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A five-part, multimedia series on the coming dystopia that is urbanization.
80 percent of the garment industry’s 3 million workers in Bangladesh are women.
When describing why they came, migrants tell stories of flood and famine.
Biologist Stewart Brand argues that megacity slums are a boon for planet Earth.
The population of Bangladesh's capital is expected to hit 20 million by 2025.

Dhaka: fastest growing megacity in the world

A five-part, multimedia series on the coming dystopia that is urbanization.

As many as half of the newcomers worldwide will end up in medium-sized cities with populations of up to half a million people, by the U.N.’s count. But many migrants will make their home in a growing number of megacities — urban giants such as the world has never seen.

By 2025 the U.N. predicts that Delhi, Dhaka, Kolkata, Mumbai, Mexico City, New York, Sao Paulo and Shanghai will all have populations of more than 20 million. Tokyo is projected to become home to some 37 million — three times the current population of Greece.

A few of the elder giants — New York, Tokyo, Paris — grew huge under the influence of forces that helped give birth to modernity itself: the rise of nation states, manufacturing and mass domestic markets.

“The old cities developed out of industrialization,” Balk said. “But you don’t see that happening now.”

Many new cities are getting big without growing rich. Megacities like Lagos, Nigeria; Karachi, Pakistan; and Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, barely registered on the world stage at mid-century. The millions inhabiting each city now still survive largely off the financial grid.

“These are poor cities, and that divide is really important,” Balk said. “There was poverty in London, New York, and Paris and Tokyo 100 years ago — and there still is poverty in some of those cities — but they never had slums in the way you see in today’s contemporary poor cities.”

Among these slum cities, Dhaka represents an extreme case. The Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies estimates that as much as half of Dhaka’s population lives in the vast, hand-built shantytowns that grow here like kudzu on any open patch of ground — beside rail lines, along riverbanks and in swampy lowlands shadowed by high-rise hotels.

“The megacity of the poor,” is how the urban geographer Nazrul Islam describes his hometown. He estimates that about 70 percent of Dhaka’s households earn less than $170 per month. The bottom 40 percent take home less than half that, he said. Most of the migrants come betting life in Dhaka will beat life in the village. Unlike in China, which places stiff restrictions on internal migration, it’s a choice Bangladeshis are free to make.

“There has been no restriction on city-ward migration,” Islam said. “Whenever there is a disaster, people tend to move.”

As a growing number of researchers worry that climate and environmental shocks will spur mass migration worldwide, ecologically-fragile Bangladesh may offer a taste of what’s in store. Each season, cyclones, floods and creeping sea-level rise drive thousands of Bangladeshis from their villages.

“The country is always facing some disaster,” said Ranajit Das, an aid worker who has spent his career in Dhaka’s slums. “Every year.”

The displaced have few options. This river-delta nation sits wedged between India and Myanmar and it remains one of the most densely settled countries on Earth. Bangladesh’s population of 150 million people — about half the United States — is crammed into an area smaller than the state of Iowa. The country has but one administrative and economic center. For Bangladeshis on the move, Islam said, “their first destination is the large city, Dhaka.”