City as a Host: Understanding Climate Change-induced Displacement and Migration in Bangladesh

Merieleen Engtipi
June 9, 2019
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Human history draws parallel to the stories of migration in search of farmlands, in a move from harsh weather conditions, for economic prosperity and as a form of conquest. In today’s context, due to defined boundaries, migration can be both internal and external, and it can be either voluntary or forced migration. Voluntary migration, such as the Great Atlantic Migration from Europe to North America, had taken place in search of better economic opportunity or prosperity. Simultaneously, Slave Trade and the escape of Jews from Nazi Germany owing to genocide are relevant examples of forced migration. Then, there is the intermediate between the Voluntary and Forced Migration; here, migrants leave their homes voluntarily. However, they are compelled to leave or flee due to famine or natural disasters.

Recent experiences suggest that climate change can trigger displacement or migration of the population, and most of this migration is internal, within reach of the migrants, into the city. Such climate-induced migration is a common phenomenon seen and forecasted in the riverine nation of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is seen as one of the most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change due to its low-level coastal plains and infrastructural inadequacies, high population density, and its heavy reliance on farming. Disaster displacement takes place each year, which creates humanitarian and developmental issues and challenges to human rights. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), internal displacement of people due to disasters surpassed that of conflict every year, with an estimation of 7,00,000 Bangladeshis being ripped off from their homes.

In Bangladesh, a sizeable segment of labour force depends on agriculture and agricultural products related services for their livelihood. Climatic impacts such as flooding, which covers 60% of the total area and the salinity problem in the coastal belt along the Bay of Bengal broadly affects the economic composition of the country. Simultaneously, the northern and the north-western regions of the country are adjusting to extreme temperatures – hot summers, irregular monsoon and unusual rain patterns, severe droughts, and prolonged cold spells. These unusual patterns create stress to the crops yields and production and reducing arable lands in the regions. According to a March 2018 World Bank report, around 13.3 million people will experience climate-induced migration or displacement by varied impacts of climate change.

In the last few years, the south and the south-eastern parts of the country were hit by tropical cyclones, forcing immediate and mass displacement. This displacement creates insecurity of food, limits excess to clean water and sanitation, and also a considerable risk of exposing the migrants to dangerous and exploitative forms such as human trafficking and smuggling. As channels of migration are not apparent in the aftermath of a disaster, human traffickers and smugglers can lure people in desperate situations. There is always a probability of vulnerabilities amongst certain groups of people in society, such as the women folks and children. In a study conducted in the aftermath of 1991 cyclone and storm surges in Bangladesh, the death rate of women was five times higher than that of the men. During this period of displacement, the vulnerability of children increases, as it exposed them to violence, exploitation, abuse, and neglect.

The capital city Dhaka accommodates more than 15 million people and is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Each year Dhaka receives climate-induced migrants from the rural poor, adding to the ever increasing number of migrants in the urban slums. Although, for these migrants, cities are a haven, but like most of the developing countries, a critical section of the urban population does not benefit from the municipal facilities. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit 2018, Dhaka in ranked one of the least liveable cities in the world. The EIU awards the rating of 100 points based on stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Dhaka’s performance is lowest on healthcare and infrastructure, with only 29.2% and 26.8% respectively, which is based on the availability and quality of public and private healthcare, and over-the-counter drugs and general health indicators. Infrastructure performance indicators measure the quality of road network, public transport, international links, availability of good quality housing, quality of energy provision, water provision, and telecommunications.

The cities that ranked the highest in terms of liveability, share a correlation of mid-size cities from wealthier countries, with mostly low population density and not overburdened infrastructure. The process of urbanisation due to migration leads to unsanitary living conditions and cause of public health issue and problems in Dhaka. There is a limit to how much a city’s infrastructure could do, and therefore an overburdened infrastructure will only lead to the inoperability of basic city structures. Therefore, climate-induced migration is not a standalone problem, but there are strings of the problem attached, affecting both rural and the urban areas alike.

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***