Climate Change Impacts, Displacement and Migration:

Risks and Strategies for Bangladesh


Mohammad Zaman, PhD

Social Policy/Development Specialist &

Executive Director – Society for Bangladesh Climate Justice

Vancouver, B.C., Canada




I. Overview


1.         The world is already experiencing climate change. We can see the effects from melting glaciers to perch land to floods and cyclone disasters. The changing climate is changing our lives – and perhaps forever. It is considered the single most important challenge of this century. This is more so for countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Solomon Island, Vanuatu and other low lying island countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Bangladesh will be severely affected by inundation of land area, displacement of people and loss of gross domestic product due to the rising sea level.


II. Risks and Impacts


2.         The scenario for Bangladesh is very scary! It is the most densely populated deltaic country in the world with low lying coastal zone – more than Myanmar, which was recently hit by cyclone Nargis literally wiping out everything in its way in the southern Irawati delta killing hundred of thousands of people. The experiences of 2007 floods, following by devastating Sidr and Ayla, are still very vivid in the memory of many Bangladeshis. Such devastating floods and cyclones are likely to return almost every year.


3.         About 23% of the country’s area is critically vulnerable due to sea level rise and will be permanently flooded, according to many experts, by 2030 displacing an estimated 30 million people at current figures. At the same time, the north-western region will be subject to scarcity of water leading to drought and changing in hydrological regime creating untold misery, including food security and agricultural production. Bangladeshi scientists estimate that approximately 40 percent of crop yield will be reduced by 2050 due to climate change variability. Both fishery and forestry will likewise be immensely affected.


4.         Climate change is also likely to have wide ranging adverse impacts on human health and well-being. Decreased availability of potable water due to raising salinity will be responsible for increased illness and death while many infectious diseases, including malaria and dengue could rise due to climate changes. In sum, these cumulative factors, associated with weak infrastructure, poor governance, and lack of resources will lead to greater risks in the future, to say the least. A recent World Bank Study revealed that about 4% of the GDP is being eroded by environmental degradation in Bangladesh annually.


5.         Finally, changes in the climate will push people now living in the coastal, floodplains and dry areas in the northwest to become climate/environmental refugees, making millions of people vulnerable to poverty and hunger. Many of those displaced persons would ultimately migrate to urban areas nearly doubling the urban population to 50% by the year 2020 – most in the form of ever growing slums and bastees. This can further contribute to political and socio-economic instability with added pressure to support millions of people on emergency basis annually.



III. How to Cope with this Catastrophic Situation?


6.         How are we going to cope with this catastrophic situation? How to contain
this “common crisis”? We will have to live with global warming for generations. We can’t run away or be very complacent about it. We have to live and adapt with it as did our past generations. However, at the same time, we must organize ourselves in the country and internationally to face this disaster. We need to mount strong advocacy for Bangladesh and make the climate polluters as well as the international community fund programs to save Bangladesh from the brink. To succeed in this effort, we need to act locally but work globally dealing with the problems of climate change and global warming.


7.         To face this challenge, the Government of Bangladesh adopted a 6-point program that includes: (i) determination of mitigation and adaptation techniques; (ii) establishment of an international centre for research in adaptation and strategies for Bangladesh; (iii) identification of climate change factors and development of a national poverty reduction plan with provision in national budget; (iv) development of projects for implementation of adaptive plan to cope with climate change; (v) creating awareness about possible risks and consequences among the general public;, government officials, scientists and professionals; and (vi) involvement of mass media nationally and international to publicize effects of global warming and climate changes on Bangladesh.


8.         As evident from the above, the risks and impacts are multi-dimensional. The strategies dealing with climate change impacts, therefore, have to developmental and holistic. In the case of Bangladesh, the poorest stands to suffer the most and bear the brunt of the impending disaster. Further, the gains achieved through the millennium development goals are at risks.  The Government has been very active internationally on this issue, particularly on the climate fund to deal with the impacts, mitigations and adaptation.



IV. Climate Change, Displacement and Migration Issues


9.         As mentioned above, nearly aspects of life in Bangladesh will be affected by climate change impacts. The adaptation strategy outlined by the Government of Bangladesh won’t be cheap – it will involve relocation, housing/shelter, alternative livelihoods, and greener and sustainable development options. The focus in this section is on displacement and migration – including cross-border migration – a neglected area to date in the climate discourses in Bangladesh and elsewhere. The purpose here is to raise awareness about “environmental” migrants or “climate refugees” in the region, and how and why a new approach to cross-border and international migration is necessary.


