The urgent need for rights-based solutions to climate displacement in Bangladesh
Ezekiel Simperingham

In 2009, Cyclone Aila caused extensive damage across India and Bangladesh, destroying homes, agricultural land, and property, and displacing over 2 million people

  • Climate-affected communities from char lands in the Jamuna river attend a public meeting to discuss their lives and futures 
    Photo- EZEKIEL SIMPERINGHAM

Displacement as a result of natural disasters and climate change is on the rise globally. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that since 2008 an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes due to natural disasters -- the equivalent to one person being displaced every second.

Every year, natural hazards and the effects of climate change cause mass displacement in Bangladesh. Sea level rise, storm surges, tropical cyclones, drought, landslides, riverbank erosion, flooding, salinity and water logging all force large numbers of people to move from their homes and lands. A household survey conducted by the Comprehensive Disaster Management Program (CDMP) of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief revealed that 87% of those persons living in the most hazard prone districts in Bangladesh have already experienced displacement during their lives.

This situation will only worsen as the impacts of climate change intensify. Although it is difficult to accurately estimate how many people will be displaced by natural hazards and climate change in the future, the best current assessment is that 18 million Bangladeshis could be displaced by sea level rise alone over the next 40 years and that many millions more may be displaced by other climate hazards. The vast majority of this displacement is already and will continue to occur within Bangladesh. This presents the government with enormous challenges, particularly when it comes to protecting communities at risk of displacement and resolving displacement where it does occur.

What makes matters worse is that those living in the most hazard-prone regions of Bangladesh have the least ability to protect themselves against displacement and to resolve their displacement when it does occur. They are the extreme poor -- pushed out to the hazardous edges of the country, the climate vulnerable char islands, the precarious river banks and the cyclone and storm affected coastal regions. They are agricultural and day labourers, with low incomes and low levels of education. The CDMP reports that of those living in the most climate vulnerable regions -- 13% are completely illiterate and 16 percent can only sign their names.

Once these communities are displaced, their vulnerability only increases. Displaced children often drop out of education and start to work for their survival such as working in brick factories. During disasters, especially flooding and water logging, displaced persons become highly vulnerable to water borne diseases. Displaced people also struggle in their new environments. They have often lost family and social support during their displacement and as newcomers it can be difficult for them to access services, such as loan facilities. This cycle of vulnerability means that many climate displaced persons struggle to rebuild their lives and are displaced over and over again during their lives.

Finding practical solutions to the enormous challenge of climate displacement is the focus of the Bangladesh Housing, Land and Property (HLP) Rights Initiative -- a joint venture between the Geneva-based Displacement Solutions (DS) and the Chittagong based Young Power in Social Action (YPSA). The Initiative, after many years of research and work on this issue, has found that solutions to climate displacement are possible within Bangladesh. The solutions must be founded on the following five premises:

First, all persons displaced by natural disasters and the effects of climWate change are the holders of human rights and all of their rights must be respected and protected at all stages of their displacement -- before they are displaced, during their displacement and after their displacement ends.

Second, Bangladesh must create effective and rights-based laws, policies and programs to protect against climate displacement and to resolve displacement where it does occur. At present,in the almost complete absence of laws and policies on climate displacement  -- vulnerable and affected communities are left to fend for themselves. Where climate affected communities have the financial or social support to move, they may move to a neighbouring town or city, or to the slums of Dhaka or Chittagong. Those without such support are often trapped in their vulnerable environment, awaiting help that may never arrive.

These laws, policies, and programs should include climate adaptation measures that protect communities against displacement and allow them to remain in their current homes and lands, with dignity. These measures should include enhancing community resilience through education and awareness campaigns on climate hazards, developing flood and salt tolerant crops, continuing Bangladesh’s excellent work in providing cyclone shelters, upgrading infrastructure and communications networks to ensure safe evacuation routes, and other major adaptation projects, including the construction of embankments where feasible. Climate adaptation laws and policies should also include the ability to relocate at risk communities where long-term adaptation measures are not feasible. This means that safe and adequate land must be identified and made available now. The next issue of the climate change page will feature the critical role of land in solving climate displacement in Bangladesh.

These laws and policies must also recognise that adaptation is not infinite and that people will continue to be displaced by natural hazards and the effects of climate change. Where climate displacement occurs, rights-based solutions to resolve displacement must be in place. Displaced persons must be able to access support to rebuild their lives, including access to new homes and new lands, safe water and sanitation, health care, education, and livelihood support.

All of these laws, programmes and policies must take a rights-based approach. This includes ensuring genuine consultation and engagement with affected communities, ensuring the principle of non-discrimination and utilising national human rights standards, including those contained in the Constitution of Bangladesh. Bangladesh should also draw on international human rights standards and guidance, including the recently developed “Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement within States.” The Peninsula Principles were drafted by a group of global experts -- including from Bangladesh -- and provide a clear, comprehensive and normative framework, based on principles of international law, human rights and best practice, for protecting the rights of climate displaced persons. There is much in the Peninsula Principles that could be used by Bangladesh to support rights-based solutions to climate displacement.

Third, climate displacement must be monitored. At present there is a large gap in research, data and baseline surveys on the scope and scale of climate displacement in Bangladesh. Although the 2009 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan recommended that a mechanism be created to monitor climate migration and displacement -- to date there is still no such mechanism in place. Such a mechanism would provide much needed data and knowledge on how many people are being displaced, from where, for what reasons and to where. Not only must this information be gathered, but it must be utilised to assist in informing and ensuring the creation of effective law and policy.

Fourth, these rights-based laws, policies, and programs must be supported by an effective institutional structure -- one that makes clear where climate displaced persons can turn to for help and one that ensures accountability. Presently, there are large numbers of government institutions, ministries and individuals with some responsibility for climate displacement. But the structure is too complex and accountability is too diffused. There needs to be a new institutional structure with clear channels of responsibility and accountability that protect all climate displaced persons and ensures that they can rebuild their lives in dignity.

Fifth, climate displacement is not just a challenge for the government of Bangladesh. All stake-holders in Bangladesh must become involved in supporting the creation of effective policies and projects to protect against and resolve climate displacement. Climate affected communities must be central to the design and implementation of solutions. This work must also be supported by the impressive civil society in Bangladesh. Journalists must visit climate hotspots and share the experiences and needs of people living there. Academics, lawyers, and experts should analyse and make recommendations for effective laws, policies and programmes. Beyond Bangladesh -- the regional and international community must become more involved and provide technical and financial support to protect against climate displacement and resolve climate displacement where it does occur. 

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Ezekiel Simperingham

Ezekiel Simperingham is an international human rights lawyer and Coordinator of the Bangladesh HLP Initiative. www.displacementsolutions.org.