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Environmental change and the problem of mobility: Understanding the complexities in Bangladesh

  • Published at 01:55 pm September 4th, 2019
Climate Tribune_August 2019_Pg 10,11&12
Photo: Courtesy

Mobility makes a big difference for people at the frontier of climate change

Climate change is a topic of major concern and debates on international, national and local level. Bangladesh is a country highly exposed to a variety of environmental stresses, such as floods, tropical storms, changing traditional rainfall patterns and droughts (Huq and Ayers, 2007; Rahman and Alam, 2003). The coastal areas of Bangladesh are affected by rising sea levels and riverbank erosion, whereas the Northern and central regions are prone to flooding and riverbank erosion. It is anticipated that climate change will intensify these developments and increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events (IPCC, 2001). Rural households in Bangladesh build their livelihoods mainly on natural resources and agricultural production and are therefore highly vulnerable to these environmental changes. Many households have lost their livelihoods in recent years due to changing climate (Government of Bangladesh, 2009). 

Mobility is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon and comprises a conscious decision by individuals or households to move. Several interacting drivers, such as economic, social, cultural and environmental factors play a role in migration decisions. Migration takes different forms – a distinction can be made between permanent, temporary or cyclical migration, between voluntary or forced migration, and between internal and cross-border migration (Mortreux et al., 2018). With some areas becoming less habitable due to changing climate, it is anticipated that a changing climate will lead to an increase in human mobility. Over the last decade, there has been a renewed interest in exploring the link between environmental changes and migration decisions (McLeman and Gemenne, 2018).  

The relationship between climate change and migration is complex and an ongoing discussion revolves around the nature of the relationship between the two. Few migrants will move because of one single reason, which feeds into the discussion of whether it is useful to consider environmental migration as a separate category from other forms of mobility. Furthermore, studies of environmental hazards present mixed effects on migration outcomes -- some show increasing, others decreasing effects on mobility (Mortreux et al., 2018). Research shows that instead of a single environmental hazards or slow-onset disaster, it is rather their immediate and mid-term effects on people’s livelihoods due to unemployment, crop loss or increasing prices, that ultimately influence mobility decisions (Black, Kniveton and Schmidt-Verkerk, 2013; Martin et al., 2013). Climatic events, such as tropical cyclones, can act as triggers leading to forced migration (Webersik, 2012). The mobility process is facilitated by resources that are available to the household, connections, social networks and perceived alternative livelihood strategies. Social networks and connecting social ties enable mobility as information about destinations as well as the benefits and cost attached to mobility are transmitted through these channels (Massey et al, 1993; Greiner, 2011).  

While mobility seems to be increasing as a result of environmental change and multiple interrelated factors, the act of mobility itself is not available to all living in climate vulnerable areas. Immobility is prominent in a context where a large population remains in their place of origin, and experiences environmental effects frequently, without any desire and/or capability to move out of these vulnerable areas (Black et al, 2013). The discussion then is about voluntary and involuntary immobility decisions, that enable or obstruct the agency of the stayers. Although studies on immobility have become increasingly popular in migration literature, the outlook in many cases remains limited, where stayers are labelled as “left behind” (Jónsson, 2011).  

In the following, we present two case studies from Bangladesh that show how closely climate change, mobility and immobility are interlinked. 

Mobility: Seasonal migrant working in the Bhatta

Driving north from Dhaka towards Mymensing, we arrive at a stop named Signboard. Close to it is Rose Brick Field, the brick kiln to which a large group of people from Padmapukur village, 400 kms from their village in Koyra district, have migrated for work. These seasonal migrants come from a climate-affected region in the Southwest, which was devastated by Aila in 2009 and is prone to frequent saline water ingression, cyclones, river erosion and breaching of the embankment.  

Siddhartha Mondol, a man in his late forties (he is unsure of his age), has been working for six months every year in this Bhatta or brick kiln for the last three years. Prior to that, he was working in a brick kiln close to Barishal and before that in Chittagong. Being asked, why he migrates seasonally each year and when he first became mobile, Siddhartha answers: “River erosions and cyclones are common in my home area. Aila [severe cyclone in 2009] destroyed everything we had in the village.  After Aila, our land isn’t as fruitful, which makes us look for work outside the village. We are still recovering from the damage that happened a decade ago. There isn’t any work in the village and salinity makes it difficult to grow anything other than practicing shrimp farming which requires a lot of capital or land. I first migrated 3 years after Aila in 2012. I was forced to migrate because if I did not, my family would not survive. The situation in the village was not good. No job opportunities in the village and the land does not give us enough income to sustain ourselves.”    

