Climate Refugees in Bangladesh – Answering the Basics: The Where, How, Who and How Many (as at May 2010)

Extreme climate events – be it the result of environmental destruction by people, or naturally occurring changes in climate – are forcing people to flee their traditional place of residence with enormous sufferings in points of transit and the points of destination without any support from aid agencies or Government authorities. ACR (Association for Climate Refugees), a network of NGOs have been making some efforts in seeking answers to basic questions, like how and where the people have been made refugees, who the refugees are, and how many they are.

Where and how: Mass scale forced displacement has been caused by tidal floods in the exposed coastal area and loss of land due to erosion in the main land river basins

The population in the South and South-East Asia coastline extending from the east coast of India to the coast of Myanmar have been tasting the salt taste of annual cyclones from the Bay of Bengal with ever increasing tidal floods. Due to its existence in the middle of the coastline, Bangladesh is either the worst or the common victim irrespective of the locations where the cyclones make the landfall. Cyclones are not only resulting in human casualties and destruction of properties but also leaving behind perpetual tidal floods. The cyclone Sidr of 2007, Nargis of 2008, Aila of 2009 and Laila of 2010 are the annual extreme events among a number of other hazards. Bangladesh had to endure the entire attack of Sidr while sharing that of Nargis with Myanmar and Aila plus Laila with India. An indigenous research in Dakshin Bedkashi (Koyra Upazila) reveals that tidal flood water level had risen by 1 meter during 5 years (2004 to 2008) but it rose by an additional 1 meter in 2009 alone and in 2010 it continues to rise further. The prevailing hazards and the vulnerability alarm a grave risk to the coast dwellers, with particular emphasis on those in the exposed areas in 12 districts at the south of Bangladesh namely Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat, Pirojpur, Barguna, Patuakhali, Bhola, Laxmipur, Feni, Noakhali, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar.

Around one million people have been rendered homeless due to river erosion in the mainland river basins over the last three decades as the mighty Brahmaputra-Jamuna continues to widen due to decrease in its depth for heavy rush of sediments from the upstream and poor erosion management in the downstream. Official statistics show that the Brahmaputra-Jamuna, a major river system in Bangladesh, has widened to 11.8 km now from 8.3 km in the early ’70s, eroding about 87,790 hectares of land. (CEGIS, 2006). NGOs affiliated with ACR working in the mainland river basin report observing people forced to flee their traditional place of residence due to river erosion at a greater pace. Hotspots of such incidence encompass 10 districts namely Kurigram, Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Bogra, Sirajganj, Rangpur, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari, Mymensingh and Netrakona.

Bangladesh comprises of 64 districts out of which 22 are major climate refugee generating districts.

Who and how many: The poorer people who used to live in exposed locations are the climate refugees and they are 6 million in number

The poorer people who used to live in the extremely exposed locations in the coastal belt and the main land river basins of Bangladesh are the first to become climate refugees in recent years.

Tidal floods have already badly affected 56% of the 422 unions (lowest unit in the local government) of the 48 upazilas (sub-districts) in the exposed coastal zone of Bangladesh. Most of the villages in the badly affected 236 unions are being flooded by tidal saline water twice a day for the last 3 years. Houses, Land and Properties (HLP) of 2,462,789 people (32%) of the 7,693,331 inhabitants (in the affected unions alone) have been destroyed by repeated cyclones and king tides. Of them, 1,568,980 (64%) are languishing as Local Climate Refugees (LCR) on remainings of embankments or higher grounds in the exposed zone, 675,113 (27%) squatter as Internal Climate Refugees (ICR) in cities including Dhaka and 218,656 (9%) are earning wages by modern slavery as Global Climate Refugees (GCR) across the country borders. Situation in the exposed coast is worsening and it is predicted that the number of climate refugees from the coast will be raised to 3 million by the end of 2010.

River bank erosions have already badly affected 44% of the 407 unions (lowest unit in the local government) of the 36 upazilas (sub-districts) in the exposed main land river basins of Bangladesh. Most of the villages in the badly affected 179 unions are being eroded by onrush of flash flood waters every year during the last 3 decades. Houses, Land and Properties (HLP) of 1,452,588 people (42%) of the 3,490,500 inhabitants (in the affected unions alone) have been destroyed by annual river erosion often coupled with devastating floods. Of them, 951,531 (66%) are languishing as Local Climate Refugees (LCR) on neighboring embankments or higher grounds in the exposed zone, 375,793 (26%) squatter as Internal Climate Refugees (ICR) in cities including Dhaka and 125,264 (8%) are earning wages by modern slavery as Global Climate Refugees (GCR) across the country borders. Situation in the exposed river basin is worsening and it is predicted that the number of climate refugees from the river basin will be raised to 2 million by the end of 2010.

The remaining non-exposed 397 upazilas have sporadically generated another 2.1 million climate refugees. Thus altogether the total number of climate refugees in Bangladesh as of May 2010 stands at 6 million out of which at least 1 million are living in Dhaka Mega City. The total number of climate refugees in Bangladesh is expected to be raised to 7.5 million by the end of 2010.


Hotspots of climate refugees at the point of origin: Island upazilas of Koyra, Shyamnagar and Dacope in the west, and Kutubdia, Hatiya and Swandip in the east of the coastal belt of Bangladesh

In one way or another, all exposed upazilas are generating climate refugees, but some are more immediately and particularly exposed. The middle coast (Barisal Division) enjoys the comparative advantage of being an active delta with land formation in progress as well as a sweet water ecosystem but the west (Khulna Division) and east (Chittagong Division) coast have been unlawfully deprived of that active delta privilege by India’s unilateral interception in international river course originating from the Himalayas. Hence the west coast has 3 hotspots i.e. Koyra and Dacope in Khulna district, and Shyamnagar in Satkhira district. The east coast also has 3 hotspots i.e. Kutubdia in Cox’s Bazar district, Swandip in Chittagong district and Hatiya in Noakhali district.

Response to the plight of the Climate Refugees

The Finance Minister of Bangladesh Government has a clear response by saying “We are asking all our development partners to honour the natural right of persons to migrate. We can’t accommodate all these people – this is already the densest [populated] country in the world.” in a video interview with the Guardian. Repeated cyclones and tidal floods have substantially destroyed the life line of the coast dwellers – the embankments – which is eating up huge resources but yielding no signs of revival.

More than 200 NGOs in Bangladesh are working for resettlement of the climate refugees. They had participated, as a finalist, in the World Bank’s Global Competition on Climate Adaptation held on 10-13 November 2009 in Washington, D.C. but could not win a grant except the World Bank Institute’s Innovation Practice Manager writing “We are indeed working on a range of ideas in which we can communicate with your host governments, other funders in the space, and like-minded partners who can support your projects and perhaps find ways to work with you.”  while responding to a post of the NGOs’ Team Leader in World Bank’s DM Blog. NGOs are negotiating projects with potential donors on climate refugee issues.

Conclusion

Climate change is likely to lead to increasing rates of generation of climate refugees, and it is vital that evolving frameworks for climate change adaptation address issues for compliance by national and international communities to peacefully resettle those climate refugees. Climate change is ignoring country borders making it a global problem; we may not ignore country borders now but can surely begin to work regionally and globally for mutual benefits and interests. We welcome suggestions and assistance for effective and efficient resettlement of climate refugees.

Md. Arifur Rahman Muhammad Abu Musa

Chairperson, ACR and Founder & Chief Executive, ACR and

Chief Executive, YPSA President, CRC (Coastal Resource Center)