As Bangladesh recovers from another cyclone, an internal migration crisis is deepening in this country, one of the most vulnerable in the world to the effects of climate change.
At the start of May, Cyclone Fani hit eastern India, killing 42 people, before moving into Bangladesh. Some 17 people were killed here – a relatively low number compared to previous cyclones.
This is thanks to a mixture of luck – the cyclone lost strength as it travelled north-eastwards into Bangladesh – and Bangladesh’s preparedness, says Dr Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.
“We’re very good at saving lives, better than anywhere else I would say,” he explains. “But what we can’t stop is damage – that’s unavoidable. And the impact, in terms of lost livelihoods and internal displacement, is huge.”
Across the country 13,000 houses were destroyed. In Chandpur, central Bangladesh, for example, at least 100 people were left without shelter.
Among the worst affected are farmers. Some 63,000 hectares of land was flooded, and 1,800 hectares of crops destroyed, according to the state minister for disaster management, Enamur Rahman.
While some types of damage can be repaired, others have more long-term consequences, in some cases lasting generations. In 2007, Cyclone Sidr battered the country’s southern coastline, as well as parts of neighbouring countries, leaving up to 15,000 dead and thousands more homeless. Many of the survivors were left with no choice but to leave for the capital, Dhaka, or other cities.
More than 10 years later, however, and the exodus is still not over. In 2017, 25-year old Shahjalal Mia was forced to leave his village in Tatali Upazila, 100 kilometres away from Barisal.
“There was no work,” says Shahjalal who, until recently, was an agricultural worker. “I could only work three months. The rest of the nine months I was just doing nothing.”
He and his family own a small plot of land, on which they used to farm rice. Cyclone Sidr, however, not only destroyed houses and crops, but brought waves of salt water inland, saturating their paddy fields.
Even today, the soil is still too salt-ridden for local farmers to grow rice or other crops. Water from underground tube-wells and rivers also has a high salinity.
“There’s so much salt in the water. It’s really hard to grow anything in the field,” says Shahjalal. “If there was sweet [fresh] water it would have been possible for me to grow crops and do other agricultural work,” but, with so much salt, “farmers can only harvest once a year, instead of twice or three times as they used to”.
Unable to to make a living, even when he took up work labouring on wealthier farmers’ lands, Shahjalal and his wife were left with no choice but to leave their village.
Their story is all too common. Each year, millions of Bangladeshis are being forced to migrate from their rural homelands to cities because of climate change related issues, according to Dhaka University’s Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).
These numbers are increasing. More than 10 million Bangladeshis will lose their livelihoods in the next decade, estimates Dr Huq.
Cyclones are just one of the many natural disasters driving internal displacement. The country also experiences high levels of river and coastal erosion, flooding and, even in some places, drought or water shortage.
Bangladesh has the third-highest flood displacement risk in the world, according to a report on internal displacement released by the United Nation’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
The report does not include all the numbers for those displaced by slow-onset disasters, “simply because it’s hard to monitor”, says Alexandra Bilal, director of the Geneva-based IDMC.
She adds: “When I visited parts of the south of Bangladesh, I was actually shocked by how obvious the coastal erosion is. In Bhola [a district south of the city of Barisal], the land was literally falling into the water.”
Many of those displaced in Bangladesh end up in Dhaka most often in one of the city’s many slums. So many people have migrated from Bhola district over the past few decades that one slum in Dhaka has acquired the name "Bhola".
Not everyone moves to the capital, though. Shahjalal, instead went to Barisal, the nearest big city to his village.
“A lot of men from my village come to Barisal to work and I didn’t want to leave my wife and kid behind to go to Dhaka or Chittagong – here I could afford to bring them with me,” he says.
Life is not always easier in the city, though. “The first slum we went to in Barisal was dirty and had no clean water or toilet,” says Shahjalal’s wife, Nadira Begum, who was pregnant at the time.
