South Asia is affected by a range of natural disasters that displace thousands of people every year. The impact of natural hazards in the region is amplified by poor infrastructure and weak socio-economic conditions.
Millions of people in the region live in environmentally vulnerable areas and depend on land resources for their livelihoods. For others, displacement doesn’t come from a quick disaster but from slow changes to the environment.
The rivers flow and flood differently, the rains are becoming unpredictable and planting seasons no longer match old patterns, salinity on the ground is too high in coastal areas.
In order to assess the climate change, environmental degradation, and migration nexus in South Asia, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) undertook a study in Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Nepal this year to establish an evidence base and raise awareness on the subject.
The key findings of the study are as follows:
Bangladesh’s coastal zone, consisting of 19 out of 64 districts, may be the most vulnerable hotspot for migration due to cyclones and storm surges, salinity intrusion, coastal erosion, flood, water logging, and potential sea level rise.
Khulna district, for example, is prone to cyclones, salinity intrusion, and sea level rise. Rajshahi is prone to droughts and arsenic contamination. Sunamganj in the wetland area is susceptible to flash floods. Patuakhali district is affected by cyclones, storm surges, and sea level rise.
The study revealed that respondents perceived four major natural hazards as influencing migration decisions at the household level in Khulna. These included cyclones (more than 47%); salinity intrusion in soil (around 44%), salinity intrusion in water (43%), and river bank erosion (10%).
In Patuakhali, 44% of the participants considered cyclones a primary reason for migration and 18% thought salinity intrusion was a primary reason.
Riverine floods and flash floods were major factors influencing migration in Sunamganj. There are other drivers of migration also, poverty being the main on. Respondents from Rajshahi, for example, identified non-climatic factors such as land ownership, household size, and household income, indicating poverty as the primary driver of internal migration.
Common climate change elements that affect lives and livelihoods were temperature increases and variations in rainfall. It was found that the coastal study districts -- Khulna and Patuakhali -- were vulnerable to both rapid onset events such as cyclones, storm surges, tidal floods as well as slow onset events like salinity intrusion and sea level rise.
In the northern parts of Bangladesh (Rajshahi) the biggest problem is flash floods and in the north east (Sunamganj), riverine floods make people’s lives difficult.
Bangladesh’s coastal zone, consisting of 19 out of 64 districts, may be the most vulnerable hotspot for migration due to cyclones and storm surges
What can be done to mitigate these challenges?
The study indicates that variations in temperature, rainfall, environmental degradation, pollution of surface water and ground water, deforestation, freshwater scarcity, declining ground water levels, and other natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, epidemics, and non-climatic factors, including poverty and population density, contribute to the movement of people.
The study makes the following recommendations to address climate change risks and to facilitate migration as an adaptation strategy.
Climate change impacts are visible but people’s awareness about climate change and its consequences is still inadequate. It is important to undertake large-scale awareness raising campaigns on the impacts of climate change and relevant adaptation strategies, which may include safe and organised migration, alternative skills development, and raising of homesteads onto plinths.
Evidence-based knowledge generation
Awareness campaigns, intervention activities, and policy formation should be based on evidence of what works. Existing research is insufficient. More attention needs to be given to field work to generate better understanding of the migration, environmental degradation, and climate change nexus.
Research findings and lessons need to be disseminated at local, district, and national levels for effective planning. A comprehensive database on both international and internal migrants at places of origin would be instrumental for enriching the policy processes.
Capacity building for vulnerable populations, migrants, and officials
It is necessary to offer people living in climate vulnerable areas the opportunity to develop alternative skills. For example, in Gaibandha, NGO GUK, in partnership with Government Vocational Training Institutes and private sector players such as Apex Footwear Limited, helped 1,500 vulnerable people develop skills in leather and relocated them to Gazipur for employment with Apex.
Officials of local government institutes may be trained to facilitate migration out of affected areas to other parts of the country or countries abroad. A strategy could be developed to build capacity to ensure that remittances received are used effectively by the communities or appropriately saved.
Financial institutions and local government officials also need training to provide support services to climate displaced communities.
Evidence-based policy, legal, and institutional frameworks
There is a need for enhancing the policy, legal, and institutional framework to address climate migration in the region. This would include standard operating procedures on how to address sudden and slow onset events, as well as planned relocation from areas facing irreversible climate impacts.
This would also enable increased coordination among different government agencies to address this issue. Programs and projects need to be initiated to protect natural resources, low lying areas, agricultural fields, and water resources to ensure the livelihoods of the local communities are protected.
Context-specific low cost technological options also need to be considered, especially in agriculture and water supply. For example, caged aquaculture and salinity tolerant rice varieties may be suitable in water-logged coastal areas. Migrant Resource Centers can be set up in hotspots and other areas where climate migration is persistent. Collaborative programs can be set up with information on employment options, to assist migrants to find decent jobs elsewhere.
This article is based on a study “Assessing the Climate Change, Environmental Degradation and Migration Nexus in South Asia” which is available at the IOM online bookstore.
Ashfaqur Rahman Khan is a Program Associate at the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and Shazia Omar is a writer, an activist, and a yogini.