Climate Change and Internal Migration in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is among those countries which are most severely affected by the impacts of climate change. Sudden natural disasters and subtle environmental changes endanger the livelihoods of many Bangladeshis who live on agriculture. Migration is a strategy to adapt to these developments.

Passenger ships depart from Dhaka Harbour to almost all regions of the country. The journeys on the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra or Meghna often take days, but are affordable. (© Benjamin Etzold)

Natural disasters such as floods, tropical cyclones, and droughts are expected to increase in frequency in Bangladesh in the future, whilst creeping processes such as riverbank erosion, sea level rise, and salinity ingress are likely to continue unabated. More rainfall and run-off are expected during the monsoon months, while the already scanty rainfalls in the dry season are likely to decline further. Together, these changes add to persisting patterns of stress on marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and to local water scarcity and land degradation. Climate change thus has the potential to damage lives and livelihoods of millions of Bangladeshis. The rural population living at the coast and along the major rivers is particularly exposed to cyclones and flooding; the people in northern regions are particularly affected by dry spells and heat waves. Small-scale farmers and landless laborers are most sensitive to climatic risks as they are already facing chronic poverty and food insecurity[1].

The rural population oberwhelmingly work in agriculture. In many regions, irrigation is used to yield higher crops. The image shows two men repairing a ground water pump in a village in Northern Bangladesh (© Benjamin Etzold)

Migration is often discussed as a possible coping strategy against rapid-onset natural hazards and as an adaption to slow-onset processes. If people leave a place because their livelihoods have been negatively affected by natural hazards or environmental changes, one might speak of "environmental migrants" or "environmentally-induced migration"[2]. In order to understand migration in the context of climate change, one should first investigate pre-existing mobility patterns and livelihood systems, and then assess the "additional burden" that climate-related risks pose for people. Considering the above sketched migration patterns, climatic changes cannot be considered as the major causes for migration in Bangladesh. Nonetheless, natural disasters and environmental change have altered the ways in which rural people are pursuing their livelihoods, and have contributed to people’s decision to migrate. Climate change might thus impact the patterns of internal migration in Bangladesh, whilst large-scale international movements of Bangladeshis are not to be expected for this reason.

In rural regions, most peasants can barely feed their families. Many depend on large-scale landowners for work. The image shows female day labourers in Northern Bangladesh at work harvesting potatoes. (© Benjamin Etzold)

Mobility can serve as a temporary post-disaster coping strategy. The floods of 1987, for example, led to the temporary displacement of 45 million people in Bangladesh. Yet, a high susceptibility to natural hazards does not necessarily lead to an increase in permanent migration. Most survivors of heavy tropical cyclones are also only temporarily displaced and return quickly. Often also only men move to nearby cities to work, whilst their families stay back home and rely on the migrants’ supporting transfers. Social networks and, in particular, good translocal relations have proved to be crucial in a post-disaster situation[3]. Disasters can, however, also reduce mobility by increasing the labor needs at places of origin or by removing the resources necessary to migrate. Many families living under conditions of extreme poverty may experience significant barriers to migration: They have neither adult male family members who could work as labor migrants, the required resources to facilitate migration, nor access to the necessary migration networks. These "trapped populations", among them many elderly and many female-headed households, are often the people who are most severely affected by a disaster, because they are forced to live with the resources that are locally available to them. They largely depend on post-disaster aid, mutual help and solidarity within the community. Their immobility is an additional source of their vulnerability[4].

The river islands in the North of the country are only reachable by boat. Island inhabitants have to travel far to reach places of work, high schools or hospitals. (© Benjamin Etzold)

The big rivers constantly change their course. Boats are the most important means of transport for the river island population. (© Benjamin Etzold)

Besides natural hazards that my "hit" a particular area suddenly and often unexpectedly, there are also more subtle environmental changes that force people to (temporarily) leave their place of residence. River bank erosion and coastal erosion due to sea level rise are two examples of such slow-onset processes. Since 1973, over 158,780 hectares of land have been eroded by Bangladesh’s major rivers. More than 16,000 people living on the banks of the Ganges and Brahmaputra have allegedly been displaced in 2010 alone. Besides economic and political factors, rising sea levels, coastal erosion and soil salinization will contribute to the displacement of people from the coastline and the densely populated delta region[5].

The 2011 census revealed that the population already decreases in those rural regions that are most severely affected by floods, cyclones and riverbank erosion[6]. For Bangladesh, estimates are that 26 million people would be affected and displaced by storm surges and sea level rise by the year 2050. Annually, 250,000 people might be displaced as a consequence of climate-induced hazards under a moderate climate change scenario[7]. Yet, such estimates have to be treated with caution because the exact reasons why people are displaced – or do they migrate voluntarily? – are often not considered adequately. Also, the underlying assumptions are quite simplistic. People are displaced by nature for good: they leave once and for all, they do not come back, they do not move forward. Migration is thereby portrayed as a singular and linear process. This is not only environmentally deterministic as all other social, cultural, economic, political and spatial factors that contribute to migration decisions are simply not considered. It also denies people their capacity to cope with shocks to their livelihoods and to adapt to environmental changes and other structural transformations. And lastly, compared to the 500,000 labor migrants who have left (and mostly returned to) Bangladesh each year in the past decade in order to work abroad and who sent home remittances, a number of 250,000 people who move within the nation and settle in cities and do seasonal labor in other parts of the country does not seem to pose a too big of a problem for the Bangladeshi people. In contrast, increasing internal mobility and translocal lives might pave the way for future developments and enhanced resilience against natural disasters.

This article is part of the country profile Bangladesh.
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The Government of Bangladesh (2008), recent IPCC reports (e.g. 2014) and the World Bank (2010) illustrate the already experienced and expected impacts of climate change in Bangladesh.
cf. McLeman/Smit (2006); Warner et al. (2010); IOM (2010), Black et al. (2011) or Piguet et al. (2011) for an introduction to the debate about climate change and migration, and its contested terminology.
IOM (2010); Poncolet et al. (2010); Findlay/Geddes (2011); Mallick/Vogt (2012); Mallick/Etzold (2015).
Gray/Mueller (2012); Poncolet et al. (2010); Black et al. (2013); Etzold et al. (2014).
IOM (2010); Poncolet et al. (2010); Penning-Rowsell et al. (2013); Etzold et al. (2014).
BBS (2012).
For estimates see, for instance, Biermann et al. (2010), Ahmed et al. (2012), and Siddiqui (2015).

Benjamin Etzold, Bishawjit Mallick

Benjamin Etzold

Dr. Benjamin Etzold is Research Associate and Lecturer at the Department of Geography of Bonn University, Germany. He wrote his dissertation on street trading in the mega city Dhaka and was part of a research project on climate change, hunger and migration in Bangladesh. His research foci are development geography and migration studies with a focus on social vulnerability and labor conditions.
Email: etzold@giub.uni-bonn.de

Bishawjit Mallick

Dr. Bishawjit Mallick is Research Associate at the Institute of Regional Science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. In his dissertation, he analyzed social responses to climate risks in Bangladesh's coastal areas. Currently, his research focuses on risk-oriented spatial planning and climate-induced migration processes in Bangladesh.
Email: bishawjit.mallick@kit.edu

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