Can we absorb the shock of climate migration?
The geographic location of Bangladesh is a double-edged sword. It makes our soil rich and fertile, but at the same time, makes us vulnerable to the wrath of Mother Nature.
Situated in the wide Ganges delta plain with a seacoast of 700 kilometres that inland never rises above 12 metres, Bangladesh is extremely exposed to natural hazards. Floods, tropical cyclones, drought and storm surges are disastrously routine, leaving millions of lives and livelihoods at the mercy of nature’s whims. After a natural disaster hits, people usually pick up the pieces and continue with their lives. But when coping mechanisms fail to deliver, migration is often the sole alternative. This is where things get a little convoluted.
According to Oxfam, “every day, 4,000 Bangladeshis are moving to cities in search of a safer life, away from the challenges of increasingly extreme weather”. Internal mass migration is a pressing problem for Bangladesh. But how much of it is due to climate change is open to debate. For decades, people's livelihoods have been affected by negative environmental impacts such as deforestation, soil degradation, erosion and salinisation, forcing them to flee to cities. Some call them “environmental migrants”, though the link between migration and climate change has yet to be established by research.
But if these people are not climate migrants yet, they (or their children) soon will be. A one-metre rise in sea level – a very credible projection in this century – would submerge a fifth of of Bangladesh making 30 million people homeless. We are heading toward a precipice at some speed.
Seeking a brake, Bangladesh has been undertaking an initiative called the Asrayan Project, aimed at rehabilitating homeless and landless families affected by river erosion. During the first phase of the project, from 1997-2010, a total of 58,703 families were provided with new homes and employment. The second phase was launched in July 2010, with the goal of helping 50,000 homeless and landless families. While this project has had largely positive impacts, the widening gap between the number of new migrants and the amount rehabilitated remains a significant source of concern.
Also crucial to Bangladesh’s brake on climate migration is tailoring of policies to fit. Sea-level rise and salinisation, for example, must be combated with measures to raise resilience of both locals and their homes and environment so that those displaced temporarily by extreme events can return home as soon as possible.
For those who migrate across borders, national and international protocols should be in place to address the issue of migration with the aim to increase the ability of communities and ecosystems to absorb shocks. Misguided policy implementation can have severe consequences. An aid project which did not take account of Bangladesh’s massive monsoon rainfall built dykes and created Dutch-style polders. During the rainy season, it flooded and then waterlogged the land in the polders. The land was rendered unfarmable as a result, forcing thousands to move in recent years. So, in the context of addressing climate change impacts, the prescience and level-headedness of policymakers cannot be overstated.
Climate refugees still have no legal standing under international law. No binding global agreements contain provisions for them, despite the first assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 suggesting that “the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration”. In such trying times, we get to see Scott Pruitt, a notorious climate change denier, to be appointed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States. The Trump administration’s crusade against climate science may shift the epicentre of the fight against climate change to China, a fight in which Bangladesh is one of the essential battlefronts. We need sufficient funding and technology to rebuild our infrastructure, reduce loss and damage and create a more resilient Bangladesh. But we also need to mainstream migration strategies into national development plans and policies. We do not have the capacity to accomplish all these on our own. We need help from the developed countries of the world.
Meanwhile, aid agencies and the media can help Bangladesh by telling the stories of Bangladeshi people whose lives have been turned upside down by extreme environmental events. Perhaps, making broad generalisations to conflate “climate refugees” with “environmental migrants” is a pardonable sin for the greater good. By the time academics agree on the right label for these people by establishing causality beyond all reasonable doubts, the transition from environmental to climatic migration may already have happened. It is never too early to take a proactive approach to addressing climate change, or for that matter, climate change-induced migration. But it will be too late to pump the brakes after the proverbial bus has run off the cliff.