When Iman Ali Gain first heard about climate change a couple of years ago, he thought that it was a joke.
How could the habits of people in the West affect him, a 65-year-old shrimp farmer in southwestern Bangladesh?
He still has no concept of the science behind global warming, which will be outlined in a United Nations report today. But he does not need the 2,500 experts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to prove that his world is under threat. Climate change here is a day-to-day reality that scientists say could make 17 million Bangladeshis homeless by 2030.
Over three decades Mr Gain has seen the waters around his mud house in the coastal region of Munshiganj, where silt-laden rivers meet the sea, rise 3m (10ft). He has been battered by increasingly violent floods, tornadoes and cyclones, and tasted the salt seeping relentlessly into his drinking water.
Three months ago a tidal river burst through one of the embankments that had protected the regions rice growers, shrimp farmers and fishermen since 1968. The water came up to here, he said, putting his hand to his chest, as dozens of labourers piled sticky, grey earth into the breached embankment.
People were shocked and very afraid. We worry about what happens in the future. How will we live here? Nature has never made it easy to live in Bangladesh, a vast delta at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, mostly lying less than 10m above sea level.
Every year these waterways burst their banks as rainwater and ice melt sluice down from the Himalayas towards the Bay of Bengal.
Cyclones and tornadoes pummel the coast annually, bringing further misery to a country slightly larger than England, yet crammed with 145 million people. Local sea levels appear to be rising, and summer temperatures climbing, causing droughts in the north west.
The result is a perfect storm of environmental factors that could make Bangladesh the first significant country to be destroyed by climate change. Bangladesh is in such a difficult position because all these factors geographical, demographic, political and climatic have conspired together, said Atiq Rahman, head of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and an IPCC member. It is a test case for the rest of the world.
He predicts that if the sea rises by a metre as some scientists say it will by 2100 a quarter of Bangladesh will be submerged, forcing 30 to 40 million people from their homes.
As floods have pushed sea- water far inland, contaminating paddy fields and water supplies, thousands of farmers, like Mr Gain, have turned their paddy fields into shrimp farms. They earn more cash, but are less well-off because they no longer have their own food supplies. That leads to malnutrition and disease.
Thousands of climate refugees are estimated to have left the region to find work in the cities or neighbouring India. Those who stay are slowly learning to adapt, with the help of activists such as Mohon Mondal. When I first told people about climate change, they thought I was crazy, the 31-year-old geographer said. Now they know its true because they see so much evidence.
Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.