Frontline Bangladesh

Some Pacific islands are already being evacuated. Bangladesh stands next in the climate change frontline. The difference is, it has a massive and growing population.

I remember when I first visited Dhaka it was as though the world had turned upside down. Below us a spangled galaxy of lights danced  in the darkness. As we got lower and prepared to land I could see the inky darkness was water, the lights, signs of habitation on the many islands and promontories that make up the delta. Such a profusion of human life – in an environment that seemed wondrous and precarious in equal measure!

Bangladesh has an estimated 162 million people squeezed into 145,000 square kilometres, giving it one of the highest population densities in the world. To an attentive audience, Vigya Sharma of the University of Adelaide is showing us a map of the country projected on to a big screen. She is talking about the way in which climate change is likely to affect its growing population.

Her presentation is not just couched in, it’s almost smothered by, academic caution. ‘It’s hard to predict... Migration is a very complex process... The exact degree with which climate change impacts is not clear...’

But gradually the map tells its own story. The light blue area is that affected by river flooding – and it is enormous, covering most of the inland part of the map. Not surprising when you consider Bangladesh’s position at the confluence of three major river systems: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

Most of the land-mass lies fewer than 10 metres above sea level with considerable areas at sea level, leading to frequent and prolonged flooding during the monsoon seasons. Already, rising sea level is causing yet more flooding as storm surges rise, pushing further inland. These inland areas are home to the poorest people, those most vulnerable to change and least well-equipped to adapt to it. There are a great many of them. Despite the drift to the cities, more than 75 per cent of the country’s people still live in rural areas.1

The pale green on Vigya Sharma’s map shows the coastal areas affected by sea rise. Here salt-water is already entering fresh-water aquifers and estuaries, contaminating drinking water and farmland. A one-metre rise in sea level – not as improbable as it once seemed – would shrink the country by 18 per cent.  

Then there are typhoons, cyclones and storms, made more intense by warmer ocean water, to contend with. Not for nothing does this country top the Global Climate Risk Index of 2009, followed by North Korea and Nicaragua.

Sharma concludes that ‘approximately’ 99.9 per cent of the country and 100 per cent of the population will suffer from these various effects. And with the  population predicted to rise to 240 million by 2050, the future looks even more daunting.

Escape routes

‘Suggestions that millions of environmental migrants are poised to flee developing countries to permanently seek safety and new lives in industrialized countries are misleading,’ says the latest report from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).2

It goes on: ‘Overall, environmental migration is – and is likely to continue to be – mainly an internal phenomenon, with a smaller proportion of movement taking place between neighbouring countries, and even smaller numbers migrating long distances beyond the region of origin.’

For rural Bangladeshis, however, upping sticks and heading to the cities might not be such a workable proposition if the cities in question are coastal ones battling a rising sea. The ensuing loss of land can only intensify existing social and economic pressures. 

‘We can expect that with increased landlessness due to climate change in Bangladesh,’ says Sharma, ‘people will use established social networks to move along corridors to other places.’

Bangladesh does have a wide network of communities around the world and many established routes of migration to them. The Middle East, Canada, Australia, Britain, India and some countries of the European Union are the most likely destinations.

But given the choice, the vast majority of people would rather stay at home and find ways of adapting to their changing environment. Adaptation on a limited scale is already happening. For example, some coastal farmers are growing vegetables on raised beds to mitigate erosion and avoid pollution by sea water. But adaptation costs money – in a country where poverty remains widespread and around 39 per cent of children under five are malnourished.1

On the move: current trends

There are around 195 million migrants in the world today, a fifth of them in the US. Global numbers are likely to increase, but the rate at which migration is increasing has slowed down from its peak in the early 2000s. What’s keeping numbers high is not economic migration, which was declining even before the recession began, but the number of refugees from conflict-torn parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the global financial crisis attitudes towards immigration have soured in receiving countries, especially in the richer countries where fears of scarcity are enflamed by racist politicians. There has been some voluntary state repatriation of economic migrants – for example of Ecuadorians from Spain – but no evidence of large scale return. For many migrants the better option is to hang on in there, take lower paid or informal work if necessary, or get temporary support from families back home until the situation improves. Migration is always an unpredictable and politically charged element in the science of demography. But the looming prospect of environmental migration is especially fraught and hard to forecast.

Source: UN Population Division, October 2009


Bangladesh is reaping the ills sown by others, the industrialized polluting nations which have shown little sign of changing their ways or paying the climate debt they owe the world. Fine words have come from the European Union which says it will ‘stand by Bangladesh’. But little of the adaptation money rich countries promised under the 2001 Bonn Agreement actually found its way to poorer countries.3 A new US plan, unveiled at the Copenhagen summit, to set up a $100-billion-a-year ‘climate fund’ could well be heading the same way.

Bangladesh obviously needs the best in modern flood defence technology. But also of primary importance is the development of climate-resistant agriculture as local  farmers struggle with the double whammy of increased water-salination – caused by rising sea levels – and shortage of fresh-water as the Himalayan glaciers that feed the great river systems shrink.

‘The impact of climate change on agriculture is undeniable and will most certainly worsen if governments and donors fail to take appropriate steps right now,’ warns Ghulam Mohammad Panaullah, former research director of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute. Already, in coastal areas cocoa and betel nut trees do not yield half as much as two decades ago, while banana groves are dying out in their hundreds. Vegetables sold in the urban markets of Dhaka, Khulna and Rajshai are rendered tasteless by salt-water and fetch low prices.4

Much is lacking, at every level, and no-one, it seems, is prepared for what is to come. According to the UNFPA: ‘Relief organizations, policy-makers, donors, host nations and affected countries themselves are ill-equipped for environmentally induced population movements, partly because of a shortage of credible data and forecasts, which are essential for raising awareness and mobilizing the political will and resources needed to tackle emerging challenges.’ It also notes that more detailed information on which areas and populations will be affected most, is urgently needed.

Demographers have a responsibility to provide that information, says one of the participants at the Marrakech population conference.

As she leaves the hall, I ask Vigya Sharma whether she or any of her research colleagues have looked at the connection between population and environment the other way around. That is to say: the impact of population growth on the environment. ‘No,’ she says. ‘But thank you. It’s a good subject for a future project.’

I don’t think that the environmental activists crying out for population reduction would be very impressed with that answer.

Time to listen to one of them now...

  1. Simon Angus et al, ‘Climate change impacts and adaptation in Bangladesh’, Monash University, July 2009.
  2. UNFPA, State of the World’s Population 2009.
  3. BBC World Service, 23 November 2009.
  4. IRIN, ‘Bangladesh: battling the effects of climate change’, Dhaka, 16 December 2008.