Here’s Bangladesh, home of 160,000,000 people:
This picture is about 750 km (450 mi) on a side. Bangladesh is the area of New York State. It has the highest population density of any country except micronations like Singapore and the Vatican.
Notice there is no patchwork logging texture like most of the developed world has from space. Bangladesh’s only remaning lowland forests of any size are the Sundarbans, a dark green mangrove swamp on the coast. Except some foothills around the edges, the country is almost entirely a dense network of villages between fields and ponds. More than two thirds of its people – roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Japan or Mexico – live outside cities. If you pull it up on Google Maps, you’ll see many ponds have been squared off as surrounding farm plots crowded at their edges over centuries.
Notice the braided rivers. These are the members of the Ganges river system. Rivers can only flow in that kind of pattern on flat land. The land is flat because it is mostly the delta of the Ganges. Soil from the mountain range at the top of the frame, the Himalaya, washes down the rivers and has slowly built a bay into a huge bench along the Indian Ocean. About a third of Bangladesh is below 10 meters. The Sundarbans are legally protected partly because they buffer storm surges: when a cyclone makes landfall, the seawater it pushes is slowed by the manifold roots. This was learned the hard way.
Notice two cities – lichen-like gray patches. The one in the lower center of the frame is Dhaka (Dacca); 15 million people live there, or a little less than twice as many as in the five boroughs of New York City. To its southwest, not far from the water, is Kolkata (Calcutta), just over the border in India, with a population of about 14.5 million. Both of them are roughly half below 10 meters.
The border with India is winding and sometimes contentious. One of the main disagreements is sharing the water of the Ganges. The Ganges depends on the monsoons and snowfall in the Himalaya. The area is politically complex. To the west, India, a nuclear-armed democracy, plays a difficult set of roles in the world and is not always friendly. To the north, past the tiny Himalayan countries, is China, a nuclear-armed single-party state and rival of India. To the east is Myanmar, a terribly oppressive dictatorship. Bangladesh would soon find itself in trouble if many of its people, even a small proportion like ten million, spilled across any of its borders. As I write this, I see that the UN High Commission on Refugees has in fact just asked Bangladesh to open its borders to people leaving Myanmar.
Bangladesh’s Human Development Index is comparable to that of Cambodia or Angola, two countries that suffered generation-long episodes of violence near the end of the last century, but Bangladesh has been basically at peace since the year-long war of independence in 1971. It is simply very poor. It’s getting richer, but it’s very poor. The nation cannot afford to, say, take the approach of the Netherlands and wall out the ocean, even if that were possible in a country of rivers. Now, for all its challenges, Bangladesh has well-chosen strategies to deal with them. It is not powerless and it is not a lost cause. But it is 160,000,000 people living under a threat that, so far, only increases.