Shorter version


Climate Change Impacts and Urban Migration: 

Confronting the Looming Crisis


Mohammad Zaman, PhD

Social Policy/Development Specialist



Executive Director

Society for Bangladesh Climate Justice

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Website: www.




The paper briefly examines the complexity of urban migration and vulnerability of the displaced poor within the context of the impending climate crisis in Bangladesh. The author presents an overview of urbanization with particular attention to the internally displaced people by climate-related impacts. Climate changes and the sea level rise will push people now living in the coastal, floodplains and dry areas in the northwest to become climate/environmental refugees, making million of people further vulnerable to poverty and hunger. Many of these displaced families would ultimately migrate to urban centers nearly doubling the urban population to 50% by the year 2020 – mostly in the form ever growing slums and bastees in Dhaka and other major cities. The massive migration of displaced families in the future can eventually contribute to political and socio-economic instability with added pressure to support millions of people on an emergency basis annually. Many critical issues – for example, local adjustments to displacement, migration, resettlement, housing, alternative livelihoods – are discussed in the light of the economy, weak infrastructure, poor governance and lack of integrated urban planning leading to greater risks for any sustainable development in the future.  A set of policy suggestions are offered to deal with the challenges of climate changes, resettlement, and development.


I. An Overview

Discourses on rural-urban migration, urbanization, rising urban poverty and the rights of slum and bastee settlers are a common place in social science literatures in Bangladesh. The massive demolitions of “illegal” structures and settlements in major cities during the last Caretaker Government (2006-08) turned out a highly charged political issue due to displacement of the urban poor, their resettlement vis-a-vis the rising tide of new in-migrants, particularly to Dhaka City.  Today, one out of every three persons in Dhaka lives in bastees and slums, mostly without water, sanitation, public services or legal security. Migration to cities will increase manifolds in the near future due to sea level rise, which will permanently flood some 23% of the country’s total area, displacing an estimated 30 million people by 2040 or so.  This is very alarming, given the already “unacceptable” living conditions of the urban poor in the country. At the same time, it is not fully clear whether the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) have recognized this critical situation, because very little effort is being given to date to address this issue on a sustainable basis.  This is clearly evident from the precarious situation of the hurricane Ayla victims even after three years – and a stark reminder that the current government efforts to dealing with climate impacts are inadequate and failing.

The issues surrounding the urban poor in Bangladesh are extremely complex and involve various social, economic, political and legal aspects, including provision for security of tenure and a better living environment.  I have discussed these issues in greater details elsewhere.[1] The purpose of this paper is not to deal with urbanization per se, but to address the risks associated with sea level rise, population displacement, migration, resettlement and livelihoods of the affected persons. These issues are raised and discussed within the context of internal/rural-urban migration, resettlement, and development. A key element of the discourse here is the need to recognize climate-induced migrants as “environmental” or “climate refugees” and that the climate-induced migration is involuntary in nature unlike process of urbanization due to “pull” factors. Further, a community-led action plan for “bottom up” climate “solutions” is required to implement the “adaptive” strategy taken by the government. In other words, there is a need for paradigm shift in our approach to climate solutions.


II. Climate Change Risks and Impacts

Bangladesh is at the forefront of the gathering storm and the epic centre of the looming climate disaster.  It is the most densely populated deltaic country in the world with low lying coastal zones. The experience of recent floods of 2007, followed by devastating Sidr and Ayla, are still very vivid in the memory of many Bangladeshis (and the international community). Since 1960, the incidence of natural disaster in Bangladesh has been on the rise. There were 18 major disaster events between 1960 and 1969; the number increased to 37 during 1970-1979; and then doubled to 77 between 1980 and 1989. [2] Many scholars believe that global warming or greenhouse effects may cause increased weather-related disasters in Bangladesh and may even bring more cyclones in the future.

About 23% of the land area of Bangladesh is critically vulnerable to sea level rise. It is claimed that if sea level were to rise by another one meter – already predicted by IPCC and other climatologists – nearly one-third of Bangladesh would be permanently flooded, displacing an estimated 30 million people by 2040. This also means that less land would be available for people to grow food – a calamity of much higher proportion for this already overcrowded county of 160 million people. 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. Climate change will also have further wide ranging adverse impacts on human health and well-being – for instance, the decreased availability of potable water due to raising salinity will lead to for increased illness and death while many infectious diseases, including malaria and dengue could rise due to climate changes. In sum, the risks and impacts are multi-dimensional. The strategies dealing with climate change impacts, therefore, have to developmental and holistic.

III. Climate Change, Displacement and Migration

Climate change 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. It is estimated that riverbank erosions alone displace over 100,000 people annually. Over 12 to 15 million people have been displaced by flood and erosions in recent decades in Bangladesh.[3] An estimated 200 million will become permanent “climate refugees” worldwide by 2050.  According to IPCC, the greatest single impact of climate change may be on human migration. In case of Bangladesh, 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.

