Environmental shocks are already a leading source of forced displacement worldwide having caused 25 million displacements globally in 2019 alone
During one of my work travels, I had met Mintu sitting under the shade of a tree, at a juncture between Dhaka and Chandra. When enquired about it, he shared about having been forced to migrate to Dhaka after losing his home in Jamalpur to floods. He still visits his hometown every year in hopes of one day rebuilding his habitat there. Mintu is among the thousands who were forced to migrate to the capital to start over after being displaced due to natural disasters. Not only does the city get overburdened, but more often than not, the displaced people too, do not achieve what they had set out for.
Human displacement, forced or otherwise, is a climacteric consequence of environmental degradation and was identified as the greatest impact of climate change by the first Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In fact, environmental shocks are already a leading source of forced displacement worldwide having caused 25 million displacements globally in 2019 only (HDR 2020) with estimates suggesting a total of 1.2 billion people at risk of being displaced by 2050 (Kulp and Strauss, 2019).
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Natural disasters in Bangladesh triggered new displacements of 4 million people in 2019 and 2.5 million people within only the first half of 2020. A 2014 report by the government of Bangladesh acknowledged that by 2050, 1 in every 7 people in the country could be displaced due to climate change. The settlement of these environmental refugees will pose a serious problem for an already overpopulated Bangladesh (BCCSAP 2009). People from the northern and coastal areas are the most vulnerable to the soaring risk of internal displacement due to climate change. As a result of forced displacements, these people usually encounter livelihood challenges and are consequently propelled to migrate to the major cities to start over. This not only overburdens the cities but also more often than not results in failure for the displaced people in achieving their goals. Needless to say, there is no winner in this scenario.
Climate change is evidently the major cause of the increasing frequency of disasters affecting Bangladesh in recent years. Firstly, a global-warming-induced rise in sea surface temperatures in the Bay of Bengal is causing tropical cyclones at a higher frequency. Furthermore, due to global warming, a decrease in precipitation in the dry seasons causes more intense droughts in the Northwestern region, while increased rainfalls in monsoon lead to prolonged and intense floods in other regions. Friendship, a Bangladeshi Social Purpose Organization (SPO) conducted a study in 2014 as part of its initiative called Community Initiated Disaster Risk Reduction (CIDRR) aiming to strengthen locally-led adaptations and reduce the vulnerability of people from remote areas. The project which was implemented in 53 communities in 9 sub-districts from northern districts of Gaibandha and Kurigram, and southern districts Patuakhali, Barguna, and Satkhira of coastal Bangladesh, helped gain an understanding of trends related to risk, displacement, and adaptation solutions. It found that 56% of displacements in northern regions were due to riverbank erosion while 6.6% were due to flooding, and 5.3% displacements in the southern regions were due to flooding. Later, a 2017 end-line study in the same areas projected an increased displacement rate with 85% of the displacements occurring because of riverbank erosion, 56% from flooding, and 3% due to cyclones.
As an aftermath of that study, Friendship introduced a Nature-based Solution (NbS) called ‘Green Infrastructure’ involving the construction of plinths or raised platforms for accommodating the displaced people. Made from the soil of dredged river slits, these plinths also work as makeshift flood relief-shelters. They are constructed above projected flood levels and have oval shapes so as to break the flow of water and slow it down to prevent erosion. Normally housing 25-30 displaced families, each of these plinths can accommodate 100-150 families during adversities. Moreover, through easily raising cattle sheds in these plinths, cattle can also be saved instead of being washed away by floods as is usually the case. Moreover, the construction of these plinths creates jobs for the local people. A perfect example of an eco-infrastructure and NbS to the displacement problem, these plinths last for about 15 years and function as cluster villages, having been implemented across 18 locations in the northern region of the country.
Nevertheless, these plinths are insufficient in solving another major effect of displacement - the lack of food and nutrition, particularly for the children alongside pregnant and lactating women, due to floods damaging their vegetable gardens, among other reasons. A possible solution for this was found to be the practice of growing vegetables in hanging tubs. Food production is another challenge for flood-prone area residents. Only in 2020, floods recurred five times in the coastal region of Bangladesh. The wary farmers waited for the first onset of the flood to recede before planting their seedlings but a second onset of flood caught them unaware and destroyed all their newly planted seedlings. Fortunately, the government provided them with preserved seeds to prevent food insecurity, although it was feared that many of the farmers from the remote areas were deprived of this aid. To avoid further such loss, Friendship collaborated with the government and came up with a NbS in the form of floating seedbeds. It entailed preparing seedlings on a floating raft made of bamboo or banana tree stems. These methods of seed preservation and floating seedlings provide nature-based-solutions to problems of food production caused by disasters and displacement.
Based on how NbS helped provide eco-solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges like climate-change-induced displacement, it is proved that even the biggest of challenges can be overcome, if only manpower trained in green energy joined hands with the community. We believe that the combination of indigenous knowledge and the expertise of local level development agencies would create an invaluable synergy where nature along with human civilization can be benefited in many ways. With processes like Eco Disaster Risk Reduction solutions under the wider umbrella of sustainable development, no Mintu will ever have to be homeless again, and many yet, may find their way back.
Kazi Amdadul Hoque is working as Senior Director-Strategic Planning and Head of Climate Action, Friendship. [email protected]
Towrin Zaman is working as Research Associate at ICCCAD