Climate change induced displacement: Migration as an adaptation strategy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 15, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 15, 2011

Climate change induced displacement: Migration as an adaptation strategy

Traditional climate change literature generally presents migration as a threat. Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and migration induced by environmental events. This paper exposes the unintended consequences of treating migration as a threat. It argues that migration can be a manifestation of acute vulnerability; nonetheless it can also be transformed into a logical and legitimate livelihood diversification strategy for those who have been displaced or lost their livelihood sources.
Bangladesh, a low-lying deltaic country of South Asia, is currently facing many climate change related challenges -- sea-level rise, floods, drought, cyclone, saline inoculation, river bank and coastal erosion and water-logging. The Earth Policy Institute predicted that 1m rise in sea level will lead to landlessness of 14.8 million people, 29,846 sq. km. area of land will be lost and 40 million people will be displaced. Inundation of low land and delta will reduce agricultural production of the country severely. Along with loss of livelihood opportunities thousands of educational and health infrastructure will be lost.
In Bangladesh, climate change can affect population movement in many ways. Both sudden environmental events and gradual environment change influence population movement, in different ways. Sudden onset events such as floods, cyclones and riverbank erosion may cause the affected population to leave their homes at least temporarily. These movements are usually large scale. And in most of the cases people return to their place of origin in the long run. Slow onset process such as coastal erosion, sea-level rise, salt water intrusion, changing rainfall patterns and drought can produce irreversible results, leading to more permanent forms of migration. Some evidence of the effect of climate change are presented below.
Floods are a fact of life for many in Bangladesh. A quarter of the country is inundated in a normal year. In the last 25 years frequency of severe floods has intensified. 1988 and 1998 floods displaced as many as 45 and 30 million people respectively. Protracted water-logging after floods has increased. Owing to such events, a large group of people are displaced temporarily. A recent survey of 595 households shows 28% had at least one migrant. 83% reported unemployment due to frequent floods was the main reason behind migration. 6% went to another village, 895 to nearby city and 5% migrated to another country.
Among the nineteen coastal districts in Bangladesh twelve are directly exposed to cyclones and tidal surges. Since 1970, 26 major cyclones hit Bangladesh, with 18 of them occurring in the last 20 years. About 19 million people were affected by them. In the last three years, two high intensity cyclones hit Bangladesh: one was the super cyclone Sidr of 2007 and the other is cyclone Aila of 2009. After the most recent cyclone Aila, seasonal migration from affected areas increased manifold (100,000 from Koyra, Paikgacha, Dakope and Batiaghata). 100,000 people are still living on embankments. A large number of local people are considering permanent out migration.
River bank erosion is a major concern of people who live alongside major rivers and on chars. Each year about 1 million people are affected by it. One study on north-west Bangladesh found that, on an average, households have been displaced 4.46 times. The majority moves essentially within localised areas, while some households migrated to greater distances. Another study found that 80 to 95% of the char households of north-west Bangladesh are migrant households. Migrations from chars are mostly temporary, seasonal and circular. 5,500 of 30,000 slum dwellers in Sirajganj were found to be riverbank erosion affected displacees.
Sea-level rise (SLR) is projected to significantly increase coastal erosion, saline intrusion, flooding and watelogging and storm surge. SLR is cited as the biggest cause of mass displacement ranging from 30m to 40m. Since the predictions are long term and do not take into account potential adaptation measures and accretion of land, it is difficult to provide evidence
Northwest region of Bangladesh faces acute seasonal drought. The long term changes in rainfall pattern, over-pumping of ground water and diversion of water in the upstream by upper riparian state have been identified as major reasons. One study (Ashok Swain) on cross border movement from Bangladesh to India highlighted that a significant section of migrants originated from the north-west region affected by the Farrakka Dam. Another study highlighted that people of drought prone areas engage in short distance rural to rural and rural to urban seasonal migration.
It is interesting to note that none of the policies or action plans deals with the issue of migration. Migration as an adaptive option has not been thought of by the policy makers as well as development practitioners. The National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) and the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) are concerned about building capacity and resilience against climate change effects through localisation of problem. It is found that migration of family members in the time of distress provides much-needed economic support to survive the households.
In the case of Bangladesh, both internal and international labour migration plays an important role in the development process. Each year 400,000-500,000 Bangladeshis officially migrate abroad as contract workers. The number of internal migrants is assumed to be more than double of international migrants. Besides it has a diaspora population of 1.5 million. In 2010, they sent $11.6 billion as remittances. The figure was equivalent to 56.15b of the total export earnings of the country. Migrant remittances are 12 times more than the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flow and 6 times more than Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).
Instead of viewing migration as a threat, the government of Bangladesh as well as the global community should incorporate it as an important adaptation strategy. National Adaptation Programme of Action of the government and disaster risk reduction strategies should give adequate consideration to migration.
Organised internal and international migration can play a significant role in facing the challenges of climate change. Short-term contract migration mostly takes place from certain pockets of Bangladesh. Climate change affected regions do not fall in those pockets. The ministry which manages migration should be linked with the ministries that are in charge of managing environment so that vulnerable groups can benefit from planned migration programmes.
The Overseas Employment Policy should incorporate provisions for facilitating international migration from potential climate change affected areas. The capacity of public and private technical training centres needs to be expanded to produce skilled human resource. Special fund needs to be created to finance migration. Migrants' remittances should be linked with environment-friendly development ventures. The population movement threat of climate change can be transformed into an opportunity in the adaptation process of climate induced displacement.

The writer is Professor, Political Science and Chair RMMRU, University of Dhaka

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