A CHANGING SKY
Bangladesh is at extreme risk from the negative effects of climate change. Millions of people have already been displaced due to climatic effects and the numbers keep rising.
Different parts of the country are affected differently: the north is more prone to river bank erosion, erratic rainfall and drought, while the south is affected by cyclones, storm surges and salinity intrusion - movement of saline water into freshwater aquifers, which can lead to contamination of drinking water sources and to other consequences. Flooding affects almost the whole country, which increases river bank erosion.
Sirajganj, a district in the north, has been so badly affected by river bank erosion that schools, hospitals, agricultural land and thousands of homes have been washed away by the river. Many families have been displaced numerous times. The erosion is expected to get worse as the effects of climate change intensify and many more homes will be lost.
Internal migration triggered by climatic stress is causing the rapid creation and expansion of slums around Bangladesh’s main cities.
The island district of Bhola has also witnessed severe river bank erosion. As a result, its population has been displaced around the capital Dhaka. The slum dwellers have very limited access to basic services such as water, sanitation, health and education. Since most of the slums are established on government owned land, residents lack proper authorization: leaving them in constant fear of eviction.
“I lived with my family in a rural village in the Bhola district, near the Meghna river. We grew crops and vegetables, and we fished. Life was beautiful. But our land was washed away by erosion. We moved to someone else’s land, near the embankment. We had to pay rent. It was difficult as we had lost our livelihoods. In the end, we had no choice but to move here to the city slum to survive," explains Faruq, one of the founders of Bhola slum in Dhaka.
Bangladesh faces cyclones on an annual basis. In 2007 and 2009, its coast was affected by two major cyclones resulting in property damage and long term consequences like salinity intrusion, which can lead to contamination of drinking water sources amongst other problems.
“Climate change is still in its infancy. As time goes by, the intensity and frequency of climatic events will increase. Bangladesh may be one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As the country has been experiencing natural disasters for centuries, it is more or less prepared to deal with them but not with sea level rise and salinity intrusion,” said Professor Ainun Nishat, centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research, BRAC University.
Bangladesh has created solutions to adapt to saltwater intrusion, such as shifting focus from rice crops to shrimp cultivation, or to saline-tolerant varieties of crops. However, many people have lost their agricultural livelihoods, and have been forced to migrate in search of better opportunities.
Migration and climate change are interrelated. Just as environmental degradation and disasters can cause migration, the movement of people can also have significant effects on surrounding ecosystems. While migration can be a coping mechanism and survival strategy for those who move, mass migration in particular can also have significant environmental repercussions for areas of origin and destination, and the migratory routes between them.
The impact of climate change and environmental degradation has been felt in South Asia for decades, characterized by natural disasters - floods, storms, droughts, cyclones and heavy rains. Disasters take a huge toll on the region, displacing thousands of people every year. The impact of these natural hazards is amplified by the fact that most countries in the region lack strong economies and infrastructure to deal adequately with disasters further negatively impacting both.
As natural disasters increase in severity and frequency, it is clear that environmental challenges will have a significant impact on migratory flows in the future.
The photos and videos were produced under IOM Development Fund (IDF) project covering South Asia, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives. The final research study can be found online.