Climate refugees: The Bangladesh case | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 06, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 06, 2010

Climate refugees: The Bangladesh case

Cyclone victims yet to be rehabilitated.

Concern over anticipated sea-level rise (SLR) associated with global climate change has received wide attention of Bangladeshi climate specialists and related scientists, concerned citizens, politicians, and the print and electronic media. It is now widely accepted in the country that Bangladesh faces grave challenges from impacts associated with climate change. According to the World Development Report 2010, about 18% of Bangladesh's land will be submerged if the sea level rises by one meter. Should this occur, it will result in the displacement of almost 30 million people. Bangladesh government has few available resources to deal with this huge number of displaced people, or the so-called climate refugees. Not surprisingly the government has been seeking the cooperation of wealthy nations in relocation planning for those likely to be displaced.
At the December 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the Bangladesh government successfully highlighted its concerns and anxieties with clarity and urged the wealthy nations to accept millions of Bangladeshi climate refugees. It also called on the UN to redefine international law to give climate refugees the same protection as people fleeing political repression. Bangladeshi climate specialists and others support the idea that richer nations should accept climate refugees as land becomes scarce in this densely populated South Asian nation. Moreover, they maintain that it is a moral obligation of industrialized countries to accept displaced people because they are largely responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that are the root cause of SLR. Bangladesh is one of the least responsible nations for the problem, yet it is one of the most at risk from the consequences of the impending climate change specifically rising sea levels.
It appears that Bangladesh government has not yet outlined any policy regarding the mechanics of climate refugee migration to foreign countries. Without a clear policy in place, many concerned citizens of Bangladesh suspect that the most vulnerable -- poor and largely illiterate coastal residents -- will never be able to migrate to developed countries. Rather, many suspect, politically powerful and/or highly educated urban residents will take this opportunity to migrate to developed countries as climate refugees. Even if the government does develop a comprehensive policy on climate-induced migration, many suspect that it will fail to implement such policy because of widespread corruption within the government.
Relevant literature suggests that the international community is reluctant to relocate climate refugees of developing countries in developed nations. It advocates that climate-induced migrants be resettled within the national boundaries of the impacted countries. Like Bangladesh and other developing countries threatened by sea-level rise, with countries in Europe, North America, and Australia low-lying coastal portions may themselves face a similar refugee problem. International agencies hope that most people forced into migration due to climate change can be resettled within their own countries. There is a great reluctance on the part of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regarding revision of the definition of refugees to include climate refugees.
A UNHCR report warned in August 2009 that given the current political environment, such a revision could result in decreasing protection standards for non-climatic refugees and even undermine the international refugee protection system altogether. Given current reluctance on the part of most developed countries to accept climate refugees, some Bangladeshis feel that the Bangladesh government should also approach Middle Eastern countries for providing resettlement options for Bangladeshi climate refugees. They claim that wealthy Middle Eastern Muslim countries have an obligation to accept displaced Bangladeshi Muslims.
Regardless of whether Western or Middle Eastern countries may become possible destinations for Bangladeshi climate refugees, experts maintain that after their homes are inundated due to sea-level rise, affected coastal residents of Bangladesh will first move within the country -- most likely to larger cities located inland, such as Dhaka. These experts further claim that the next step in this predicted migration pattern is illegally crossing national borders to neighbouring countries where resources may be only slightly less scarce. Cross border migration will almost certainly become a great political issue and will cause political tension. It is also probable that some climate refugees will be victims of those who are in the trade of trafficking women and children, which has been occurring for more than three decades in Bangladesh.
Given uncertainty regarding the acceptance of climate refugees by any country, the Bangladesh government should also focus on proactive adaptations, such as modifying zoning laws on coasts in anticipation of stronger sea surges, planning for large tracts of forest in flood-prone areas along rivers and coastlines, perhaps building embankments in some areas to cope with rising waters, along with shifting to crops that are more resistant to drought and saline water. The goal of these and other proactive adaptation measures is to reduce the impacts of climate change by reducing vulnerability to many of its direct effects.
From an economic point of view, the costs of proactive adaptation are generally lower than the costs of reactive adaptation strategies. A common problem with most adaptive strategies is that many if not all impacts of climate change will not be visible until the next few decades. Additionally, because of uncertainties among climate experts regarding changes in regional climates, the specific local impacts of climate change (even at national levels) are also uncertain. Despite these limitations, the research on this issue finds that past SLR (due to natural calamities) has not led to displacement of coastal populations; instead people coped through a variety of different adaptations.
In the context of climate change, mitigation consists of reducing emissions (or removing greenhouse gas (GHG) from the atmosphere), shifting from coal to natural gas-fired power plants, developing renewable energy, and reducing deforestation and associated emissions of carbon dioxide. All these measures can substantially reduce the impacts apprehended with on-going climate change. Although there is some disagreement among climate specialists, mitigation measures are generally more appropriate responses to climate change for developed countries. Bangladesh government naturally feels it has little responsibility for mitigation measures since its contribution to GHG emissions that cause global warming is insignificant.
Experts, however, recommend that the country should consider both mitigation and adaptation options, even though mitigation involves global efforts to be effective and adaptation is more varied and local. Remarkably, the Bangladesh government has already incorporated both adaptation and mitigation measures into the country's overall development strategy. Surprisingly, no one has yet advocated reduction in population growth rate as a response to what appears to be imminent sea level rise. Bangladesh has a natural population growth rate of 1.7%, which is higher than the world average growth rate of 1.2%. The government should seriously consider controlling its population as one of the means to address impact of climate change.

Dr. Paul is a Professor of Geography at Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA.

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