Bangladesh: the great climate exodus

Eroded by the river, evicted by the police;
ecological stress is pushing thousands of
families into desperate conditions.

This special report was published in the April edition of the New Internationalist 'Adapt or die: how Bangladesh is facing up to climate change.' Buy this issue or subscribe from just £7

When the sea washed away his house for the third time, Abdul Motlab and his family left for Dhaka. Ten years later, their home is a lean-to tacked on to the end of their eldest son’s shack.

Since moving to Dhaka from the coast, the Motlabs live a precarious existence.

Hazel Healy

The makeshift homestead lies in the shadow of a building site, which spews out bricks and rubble – they have strung a net over the tin roof to catch the debris. Abdul and his wife Anoura are in their late fifties; they live here with five of their seven children and a four-month-old granddaughter.

Dirty, dangerous and prone to flooding in monsoon, this precarious squat on an unused lot in the Mohamedpur district is one of the better places they have lived in during the last 10 years.

‘The settlers in the slums would not let us set up house,’ says Anoura. ‘They were very violent.’ After months living by the roadside, they managed to erect a small hut with a jute roof in a temporary settlement, where they lived in constant fear of eviction. When expulsion duly came, it was fast and brutal. ‘The police didn’t let us finish our lunch.’

The entire Motlab clan subsists on the eldest son’s daily income of $2.50. It’s not enough for three meals a day. ‘We didn’t expect it be as hard as this,’ says Abdul. His face is lined with worry – the relative peace they enjoyed here will soon be over. The owner of the lot plans to build an apartment block and has given them marching orders. Resigned, Abdul says that Allah will find them a new place.

Space is at a premium in Dhaka, now the world’s fastest growing megacity. It doubled in size – from 6 to 12 million – between 1990 and 2005, hit 16 million not long ago and has 400,000 people arrive every year.

‘Where will they all go?’ wonders Bilkis Uddin, who lives round the corner from the Motlabs. ‘They’ll have to stack them one on top of the other – there’ll be nowhere to put your feet.’ And then, looking more worried: ‘The rent will be tripled!’

Bilkis is a pragmatic, dynamic woman who is overseeing her recently arrived sister-in-law Monowara’s insertion into urban life.

Monowara, her husband and four children pay $27 a month to rent a three-by-three metre corrugated iron box. In this claustrophobic space, relationships suffer and quarrels are frequent. The shacks are roasting in the summer, plagued by mosquitoes and regularly invaded by rats. In this settlement 60 people share one latrine and one water tap. Someone is always sick, around half the children are not in school.

Monowara is not managing the transition well. ‘Only money matters here,’ she says in a low monotone. ‘Before, I had ducks, chickens and goats. Life was easy in comparison. Now we have to work very hard just to eat.’

The river evicted Monowara’s family from their village near Bhola island in stages. First they lost their land, so her husband went to work as a rickshaw driver in a nearby town. But when the river took the house, they had no choice but to migrate. Ever-enterprising, Bilkis has got her brother a job as a security guard and Monowara earns $19 per month doing domestic work. But even though both parents work, they cannot afford to keep their seven-year-old daughter Onu in school.

‘Bhola was calm and peaceful. If I could just get something to live off, I’d go back,’ says Monowara. If she manages it, she’ll be swimming against the tide: glacier melt and heavier monsoons will see rivers eroding 20 per cent more land by 2050. Oxfam estimates that coastal and river erosion, on average, destroys the livelihoods of between 50,000 to 200,000 people and forces 60,000 out of their homes every year.

The urban slums or bustees that had no space for the Motlabs can be seen all over Dhaka. Some still have the trappings of the countryside. Around the edge of one not far from Shyamoli district, cows pick through the rubbish and ducks swim in ponds of fetid water. A boy rubs the bare injured foot of a wailing toddler and lands a kiss on it. Close by, groups of people sort through stinking piles of rubbish.

These kinds of settlements are the face of an urban future. Over a third of Dhaka’s residents now live in slums.

As Bangladesh’s rural areas stagnate, the flight to the cities continues. Currently 75 per cent rural, Bangladesh is likely to be a nation of city-dwellers by 2050.

A climate-stressed environment will intensify this breakneck urbanization. Major cities are likely to be first port of call and urban infrastructure is severely wanting. Dhaka is often gridlocked and faces a looming freshwater crisis.

Until now the government’s poverty-reduction programmes have neglected the urban poor in favour of the ‘deserving’ rural poor. NGO s tend to focus more on rural areas, too.

Squatters are being evicted to make way for new flats in Dhaka, where land is at a premium.

Hazel Healy

Established city élites associate new migrants with squalor and crime. Removal, not assistance, is their answer. In the Bangladeshi imagination their country is rural; the village is romanticized as a lush, green harmonious place, in contrast to the dangerous ‘amoral city’.1

On a more practical level, it’s also not as easy to help the urban poor. Cities have complex governance systems, with a plethora of overlapping metropolitan agencies. The constant threat of eviction dissuades NGO s from investing in bustees. The urban poor have little political clout or leverage over institutions – they only got the right to vote in municipal elections in 1994.

