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Bangladesh’s climate change migrants

Al-Amin and Fatima in a slum in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka in October 2015 where they moved when their farmland was lost to river erosion Mubashar Hasan/IRIN
Al-Amin and Fatima outside their new home in a slum in Dhaka

Al-Amin used to be a rice farmer in the fertile plains of Bangladesh’s vast Ganges Delta, but the river washed his land away and now he pulls a rickshaw in a slum in the sprawling capital, Dhaka.

Al-Amin, who uses just one name, is among the approximately 350,000 people that the World Bank estimates migrate to Dhaka each year. Most of them come from the delta, where advancing water levels, increasingly frequent storms and the rising salinity of the soil are destroying farmland. Al-Amin now lives with his family of seven in a one-room shack in a crowded slum called Bhola, which is named after the district that most residents left when their way of life eroded with the land.

Al-Amin’s house is still there, but now it sits deserted next to the riverbank where his farm used to be. “We don’t go back home in the holidays as there is no home that we can return to,” he told IRIN.

The waterways in the delta have always shifted, so it’s difficult to say with certainty that Al-Amin’s farmland was lost because of the effects of climate change. However, there is no doubt that the phenomenon is hitting Bangladesh and its 157 million people hard. With its low-lying and densely populated delta, and its cyclone-battered coast, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to rising sea levels and increasingly intense and frequent storms.

Germanwatch, an advocacy and research group, puts Bangladesh sixth on the list of the top 10 countries most affected by climate change between 1994 and 2013. A 2013 report by the World Bank predicted: “rising sea levels and more extreme heat and more intense cyclones threatening food production, livelihoods, and infrastructure as well as slowing the reduction on poverty”.

Those effects are already contributing to mass migration to the cities. A 2012 study published in the journal Environment and Development Economics predicted that between three and 10 million people would be forced to relocate over the next 40 years because of climate change in Bangladesh.

Others have announced similar findings.

“By 2050, it is estimated that one in every seven people in Bangladesh is likely to be displaced by climate change, and they are also likely to move to urban centres already burdened with meeting the needs of a dense population,” United Nations resident coordinator Robert Watkins said in a statement in September.

Growing slums

Like Al-Amin and his family, most migrants go to Dhaka. The capital of 14 million people is the world’s fastest growing megacity, the World Bank says. At 2,600 people per square mile, Bangladesh is one of the most overcrowded countries in the world, and population density in the slums is 200 times that figure, according to a 2009 study by the United Nations Human Settlement Programme, UN-Habitat. The city is already struggling to accommodate new arrivals, and the situation will only become more challenging as the population continues to grow and the effects of climate change become more acute.

Almost 60 percent of Dhaka’s slums are prone to frequent flooding, according to UN-Habitat. As sea levels rise and Himalayan glaciers melt and feed rivers running into the delta, the risk of flooding only increases, bringing greater health risks to residents.

“Floodwaters in slums can mix with raw sewage and breed water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea, typhoid and scabies,” the report said. “Water supplies also become contaminated during floods, as pipes in slum areas are likely to be damaged or to leak."

Dhaka’s slums have doubled in size in the last decade, UN-Habitat says, and the government has constructed embankments, concrete walls and pumping stations in some of the most crowded parts of the city.

Government response

In addition to responding to specific disasters, the government recognises that climate change is a threat. The UN presented a “Champions of the Earth” award to Prime Minister Sheik Hasina in September, “in recognition of her country’s initiatives to address climate change”.

The UN noted specifically that Bangladesh earmarks about seven percent – or $1 billion – of its annual budget to climate change adaptation. The country’s constitution was even amended in 2011 to direct the government to protect the environment.

International donors provide 25 percent of Bangladesh’s climate change adaptation budget, but Ministry of Environment and Forests Secretary Kamal Uddin Ahmed says they should do more, especially the richer ones that are responsible for most of the emissions that are warming the planet.

“Wealthy countries who are the major contributors in climate change must pay more for Bangladesh’s adaptation so that we can initiate new projects, testing new adaptation methods,” Ahmed told IRIN.

Next month, representatives from governments around the world will meet in Paris to hammer out an agreement on reducing emissions that contribute to global warming. The agreement will kick in when current obligations expire in 2020.

“In Paris, the world must reach an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions (to reduce global warming by) between 1.5 to 2 degrees in order to save Bangladesh from further catastrophes,” said Ahmed.

For many, it’s already too late.

Back in their village in Bhola, Al-Amin’s wife Fatima used to work on the family’s farm and care for their children. Now, in Dhaka, she leaves her five children in their tin-roofed shack to clean someone else’s house. Her conclusion is as simple as it is stark: “Nature has changed my fate and my social status."


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