He is here with 23 other people from the same village in Koyra district who are accompanied by the sardar or the brick kiln manager. The sardar is from the same village, Padmapukur, as all the migrants. Using personal, family, and peer networks, the migrants have connections with the sardar, who has facilitated this movement away from the village. This reflects how migration decisions are always embedded in social networks (Boas, 2019). The social ties and closeness of people at the place of origin make this transition possible. Spatial mobility is based on the maintenance of social ties and networks directing the choice of destination for the migrants. 

Immobility: Women’s lack of choice, ability and/or desire to move

It is common in this region to see men migrate, and women stay back. Although there is a rise in the number of women migrating, it is still a very small number in Southwest Bangladesh (Bernzen et al., 2019). Although the conditions in these areas have deteriorated due the increase of natural calamities and disasters, most women stay back in the village taking care of children, elderly members and the household. This climate vulnerable population does not always have a choice or ability to move, while some do not have the desire to move (Black et al., 2013), many are “trapped” in their present condition.  

Access to mobility is denied in many cases as women do not have decision-making power and cannot move away from climate risk areas. Rumana, while weaving a mat in the porch, narrates, “I cannot move out of this village. Whether there is storm, cyclone or any other disaster, I will always be here. My husband is out to work but I cannot go. Women’s position is at home in our society. Even if I want to go, there is no way I can go and work outside the village on my own. My family [husband, in-laws] decides for me.” The immobility associated with gender can be explained by the lack of financial and social capital and the social and cultural context, exacerbated by the climate risk environment in which they live.  

On the other hand, there are also women, who deliberately chose to stay back. They mentioned their attachment to the place and people that kept them from moving out of the village. “I do not wish to move out of this village, whatever may be the situation. Life is tough here, but this is my life, and this is how it has been. I cannot leave my village or my people. This is where I belong”, said one of the many women interviewed. Cultural, historical, social and place attachments make voluntary immobility a reality, providing agency to the women, who make this decision (Farbotko, 2018).  

The differing experiences for men and women, and inequalities among them produce distinct experiences of power and powerlessness (World Bank, 2009). It can facilitate or limit the choice of mobility in climate-affected areas. Entrenched gender norms, economic dependency and attachment to place and people makes mobility a difficult option for women and sometimes a determined choice.  

Solution in reducing vulnerabilities 

The nexus between environmental change, mobility and immobility remains complex where natural disasters act as triggers for human mobility. Increases in the number and intensity of disasters along with changes in the fertility and availability of land influenced the increasing out-migration from coastal villages in Southwest Bangladesh. Poor and marginalized households lack opportunities to cope with a changing environment, due to their limited mobility and lack of access to networks and resources.  

The process of moving out of the climate vulnerable situation is often made possible by maintaining social ties and social networks. Seasonal migrants such as the brick kiln workers in Bangladesh depend on their social networks to financially secure themselves and their families during migration times. Mobility and monetary gains, which come at the cost of living separated from the family and long working hours, have helped seasonal migrants to recover from the losses they have experiences during disasters.  

While mobility is widely studied and remains the core focus in migration studies, aspects of immobility are equally important to understand the nexus between environment and migration in a climate fragile context.  Immobility is involuntary in many cases. As illustrated by the second case study, the cultural milieu, women’s role in society and belonging to the land they have grown up in, makes it challenging, especially for women, to migrate.  

Policy-makers will need to find solutions that reduce the vulnerabilities associated with immobility — both through climate adaptation plans as well as strategies that recognize the need to move, and move safely. While that aspect is to be to further explored, it is also essential to understand the motifs of people, who choose not to move from a place with deteriorating environmental conditions.

Basundhara Tripathy Furlong is a visiting researcher, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh & PhD candidate, Wageningen University and Research, Netherlands 

Amelie Többen is a visiting researcher, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh & master’s student, University of Copenhagen, Denmark