10.       Currently, there are debates on terminologies and definitions of “internally displace people,” “environmental” or “climate” refugee. Can environmental factors be recognized as a root cause of migration? Should climate-induced migration be recognized? Who would be responsible for funding resettlement of environmentally displaced people? There is a definite need to recognize environmentally-induced migration, particularly associated with climate change.


11.       Some estimates of climate-induced displacement are already staggering. For instance, 12 to 15 million people have been displaced by flood and erosions in recent decades in Bangladesh. In the Philippines, over 4 million people have moved from lowlands to highlands as a result of deforestation. An estimated 200 million will become permanent “climate refugees” by 2050.  According to IPCC, the greatest single impact of climate change may be on human migration.



V. Environmental Factors: Important Triggers


12.       Despite the debate and conceptual fuzziness over definitions, it is important to remember that environmental factors are an important trigger causing widespread and recurrent displacement, making thousands homeless and often unable to return to their homes – for instance, the case of the cyclone Ayla victims in the southern delta in Bangladesh. There should not be any confusion on the “risks” of climate change migrants.  We need to understand that the world is facing major environmental changes with disasters like floods and recurrent cyclones in all continents. Therefore, it is only rational to consider environmental and climate refugees as migrants.


13.       In Bangladesh, over 100,000 people are displaced by riverbank erosions annually.  Floods and droughts displace many more every year. A large portion of these climate-induced displaced families have migrated to Dhaka – already overpopulated with an estimated 14 million populations. Most migrants end up in slums in the city, currently considered 40% of the city population. It is estimated that by 2030, Dhaka will have 23 million people, ranked second largest in the world. Presently, Dhaka has no infrastructure or resources to support thousands of climate-induced displaced families. As a result, the poor and the most vulnerable slum dwellers in the city will be subjected to further social and economic distress and deprivation.


14.       We need to recognize that the climate-induced migrations are involuntary in nature. People experience sudden displacement and lack preparation or needed resources to move. As a result, people displaced need urgent support and assistance, often not available and/or adequate to adjust to sudden disruption of lives. Again, people displaced are often very poor.


VI. Cross-border Migration and Responses


15.       In the South Asia region, cross-border migration, particularly from Bangladesh to India, has become a major “political” – and not climate-induced displacement issue among the South Asian neighbors.  Many climate-induced displaced families from the border areas have moved to India and Nepal. Many affected by the hurricane Nargis in Burma have eventually crossed the border to Bangladesh. The cross-border movement has largely been influenced by (i) proximity to border; (ii) easy border crossing (at night by local agents); (iii) networks and historical connections - most migrants know someone at the destinations; and (iv) land availability, although very marginal remote areas such as chars, which nonetheless provides a home and living.  


16.       India claims that there millions of illegal Bangladeshis in India – the ongoing movements against Bangladeshis in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh are examples. India built border fences with Bangladesh despite opposition from Bangladesh. India appears to consider the climate-induced migrants as “illegal” eco-migrants. Needless to say that there are political tensions among and between the South Asian neighbors – for instance, Bangladesh, India, and Burma – due to cross-border migration. Further increase in “illegal” migration will surely lead to conflicts across international borders.


17.       In July 2008, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) established a committee to work on climate change mitigations and capacity building. To date, SAARC paid no attention to environmental impacts on cross-border migration and climate refugee issues. SAARC should work together to understand the cause-effects, patterns and dynamics of cross-border migration and raise awareness about environmental migration in the SAARC region.  Bangladesh should take up the issue in any future SAARC summit due to the past history of cross-border migration.



VII. Conclusions


 18.      Given the scenario, internal migration to cities will be predominant in Bangladesh in the near future. Cross-border regional migration will likely continue and perhaps increase over the years. International migration of climate refugees may slowly rise as people affected by rising sea level in countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Solomon Island, Sri Lanka, and Tuvalu will be on the permanent move – for example, to countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, USA and so on. While the presidents of Maldives and Tuvalu are already shopping for lands in Australia and New Zealand, migration however is not the ultimate solution, because the affected countries can’t be “moved” and re-established. Adaptation to and management of climate change impacts – for instance, improved communications in disaster management, evacuation, alternative housing design in coastal areas, changes in cropping patterns, alternative income and livelihoods, enhanced role of the media and non-government agencies in awareness building– are way forward.  At the same time, there is also a need to recognize migration or population mobility as one of the adaptive mechanisms to climate change. Further studies towards this should be undertaken to understand climate refugee and migration issues. Finally, international/UN bodies should develop framework for recognition of environmental or climate migrants as legitimate refugees.