Already grappling with migration in battered coastlines and urban slums, Bangladesh now faces the problem of a global pandemic. This is how regional towns like Mongla are coping with this newly added factor in an already vulnerable system.
Shaheen Mia is a labourer in Mongla town and wakes up every day to break bread with his family. Like him, there are many others who have come to this town to look for alternative livelihood.
Shaheen Mia does not understand climate change neither has he heard about global warming. What he knows for sure is “if the rivers hadn’t taken our land we never had to move.” Like Shaheen Mia there are millions of rural-to-urban migrants in Bangladesh who are embracing change in the face of climate change.
Bangladesh being one of the most vulnerable countries is likely to be amongst the worst hit by the impacts of climate change and is expected to have around 10 million climate-change refugees, mainly from the coastal regions due to the sea level rise over the next few decades.
This is adding to the already existing burden for growing megacities like capital Dhaka, which most rural-to-urban migrants choose as their destination and would have great difficulty absorbing so many climate change-induced migrants.
While Bangladesh needs to think about how to cope with the millions of climate migrants that it will inevitably have, there should be strategies to indeed turn the problem into a solution. “A secondary climate-resilient and migrant-friendly cities and towns can be a solution for millions of migrants,” Saleemul Huq, director of ICCCAD states.
The International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) together with support from PROKAS- British Council, DFID, UK implemented the Climate-Induced Migration project and is trying to bolster education, health facilities, affordable housing, and employment in a few secondary towns around the country, including Mongla, where incomers can build a new life. It will relieve pressure on the capital and future climate- induced migrants can move with dignity rather than under duress.
Mongla, a growing port town on the country’s South-west coastal region, is testing the theory of spreading the burden of the migrants from Dhaka to other parts of the country. The current population of Mongla is around 70,000 (KDA, CIM IBP-PROKAS, December 2019) and seasonally the area sees around 120,000 people (Bengal Institute, 2020) as seasonal migration.
In that light, Mongla Municipality is embarking on an urban overhaul that aims to turn it into a magnet for climate migrants. Earlier, the town used to be inundated with high tides on a regular basis. It is now one of several emerging class one Municipality Town models of climate-friendly urban planning where investments in the Marine drive road and other Climate Resilient adaptive infrastructure are being paired with factories and other blue- collar job opportunities, as well as public services like affordable housing, schools, and hospitals.
According to the mayor, Zulfikar Ali, people used to have to leave Mongla to find work. Now they’re coming here due to increased business and employment opportunities at the Port, EPZ, various industries, etc, and staying here because of the good living conditions. Mongla has the right ingredients, planners hope. It has a well-established deep-water port, surrounded by a sprawling industrial area across a river from the town center with cement factories, diesel fuel mass storage facilities, and two dozen factories with jobs for 4,300 workers producing everything from luggage and electronics to packaged snacks and mannequins.
Every morning and evening at rush hours the river is jammed up with ferries on which passengers and workers stand shoulder to shoulder heading towards the town center. Mongla Port Municipality, located in the southwest coastal region, is big enough to offer opportunities but small enough that there’s room to grow. And the town’s reputation is spreading. Two-third of the total population of Mongla has migrated from different districts. In the next five years, the mayor insists, Mongla will be a regional economic hub, accommodating thousands of potential migrants drawn by rapid industrialization and pushed by the loss of agricultural land to the rising sea.
The mayor wants to be ready -with ambitious plans and ideas for his town’s as expansion of southwest coastal region with industrial zones, residential developments to improve housing for slum communities.
An impressive array of infrastructural works has transformed life there already. So far, local officials have invested in two flood-control gates; a freshwater treatment plant and distribution system from two 100 acres of large ponds has increased the number of houses with running water from one-third of the city’s total to one-half.
That’s not all. Eleven kilometres of pedestrian-friendly riverside marine drive was made alongside tree plantation to improve aesthetics along with adequate street lamps and two dozen closed-circuit security cameras to improve safety.
Mongla now has a loudspeaker system which was installed by the municipality to better communicate news, information and announce changes in weather to the community. Several new apartment towers are under construction, as well as a watchtower for tourists visiting the town. The Sundarbans mangroves forest is visible from these watch towers. However, like any other growing cities, Mongla too has its set of problems. Mongla’s health and water infrastructures are still a problem in living with up to the demands of its people.
These infrastructures are being put to the test in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly critical service providers like the Upazila Health Complex, which does not have adequate health equipment.
Locals usually travel to Khulna city for medical assistance. Recently in March 2020, a satellite health clinic was opened by Friendship, a non-governmental organization (NGO), to support the rural people affected by climate change, who find it hard to reach proper healthcare facilities.
Locals said that there is lack of test and trace facilities for Covid-19, inadequate number of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the Upazila Health Complex, and overall a lack of capacity of the Upazila Health Complex to withstand likely upcoming surge of Covid cases. Mongla also has an age-old problem. Rising sea level coupled with salty water is putting immense pressure on the local water supply and housing structures. Availability of drinking water is also a problem.
The water supplies from private companies are not available due to the lockdown. On the other hand, the ponds have become dry for the seasonal weather condition that results in scarcity of water.
However, the people and the mayor of the Mongla Municipality are optimistic and resilient. During the ongoing pandemic, thousands of locals are going through a crisis of food and essential household goods. As part of their dutifulness, the mayor of Khulna City Corporation, Mongla Jubo League alongside other partners have distributed PPEs to the Upazila Health Complex alongside hand sanitizer, soap, and other sanitation materials for the local people.
The locals also came forward under the banners of Nobolok, JJS and Friendship to look after families in the area for the month of Ramadan. Water was supplied from the municipality in containers. Alongside the regular relief distribution, the mayor promoted health and hygiene awareness, particularly emphasizing handwashing and using masks on a regular basis.
Upazila Vice Chairman Noor E Alam gave out PPE and hand sanitizers to the locals. Bashundhara Group supported workers and labourers, helping 3,500 families during the crisis. Such community mobilization has had a positive effect on the people and especially migrants.
With such problems on the horizon, it shows how migrants in Mongla are getting exposed to long term problems associated with development. However, the silver lining regarding this would be that it is identifying what is required in Mongla and how experts alongside the local Mayor are currently trying their best to increase efforts. Moving forward, interventions that need to be addressed in the town are better health
facilities with modern treatment and diagnostic facilities, improved housing for slum dwellers, adequate water supply and cyclone shelters equipped in handling the dual crisis of climatic induced disaster and emerging pandemic situation. With these improvements, Mongla could become a migrant-friendly town for both migrants moving into the town and also for the locals.
Adnan Qader is Senior Research Officer at ICCCAD. His research interests lie in climate and water security.
Sumaiya Binte Anwar is a Research Officer at ICCCAD, working in the Urban Resilience Program. She is a Civil Engineer and a climate enthusiast. She can be reached at [email protected]
Nafis Fuad is a Research Officer at ICCCAD. His main research interest is in urban climate resilience and development. He can be reached at [email protected]t