But the people will come, whether cities make space for them or not, squeezing in between buildings, like the Motlabs and the Uddins. One solution would be to recognize climate migrants as Internally Displaced People, with rights to basic services such as sanitation, schooling and healthcare.

Urban planning will need to figure hugely in climate adaptation. After delivering millions of destitute migrants, global warming will act directly on Dhaka, which spills out unplanned across a floodplain. Heat stress, along with riverine and coastal floods, are among the hazards looming on the horizon. By 2070, Dhaka will join the list of ‘cities most exposed’ to climate change, according to the UN.

Dhaka’s streets turn into rivers after just one hour of rain. But while storm drains are being installed in areas such as middle-class Dhanmondi, slums are less well catered for, though far more exposed.

The urban poor cluster in the most dangerous places, building weak structures alongside rivers. Left to their own devices, people have thought up their own adaptation techniques. In Korail, the biggest and oldest slum, inhabitants shade their roofs with creepers, and stock up on saleable assets for use in a crisis. They have sand bags, raised platforms and those near the water’s edge build on stilts.

Meet the stayers

There are also those who are left behind. The villages of southwest Bangladesh are thinning out. The destruction wreaked by Cyclone Aila in May 2009 shattered the lives of millions, wiping out crops and homes across the coastal area and leaving many with no way to recover.

Satkira shares a border with India. Many people are drifting over the frontier to seek work in its booming cities. This is a well-trodden path for millions of Bangladeshis, but environmental stresses are increasing the traffic.

Last January during a Hindu festival, 100 families took advantage of the guards’ celebrations to slip across the border – part river, part fence. Fatima Hasan knows this because her husband has followed the same route, ‘an unseen way’ as she describes it.

Her family were hit by a double disaster. First Cyclone Aila washed away everything they owned, when the storm surge broke through the embankment at the very place where her house stood – sending her running for her life.

A few months later, her husband was collecting fish and crabs from the Sundarbans mangrove forest when he was robbed and viciously beaten by thieves. His injuries were so bad he could no longer go out to fish, and he moved to Kolkata in India. The story has ended happily – he is under treatment and working in a shop. Fatima worries about his health but they speak every other day.

The story shows how temporary migration can be a coping strategy. The house is rebuilt and her husband will return in two years’ time. Until the next disaster, they are safe.

By 2050, a 30-centimetre sea-level rise may displace 10 per cent of the country (currently the equivalent of the population of the Netherlands). A one-metre rise will submerge up to a fifth of the country – permanently.

No-one knows this better than India. It approaches Bangladeshi migration with ‘national security’ rhetoric, and has engaged in an aggressive fence-building programme. Worse still, border guards have shot an estimated 1,000 people over the last 10 years – including minors – who they usually accuse of cattle smuggling or drug trafficking. These atrocities, which are met with passive equanimity by the Bangladeshi government, come with such regularity that they are interpreted by some as a deliberate policy geared at sending a warning.

A piece of Texas

Bangladesh has a big problem. Too many people are living in dangerous places – thanks to global warming. Vulnerable cities are overflowing and trigger-happy border guards ring the delta. With no ecological reparations forthcoming, how about opening up the borders of the rich West? Remittances from the Bangladeshi diaspora already supply 11 per cent of GDP.

Korail, Dhaka’s oldest slum, is highly exposed to monsoon flooding.

Hazel Healy

A government minister once challenged anyone who caught a flight to offer up a spare room to a Bangladeshi family. Other pundits have called for land where people can relocate. But, however just, the likelihood of the US ringfencing a piece of Texas for Bangladesh is slim. Government estimates for climate-induced displacement are eight million people by 2050 (the same as the population of Israel).

Bangladesh has also called for the recognition of climate refugees under a new UN refugee convention. Environmentalists have embraced this idea, as refugees are living proof of climate change. But migration scholar François Gemenne points out that ‘canaries in the coalmines were never saved: their function was to alert.’ He worries that the ‘act now or fear the refugees’ mantra is in danger of playing into the hands of the far right. Migration campaigners shrink in horror at the idea of renegotiating the Refugee Convention for fear of losing the few existing hard-won rights. They push, instead, for liberalization of existing migration policy.

The most likely scenario is that the few people that can, will use existing migration corridors. The Bangladeshi diaspora extends all over the world. When they come, we should welcome them.

  • Banks et al. ‘Neglecting the urban poor in Bangladesh: research, policy and action in the context of climate change’, Brooks World Poverty Institute, March 2011.
  • Click here to see the NI action list: groups fighting against climate change or campaigning on the impacts - adaptation and migration