It is important to recognize that climate-induced migrations are involuntary unlike “typical” rural-urban migration to cities due to “pull” factors – for instance, employment, better educational opportunities, urban living and so on. A huge migration of rural population is also noticed in a routine manner due to rural poverty, landlessness, and loss of livelihoods. For instance, major occupations among the urban poor include rickshaw puller, wage workers of different categories – primarily unskilled or semi-skilled, including the garment workers, and household maids – all of whom are migrants from rural areas. These types of migrants may be called “economic” migrants to cities for better income and better living, which largely remain “elusive.”

Climate-induced migrants must be distinguished from the “economic” migrants to the cities. Climate induced-migrants experience sudden disruptions and displacement and often lack preparation or may need resources to move. In essence, they become “environmental” or “climate refugees” in need of urgent support and assistance. Despite the current debate and conceptual fuzziness over the definition of environmental or climate refugee[4], it is important to remember that environmental factors are an important trigger causing widespread and recurrent displacement, making thousands homeless who are 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.

There is also a regional dimension of the climate-induced migrants and refugees in the South Asia context. Cross-border migration involving Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Nepal of the climate refugees are not uncommon. Many affected by the hurricane Nargis in Myanmar 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. 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 Myanmar – due to cross-border migration. Further increase in “illegal” migration will surely lead to conflicts across international borders. To date, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) paid no attention to environmental impacts on cross-border migration and climate refugee issues. [5]

IV. Future Challenges

How to overcome the looming crisis? Is rural-urban (or cross-border) migration a climate “solution”? Rapid urban growth, increased poverty and deprivation among the urban poor, lack of basic needs, security of tenure,  health and environmental degradation, the traffic gridlock in Dhaka, loss of economy, weak infrastructure, poor urban governance, and lack of integrated urban/city planning are gigantic challenges to create sustainable urban living in the near future. Huge migration of rural, climate-induced migration into urban areas of Bangladesh cannot be sustainable even in planned cities with inevitable issues and impacts of climate change. We need a paradigm shift not only in our approach to planned city but also in search for “climate solutions.” The adaptation strategy outlined by the government won’t be easy or cheap either. It will involve awareness and local capacity building, alternative housing design, shelter, livelihoods, and new infrastructure development. The city planners/government must involve academics/experts, practitioners, stakeholders, and non-government organizations to mobilize, develop and define tomorrow’s priorities for “living with” and adapting to climate changes. First, the communities at risks should be mobilized “ground–up” through community-led actions. The floodplain and coastal residents are aware of the risks involved and have shown resilience to them, both individually and collectively, for generations. The social and cultural adjustments undertaken by them clearly indicate that the floodplain and coastal inhabitants are not passive victims – instead their abilities to deal with and adjust to ongoing disasters have been rather impressive. This perspective turns the focus from short-term relief to long-term development programs for building economic infrastructures of the rural poor and other vulnerable groups, such as women, to reduce their vulnerability. Second, the ground or “bottom up” measures must be increasingly complemented by integrated approaches to floodplain and coastal development, taking into account some of the social, demographic and economic aspects of life in the delta. Third, disaster mitigation policies should spend more resources for studying “climate solutions” and promoting many indigenous ways – for example, alternative employment, local economic diversification, and reinforcement of indigenous techniques of adjustments through community-level planning and development. Such a strategy will enhance economic well-being of the communities at risks and would further promote local technologies and traditional social adjustment networks that people utilize to cope with climate-related disasters. Finally, a participatory, powerful and responsive local government administration must be ensured for preparedness and management of local adaptive plans. Such a local government system would allow community and NGO participation for sustainable reconstruction and development in an era of climate change. ¢


[1] Mohammad Zaman, Urban Development and Vulnerable Citizens: Resettling Informal Settlers (Unpublished), Social Development Papers Series, Asian Development Bank, Manila, November 2003.

[2] Mohammad Zaman, “Vulnerability, Disaster, and Survival in Bangladesh: Three Case Studies.” In Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna M. Hoffman (eds.) The Angry Earth: Disasters in Anthropological Perspective (New York: Routledge, 1999).

[3] See, Mohammad Zaman, “Climate Change: Risks and Strategies for Bangladesh: Some Preliminary Thoughts” (Paper presented at the Meeting of the Save Bangladesh Forum (Vancouver, Canada), 14 June 2008.

[4] Mohammad Zaman, “Climate Change Impacts, Displacement and Migration: Risks and Strategies for Bangladesh,” Proceedings of the Regional Seminar on Role of Engineers in Tackling Climate Change, Dhaka (16-17 June 2010).

[5] For more, see Zaman (2010) cited earlier.