In 1950, there was less than half a million people living in Dhaka -- now there is 15 million. While the population in the country almost tripled during this time period, it was primarily migration that led to the city’s rapid expansion.
Migration is nothing new in Bangladesh. After all, people living in the Bengal delta have always moved to cope with shifting rivers eating up their land. In fact, World Bank estimates that about half a million people, at present, arrive to Dhaka each year.
But many now fear climate change will force even more migrants to come to Dhaka, a city that’s not only on the verge of collapse at times, but one that’s already struggling to meet the basic needs of all its residents.
While the concern of migrants flooding the city may be somewhat alarmist, climate change will definitely affect migration patterns and it is worth discussing how the country could respond positively.
Recently, the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, along with Manusher Jonno Foundation, conducted a study looking at migration as a possible adaptation to climate change.
We thought we’d present the findings (along with the literature review) in a basic Q&A format.
What is a climate migrant?
This is a fairly tricky question. Most researchers argue that there is no such thing as a “climate migrant” ie a migrant who moved primarily due to climate change.
From a development practitioner’s perspective, planned migration could be a solution. One way -- promoted by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit -- is to decentralise centers of growth
This is because people move for a variety of reasons and it is hard to isolate climate change as the sole -- or ever primary -- cause. For instance, many people move to Dhaka in search for work and livelihood opportunities. And while their home may have fallen victim to river erosion, it is hard to disaggregate one motivation from another.
Similarly, it is even hard to determine the extent to which environmental hazards in the country are attributable to climate change.
A good portion of migrants move to Dhaka because their houses were lost to coastal erosion. And while scientists predict climate change will increase coastal erosion (due to global warming heating up the oceans and invigorating tidal waves), we don't yet have the data to conclusively determine whether current coastal erosion is due to climate change.
This is why the International Office of Migration prefers the term “environmental migrant.”
One general difference between environmental migrants and economic migrants is that economic migrants tend to be single people leaving their households in search for work; whereas environmental migrants tend to be families who have to leave because they’ve lost their households. However, this is not always the case.
Either way, climate change will play some role in affecting how people migrate in the country.
How will climate change affect migration patterns in the future?
Estimates of the impact of climate change on migration in the future vary wildly. Studies range from anywhere from a few million to tens of millions being driven out of the coastal region by 2050.
Part of the problem in making these predictions is, as stated above, that it’s hard to determine who qualifies as a climate migrant.
Bangladesh is also taking active steps to adapt to climate change. Interventions such as building coastal embankments higher the predicted sea level rise will likely curb climate change induced migration in the future.
Furthermore, migrants displaced by cyclones are usually short term and short distance. In other words, in the aftermath of a cyclone people move to nearby districts to look for temporary work in order to build back their assets. As climate change is expected to make cyclones more intense, this short-term pattern of displacement will likely continue.
Climate change may even prevent people from moving. Our study found that while the male members of a household may move temporarily to look for work, the women are left to stay behind.
Are migration patterns for men and women different?
Of course. Although it is hard to determine how “climate change” migration may affect men and women differently from other drivers of migration.
Often, in the aftermath of a cyclone, it is the men who migrate temporarily looking for short-term work, while the women stay behind. While, in some cases, women find this as an extra burden -- having to take on all the responsibilities their husbands or sons would otherwise have done -- in other situations, women are able to exert more agency over household affairs, at least until the husband returns.
Our study in Gaibandha found that men would leave their wives, move to Dhaka, and remarry without telling their first wives about their new marriages.
For single women who do move to Dhaka, whether because of environmental or economic factors, the experience can be liberating. Especially those women working in garments factories, not only are they making an independent income but are often receiving trainings on how to manage their money and assert their rights (not to say their situations couldn't be improved).
Again, it is hard to link any of these migration patterns directly to climate change. But they are part of the larger pattern of migration climate change will affect.
Could planned migration be an adaptation to climate change?
Perhaps. Our research suggests that while people prefer to stay behind in their villages, more of their basic needs (shelter, food, income source, etc) are met in the city.
Our interviewees often talked about the pain they felt leaving their grandparent’s house, etc but, because of river erosion, could not return.
From a development practitioner’s perspective, planned migration could be a solution. One way -- promoted by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit -- is to decentralise centers of growth.
In other words, instead of heavy industry development occurring primarily in Dhaka and Chittagong, build economic centers in other regions of the country. In this way, migrants will naturally diversify the locations they are headed.
Additionally, for those who arrive in Dhaka, it is important to provide them with better housing opportunities. The emergence of slums, certain scholars argue, should not be seen as a consequence of migration, but of flawed urban planning.
While migration in the context of climate change has historically been seen as a problem, with proper measures, migration could actually be a solution.
Jennifer Khadim is the Youth Coordinator at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development. Meraz Mostafa is a research officer at the same organisation.