“We saw how the other kids were growing up, how dirty it was, and we didn’t want to see our kid grow up like that,” adds Shahjalal.
Before their daughter Halifa – now five months old – was born they moved to Namar Char slum. It is on the river, which makes the air fresher according to Nadira. Most importantly, though, they now have access to a toilet and water.
Just a few metres away from the room Shahjalal and Nadira live in is a sparkly-clean toilet block with a sink. Installed by the charity, Water Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), the block has a water collection tank and pump, which means, unlike the other types of latrines that are often built in slums, it is easy to keep clean.
Shared at the moment between eight families, the two toilets and one wash basin have a big impact. “It makes it so much better than where we used to live,” says Nadira.
Compared to many of Bangladesh’s slum-dwellers they are lucky. Not only are most slums overcrowded, with whole families living in one room, but because of their precarious legal situation, city corporations and municipalities are not obliged to provide water or waste disposal services. Living in such conditions, slum-dwellers are particularly vulnerable to illness – especially waterborne disease.
“Poor sanitation has a huge consequence for families and individuals,” says Abdus Shaheen, WSUP Bangladesh country programme manager.
“If a rickshaw puller is sick and cannot go out for work for one or two days, it is a huge loss for them. If a garment worker is absent for seven days, her boss will replace her. She will lose her job,” he says.
Non-governmental organisations like WSUP, which operates in four cities in Bangladesh and other countries across Asia as well as Africa, are working hard to fill the gap in sanitation provision, yet the problem is getting bigger.
“More and more people are coming from the rural areas to the cities because of push factors, which in Bangladesh are mostly to do with climate change,” says Mr Shaheen. “I fear the situation in the slums will only get worse and worse.”
While Bangladesh is one of the countries most affected by climate change, it is not alone in facing an internal migration crisis. According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement, there were 28 million new internal displacements in 2018: the highest number ever recorded. Some 17.2 million people were displaced because of disasters, such as storms, floods and cyclones, and a further 10.8 million as a result of conflict and violence.
Increasingly, internally displaced people across the world end up in cities, says Ms Bilak, IDMC director. “An influx of displaced people into any city is inevitably going to put pressure on local governments,” she says.
“The extent to which they’re successful in accommodating and absorbing them depends on resources.” It is in poorer countries, where the challenge is greatest, she adds.
Not only are climate-related disasters driving a growing rate of rural-urban migration and putting a strain on cities, but, as the world becomes more and more urbanised people living in cities and towns are increasingly at risk of being displaced because of disasters.
The UN report, which this year focuses on the urban dimension of displacement, finds that each year 17 million people across the globe are at risk of being displaced by floods. Of these, more than 80 per cent live in urban and peri-urban areas. In south Asia, where urbanisation is happening particularly quickly, this rises to 90 per cent.
In cities those most likely to be displaced are the slum-dwellers, notes Ms Bilak, because of the precarious structures and settings in which they live, their lack of resources and vulnerability to illness and eviction. “Of course, for many of them, having already been forced to leave their rural homes, this is a secondary displacement.”
For those left behind in the villages, the situation is also far from rosy. The road back to, Shahjalal’s village, cuts through miles and miles of fields. All of them are empty.
“These all used to be paddy fields,” he says, “when I was a child, they were full of farmers. Now you see there is no one.”
The village, too, is oddly quiet. Of Shahjalal’s extended family only the older generation remains: Shahjalal’s parents and his uncle. They estimate that 70 per cent of the people who used to live there have left since Cyclone Sidr.
“All the young men have to leave to find work,” says Shahjalal’s uncle. “Sometimes they take their wives and children with them, other times they leave them behind.”
The exception is Shahjalal’s brother, Mohamed Saidul. The eldest of the three brothers, 27-year old Mohamed worked for a while in Chittagong, but came back home.
Now he and his family farm shrimp and fish. It is a lot less profitable than paddy farming.
“We struggle to make enough to live but I don’t want to leave—this is my home,” he says.
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