Ensuring climate justice for the urban poor
The northeast of Bangladesh has been battling its worst flooding in over a century. Rising waters washed away homes, livelihoods, farmlands, roads, and critical infrastructure, leaving around 7.2 million people in the Sylhet region severely impacted. Despite evacuation and relief efforts, many remained cut off for protracted periods from rescue and relief.
Women and girls were particularly vulnerable, and food insecurity and risks of waterborne diseases still remain high. These floods occurred at a time when the southeast, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and many areas of the Barind tract were suffering from the effects of droughts.
These events are a grim reminder that climate change is an existential threat across Bangladesh. Its far-reaching consequences are increasing the frequency, intensity, and duration of disasters, putting at risk years of hard-earned economic, social, and human development progress made by the country.
Rural-to-urban migration for greater economic and social security is becoming inevitable, and climate stresses and shocks will only increase this trend, especially from climate "hotspots'' across vulnerable areas in Bangladesh. Currently, Dhaka alone receives about 400,000 migrants annually, significantly contributing to the city's increasing population of slum dwellers – a population group which, despite having migrated under distress, continues to face climate vulnerabilities such as flooding and landslides while having limited access to basic services such as health, education, and nutrition.
The switch from farm to daily wage labour work for the nominal income generation is challenging and comes with limited protection for rights and weak social protection. Moreover, as the climate crisis amplifies, urban centres are also at high risk from sea-level rise, storm surge impacts, waterlogging, and flooding – thereby perpetuating climate change challenges, especially for the most vulnerable communities.
It is estimated that Bangladesh may see 13 million internal climate migrants by 2050. Therefore, it is critical to plan ahead and consider: How can Bangladesh address the interrelated challenges around climate change, migration, and urbanisation, and turn it into an opportunity for inclusive development?
We can see the possibilities already in 19 cities across Bangladesh. They are part of a programme that aims to develop urban resilience against natural hazards which would otherwise perpetuate urban poverty. The Livelihoods Improvement of the Urban Poor Communities (LIUPCP) is a product of the largest global partnership between UNDP and the Governments of the United Kingdom and Bangladesh. It recognises that, despite adaptation in rural areas, climate change will lead to large-scale displacements. Hence, it is committed to ensuring the building of resilience in cities to enable them to absorb the unavoidable migration in dignified ways.
While UNDP and the UK government have worked together on sustainable urban development issues for 15 years across several projects in Bangladesh, our current phase has evolved to address the critical needs of resilience-building for urban poor communities to mitigate climate stresses and shocks. LIUPCP exemplifies a holistic model that "fills the gap" to improve the overall wellbeing and climate resilience of the most vulnerable people in urban environments.
The significant investments in data and analytics by the programme is helping make multidimensional poverty much more visible, and in turn, ensuring better planning and programming for the urban poor by the government and wider development partners. The programme is a unique example of locally-led adaptation, led by municipalities and city corporations.
Crucially, LIUPCP is helping transform the role of women by changing their status from beneficiaries to agents of change. It is carrying out local level leadership-building in their communities, positively changing gender norms and dynamics. Women from the settlements are leading in urban climate adaptation by investing in their community infrastructure. For example, they are organising themselves to demand, design, and implement small to medium scale infrastructure including underground drainage networks, raised walking platforms, evacuation bridges, access roads, flood-proofed walls, and water and sanitation facilities. Nationwide, women have thus far had a say in developing more than 8,233 sanitation facilities and 12,970 other infrastructure facilities, with close to a million women and men reaping the benefits.
Urbanisation is inevitable in Bangladesh, but without it being absorptive, adaptive, and inclusive, there is a heightened risk of prolonged challenges, including insecurities and social conflict.
There is significant scope to expand our work around sustainable development from our learnings, and we must recognise the need for people to be equipped with portable skills suited to relevant urban livelihoods before they are displaced, potentially through the appropriate skilling of vulnerable youth at climate hotspots. Similar initiatives for developing skills in line with alternative (off-farm) opportunities resilient to climate change will also be helpful in rural Bangladesh, when considering those without the liberty to migrate as an adaptive measure. Vocational and technical education is critical to help prevent negative coping strategies such as crime, commercial sex trade, forced migration for modern slavery, and the expansion of slums.
As Bangladesh fights the increasing effects of climate change, including in its cities, early investments will help safeguard the wellbeing and human security of climate-affected urban residents. LIUPCP's achievements of building urban resilience can serve as a model for replication to reduce inequalities. Further attention should be given to the complexities around internal climate migration in line with the Bangladesh government's Perspective Plan for 2041 that recognises this challenge. As committed long term partners of Bangladesh, the UK government and UNDP will continue their support to ensure no one is left behind on the country's journey toward achieving Agenda 2030.
Sudipto Mukerjee is resident representative at UNDP Bangladesh. Robert Chatterton-Dickson is the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh.