Bholar Bosti is a slum located in Mirpur, at the outskirts of Dhaka City and houses about 550 families, most of whom have lost their homes and land to the River Meghna. The migration from Bhola, a fast disappearing island in southern Bangladesh started with 13 families as early as 1996, but over the last two decades, the slum has grown 40-fold. Most have come looking for better employment opportunities. Surprisingly, unlike other slums of Dhaka, the slum-dwellers of Bholar Bosti actually live in a friendly and comparatively clean environment, where they have electricity and gas, piped water supply and paved alleys. Various NGOs and donors have assisted the slum dwellers to put in place these facilities and provided them with training in skills such as embroidery and handicrafts. The people of Bholar Bosti are fairly well-informed of their rights through various awareness raising activities conducted by NGOs. Their children go to schools established specifically for the slum dwellers. The displaced people who were previously farmers or fishermen are now employed in low skilled jobs such as rickshaw pullers, domestic workers, and garments workers. Bholar Bosti inhabitants feel that their children have a promising future since they can go to school and live with basic amenities.
Bholar Bosti is just a fraction of the total movement of people from climate affected parts of Bangladesh to the urban centers. Needless to say, more needs to be done to understand the ramifications of these migration flows and to improve the lives of those living in these settlements. The 1991 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, warned of the grave impact climate change would have on human migration. Just 22 years later, the 5th IPCC report in 2013 confirmed that “the migration and mobility dimensions of the impacts of climate change and the central role of mobility in adaptation has become apparent.”
South Asia is one of the most affected regions and Bangladesh ranks 1st in the Climate Change Vulnerability index (2014). Bangladesh has been experiencing the impact of weather extremes and increasing natural disasters for some years and is formulating development plans to try to mitigate the climate change-induced migration patterns. Development plans include the National Adaption Plans of Action (2005) and the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (2009), both of which make references to migration due to climate change and outlines actions to develop a monitoring mechanism for internal and external migration. The Disaster Management Act, 2012 makes an indication for the need to rehabilitate affected people to other regions of the country so that they can resume their natural way of life. However, in a country as densely populated as Bangladesh, available space remains an issue, and the real question remains: Where can the people go?
Every year, Bangladesh goes through at least one natural disaster that displaces people either temporarily or permanently. Cyclone Aila in 2009 displaced over two million people in the Southwest many of whom have still not been able to return to their homes, and who live in very poor conditions. With the exacerbating effect of rising sea waters and river bank erosion, the permanent solution for some Aila affected people has been to relocate to slums in Khulna City. There are floods in the north and northwest, resulting frequently in riverbank erosion, forcing people to move their homes.
Villagers living near riverbanks are forced to migrate a number of times in their lifetime from their disasters for example Abul Khair (40) and Md Ahsanullah (33) of Shibalaya upazilla in Manikganj district remembers moving their homes at least 3-4 times in their lifetime. They lost their land and assets, but since they had other skills and education they could recoup and re-establish themselves in their home upazillas as teachers. Many are not so fortunate and end up relocating to a totally different locality like Dhaka city. The very poor usually end up living in the urban slums, where access to services of health, water, and sanitation or education is limited. In addition, their social safety networks have been removed, which leaves the displaced very vulnerable to local pressures and crime.
Given the current evidence for climate change, it is inevitable that in the future more people will be on the move as result of natural disasters as well as slow erosion of their living habitat. Bangladesh needs to find ways to make migration a “transformative adaptation” strategy for its people who are facing the brunt of climate change, rather than an experience that pushes them further into poverty.
The challenge for Bangladesh is to identify and adopt climate-adaptive and resilient measures suitable to the local context. Bholar Bosti could be an ideal example, where external assistance and timely interventions changed the lives of environmentally affected and displaced communities for the better. We have to move towards focusing on how to better serve these people not only through policy interventions, but concrete actions to make migration a positive experience.