened by a severe cyclone two years ago. Since then, like many others forced out of their homes, they have moved to the Korail, a mini city on the edge of the megalopolis, Dhaka.
Korail sits on public land and is shared by at least 40,000 people crowded into cramped, cockroach-infested rental shanties made of mud, bamboo and corrugated tin.
Mahe and her husband work long hours at low-paying jobs - she at a garment factory earning 1 USD a day and he at a roadside tea stall earning 2 USD a day. They are unable to save any money after paying for food and rent on their shanty hut and the news they hear from their old village is that more people are leaving because of river erosion and dwindling job opportunities.
"Environmental refugees have lost everything," said Rabab Fatima, the South Asia representative of the International Organization for Migration. "They don't have the money to make a big move. They move to the next village, the next town and eventually to a city."
Dhaka, the capital, is often the only real option for refugees in this region. It is the fastest-growing megacity in the world, according to the World Bank (and one of the seven dirtiest places in the world). At least 12 million people live in Dhaka, and there are more than 400,000 newcomers each year. The World Bank predicts that the population could grow dramatically by 2020.
Like the rest of Bangladesh, Dhaka is also extremely vulnerable to climate change: It is just a few metres above sea level and is regularly hit by cyclones and floods. The environmental group WWF recently rated it among the megacities most vulnerable to the effects of global warming, after Jakarta and Manila.
As many as half the population of Dhaka live in shantytowns and slums and Rabab Fatima's estimations show that three million of these have been displaced by environmental degradation or disasters.
The Hawladar family say they cannot imagine growing old in a dank, depressing place like Korail. They still dream about returning to Nandikathi where their 6-year-old son is still living with his grandmother. They have not seen him for a year. If they could move back, their daughters, ages 8 and 3, would be able to go to school, instead of being stuck alone all day in a tiny rented shack. And Mahe Noor would not have to worry that she will come home one day to find her young daughters kidnapped or worse as child trafficking and arson are serious problems in the overpopulated shanties.
"Every day I hear about a fire or about someone's child missing," Mahe Noor said.
But even if the family could save enough money to move back and rebuild their home and market, the prospects are bleak in Nandikathi. The nearby Dhanshiri River has become more unruly, eroding land and livelihoods.
Mahe Noor admits she is often kept awake at night worrying about the next big flood that will just wash their old village away. "Where will people live then?" she asks herself.
Rashida Akhter, a local manager for BRAC, a non-governmental organization that operates across Bangladesh as well as in several other poor countries, says that more than 90 per cent of the Korail slum's residents never leave because they cannot save enough money to move.
When global warming was just a theory many analysts believed that there would be mass international "climate migrations", but now that the reality of worsening weather conditions is upon us, this now seems unlikely as the victims of the events are poor families like the Hawladars.
"While Dhaka has managed to absorb millions of migrants this can't go on forever. Dhaka can't take it, and neither can the people," says Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist who is a senior fellow in the climate change group of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London.
The rapid and unplanned urbanization caused by taking in climate refugees is expected to put even further strains on scarce water, energy and food resources, said Koko Warner, who works in environmental migration at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn.
Later this year, Saleemul Huq will open and lead the International Center for Climate Change and Development, an institute based just outside of Dhaka aimed at helping vulnerable countries come up with practical ways to adapt to climate change.
Bangladesh and other countries hit hard by climate change are supposed to receive money from a USD 100 billion annual green climate fund approved by the negotiators at the Copenhagen summit meeting in December. Smaller amounts of aid have been pledged for the next few years. The larger amounts of environmental aid are not expected to begin flowing until 2020.
Article originally published in the New York Times by Joanna Kakissis, reported with the help of a grant from the International Reporting Project.
Photograph by David W Clark