Bangladesh’s climate displacement nightmare

Climate change Bangladesh
Bangladesh is witnessing the dramatic impacts of climate change. Photo: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan
While scientists and the international community endlessly debate and argue, millions of Bangladeshi citizens have already been displaced by climate change - for them the worst-case 'nightmare' climate scenario is already real

Climate displacement has arrived without mercy in Bangladesh. In Khulna district alone, some 60,000 Bangladeshi citizens have fled what has become permanent coastal flooding in the remote southwest of the country. With no option of returning home, and little access to new land thus far, these climate displaced persons (CDPs) are forced to survive on a 25 kilometre long, 2m high and 3-4 m wide embankment.

This desperate community in Dacope sub-district in Khulna has built rudimentary, makeshift shelters along the length of the levee that was originally designed to protect their now destroyed villages, land and homes. The levee failed, and all they now have are insecure and instable shelters perched precariously atop the embankment, surrounded by unruly water on both sides at high tide and at low tide by thousands of hectares of desolate muddy land that was once fertile paddy and farmland.

Living in this isolated and impoverished corner of Bangladesh, which borders on the famous Sundarban National Park, and completely segregated from political life in Dhaka (and the officials that could assist them in finding new land), the people of the delta see all too little hope or viable options for the future. Ninety-per cent of the CDPs are now without livelihoods, forced to live day by day from aid handouts and are unable to return to lives, land and homes that were completely obliterated by coastal erosion and storm surges. Nor do the displaced in Dacope see any solutions coming from the Government of Bangladesh any time soon, with officials seeming thus far resistant to suggestions that they may need to assist this and other climate-affected communities to relocate to safer areas and provide them with new land.

And as bad as things may be for the delta dwellers, this CDP community is only the tip of the displacement iceberg eating away at Bangladesh’s land and populace. Comprehensive surveys carried out in 2010 by over 200 community-based organisations and coordinated by the remarkable efforts of the Association of Climate Refugees, found that a staggering 6.5 million citizens (1.3 million households) of Bangladesh have already been displaced by the effects of climate change.

Uniquely vulnerable to frequent and severe river, rainwater and tidal flooding, Bangladesh today has the sad distinction of being the world’s most vulnerable country to climate displacement. While climate scientists, the international community and academics vigorously debate about the potential for climate change to affect future population displacement, the millions of Bangladeshi citizens already displaced by the effects of climate change are no longer simply waiting for solutions to their plight, and have begun to organise for climate justice and their basic human rights.

For them the worst-case future climate scenarios have already arrived; for them the future is now.

Earth’s most climate vulnerable communities

Bangladesh is a low lying, largely flat country with two-thirds of the country located less than 5m above sea level. Situated in the delta region of three of the world’s largest rivers - with a combined annual discharge second only to that of the Amazon – it is no surprise that Bangladesh suffers from catastrophic floods every year. According to government statistics, 25 per cent of Bangladesh is inundated every year and 60 per cent of the country suffers from severe flooding every 4-5 years. What makes the situation so dire now is that the flooded land in the delta is seemingly gone for good. In Khulna, the flood will simply not recede.

And yet, this is far from the extent of climate vulnerability in Bangladesh. The country is also hit by a severe tropical cyclone on average once every three years. These storms form in the months before and after the monsoon season and intensify as they move over the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. They are accompanied by winds of up to 150kph and can result in storm surges of up to several metres. As experienced by the 60,000 people crammed in miserable conditions on the embankments of Khulna, the results for housing, land, property and livelihoods are devastating.

Of the 160 million citizens of Bangladesh, it is the more than 50 million people who live in the most extreme poverty that are and will continue to be most affected by climate change. These are the people who are forced to live in remote, exposed and vulnerable locations – often on river islands and cyclone prone coastal regions - where the land is cheap but the risks are high. Of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, 24 are already severely affected by growing numbers of climate displaced persons.

As sure as the effects of climate change are in devastating lives and communities in Bangladesh today, it is also clear that the devastation is only going to increase in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that floods, tropical cyclones and storm surges will all become more frequent and more severe in the future due to the effects of climate change. The IPCC also forecasts even higher flows in the rivers that flow into Bangladesh from India, Nepal, Bhutan and China – as a direct result of increasing monsoon rainfalls and the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Sea level rise as a result of global warming will also result in even more severe coastal flooding in Bangladesh as well as saline intrusion into rivers across the entire southern regions of the country.

The need for solutions to climate displacement

While the full impact of future climate change is notoriously difficult to accurately predict, it is clear that the 6.5 million climate displaced people in Bangladesh in January 2011 will be joined by many millions more in the future. The effects on communities and the devastation of lands and homes will only become more intense. It is clear that the future is not bright for the people of Bangladesh and equally that land-based solutions are required now.

As poor as they may be, under human rights law, these impoverished and marginalised communities are also the people most in need of having their housing, land and property rights respected, protected and fulfilled. Combined efforts to tackle the challenges of climate displacement with a renewed commitment to HLP rights just might hold out the best hope that CDP’s will a secured a future worth living. And this is precisely what the joint Bangladesh HLP Initiative of Displacement Solutions and the Association of Climate Refugees intends to do.

Despite the considerable efforts of the Bangladeshi Government to combat and address the effects of climate change – including the adoption of the 2005 Bangladesh National Adaptation Programme of Action and the 2009 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan – the Government has yet to propose clear or practical land-based solutions for addressing the plight of Bangladesh’s current and future climate displaced people.

Though one of the pillars of the Bangladesh Climate Change Action plan is to 'ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable in society are protected from climate change', it is clear that the climate displaced communities living on the embankment in Khulna province and indeed the many millions more across Bangladesh, have thus far received all too little protection, safe housing, or access to basic services from the Government.

Enter the Association for Climate Refugees

Some 200 community-based NGOs throughout the country have recently banded together to form the Association of Climate Refugees (ACR) and to actively find solutions for the citizens of Bangladesh who have already been displaced by climate change. ACR’s founder and director, Muhammad Abu Musa, has chosen for himself one of the world’s more difficult tasks. For this jolly and remarkably optimistic 52 year-old Bangladeshi activist has dedicated his life in recent years towards the gargantuan goal of finding permanent and sustainable residential solutions to the millions of climate displaced people across Bangladesh. If predictions by the IPCC and others are correct, the sprightly Abu Musa will need to find new homes for a further 30 million displaced people in the coming years.

The ACR is focusing on capacity building and empowerment at the local level – directly among the climate affected communities themselves. ACR relies on partner organisations - grassroots activists in 24 of the countries 64 districts, often working out of a single room in the middle of affected communities, to promptly relay first hand information about any developments in climate affected communities.

Abu Musa believes that it is the affected communities themselves who have the best knowledge and resources for self-protection and adaptation. He also strongly believes that having local communities own the problem is the only way for the Government of Bangladesh to listen to their plight – 'If we showed up as an NGO describing this problem, the Government door would be immediately closed, it is essential that the local communities take action themselves', he says with conviction.

The ACR plans to continue its work of monitoring climate displacement across Bangladesh and in the near future to implement a system of both emergency and permanent relocation out of climate vulnerable locations together with their international partners, in particular Displacement Solutions. ACR is aware that some CDPs have relocated to the distant Chittagong Hill Tracts (some 600 kms from Khulna), and in January 2011, ACR acquired a small land plot of 1.65 acres in Kamarkhola Union in Khulna district, donated by a local landowner sympathetic to ACR’s aims.

The land represents the first such acquisition of land for climate affected communities, and will be transformed into a community land trust aptly named 'Community Land Trust for Climate Displacement Solutions in Bangladesh'. This symbolic gesture, which will provide land solutions for some twenty families, will surely not resolve climate displacement in the country, but will hopefully inspire other landowners to donate larger pieces of unused land to assist in finding solutions to the dismal displaced population of Bangladesh.

Abu Musa and many others believe that the climate displacement solution for Bangladesh will frequently lie in relocation to safer areas, and not solely on building higher and higher embankment walls. Many of the 60,000 people on the embankment in Khulna province expect that in the next monsoon season the entire embankment will be under water and that they will have to move again. Accessing new and viable land will be the secret to ACR’s success.

What will the future hold?

The work of ACR is admirable and essential, but alone it is unlikely to be able to find land-based solutions for the climate-displaced people of Bangladesh. Similar to popular movements in other climate affected countries such as Tulele Peisa in Papua New Guinea, path breaking groups like ACR need to be able to work with much more than their currently meagre, shoestring budget. Funds from the newly established Green Fund under the Cancun Adaptation Framework (meant to reach 100 billion USD in coming years) need to be earmarked for groups such as ACR and Tulele Peisa to enable them to resolve the displacement caused by climate change.

It is essential for these groups and governments to band together to develop and clarify land-based solutions as rapidly as possible, before the already drastic situation becomes exponentially worse as the effects of climate change become more severe and more frequent.

Importantly, it is increasingly clear that the imperative to resolve climate displacement in Bangladesh is not only a matter of human dignity and human rights, but also one of security. The marginalised communities most affected by climate change may also be the most susceptible to influence by extremists. As a country with a large Muslim population, thus far largely spared the fundamentalist-driven ravages now so commonplace in Pakistan and elsewhere, some analysts have noted that the most disenfranchised and affected communities could turn to Islamic militantism – and transform Bangladesh into another breeding ground for violent fundamentalism.

Unless climate displaced persons are treated as the rights-holders that they actually already are, and enabled to access new housing, land and property, this looming security threat may become ever more real.

The international community now has an opportunity to address the immediate and future climate displacement crisis in Bangladesh. The world needs to capture the momentum of recent positive developments at the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Cancun, where national, regional and international coordination and cooperation was encouraged in implementing planned relocation of climate displaced communities and where it was stated that human rights should be fully respected in all climate change related actions.

States across the globe should take heed of the climate displacement nightmare that is unfolding in Bangladesh, and at the same time focus on the emerging dream of durable land solutions for all. Land-based solutions to climate displacement can and should be identified now, and excellent community led groups – such as the Association for Climate Refugees – need to be sufficiently well resourced to be able to implement emergency and permanent relocation strategies. The Government of Bangladesh should also be encouraged – through bilateral, regional and international advocacy – to do more to respect the human rights of all people in Bangladesh, including the 6.5 million people already displaced by climate change.

The development of a National Plan to Resolve Climate Displacement, prepared jointly with civil society groups such as ACR, could go a long way to ensure a brighter future for the displaced millions in this country. The situation in Bangladesh is as clear a demonstration to the world as any that contrary to what many people still think, climate displacement is not a problem for the future – for 2020, or 2030 or 2050 – it is a problem now, and one that urgently requires solutions.

The authors work for Displacement Solutions:

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