Bangladesh-Based Group Promotes Plans to Resettle Climate Refugees

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

At the same time as the Biden administration is handing out more permits to extract fossil fuels from public lands than did Trump, some on the other side of the world are pushing forward with proposals to resettle people displaced by climate change.

Although Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest countries, it’s home to individuals and institutions with a strong tradition of designing and implementing innovative policy models – some of which have been exported elsewhere. Perhaps the best-known of these is the Grameen Bank’s micro-landing initiatives – for which founder Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet the efforts of BRAC  NGO, are far less well-known outside Bangladesh, despite being equally if not far more significant. One  life-saving BRAC initiative I learned about first-hand slashed the number of children who succumb to diarrhea, as I wrote in this 2019 post, Clean Water: UNICEF Shows More Children Die from Diarrhea than Direct Violence in Conflict Zones.

During a month-long visit in 2009, I learned about the work of BRAC, now the largest non-governmental development organisation in the world (in terms of employees). Sir Fazle Abed established BRAC in 1972 immediately after the 1971 war.  Wikipedia reports that BRAC is present in all 64 districts of Bangladesh as well as 13 other countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

As I travelled around the country conducting research about its textile traditions, I visited many villages. In these, many people – mostly women – produced handicrafts and textiles, in operations organized and overseen by BRAC and its social enterprise, Aarong.

Much more than any details about textiles or their production, what’s stuck with me now, a decade later, is how one simple, low-cost initiatives could save so many lives. In the humblest of villages, I saw women with mstrings or simple necklaces hung around their necks,from which dangled a small, two headed spoon – about the size of a teaspoon on one side, and a tablespoon on the other. They were taught that when I child caught diarrhoea, it was necessary to find fresh water, and make homemade Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS), by dissolving roughly one teaspoon salt to one tablespoon of sugar into IIRC a liter or so of water.

Another takeaway: the world faces many seemingly intractable problems and funding alone is neither necessary nor sufficient to solve them. But now, back to the matter at hand.

Resettling Climate Refugees

Withe these initiatives in the back of my mind, I was cheered – and unsurprised – to read in today’s Guardian about the efforts of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), a Bangladesh-based group, to resettled climate refugees, Port in a storm: the trailblazing town welcoming climate refugees in Bangladesh.

Low-lying Bangladesh is on the front-line of the climate catastrophe, and along with India, on the other side of the border, is now even more regularly pummelled by destructive cyclones a subject I’ve covered in multiple posts (see, e.g., The Front Lines of Climate Change: Cyclone Yaas and the Sundarbans; Climate Change: Hurricanes Getting Stronger; Cyclone Amphan Pummels Bengal; More Mangroves: Protecting Tropical Coastal Areas from Cyclone Damage; and Climate Change: The Wrath of Cyclone Fani). If these front-line countries were to wait for richer countries to save them – well, let’s just say, they’d be waiting a very long-time – and might all very well drown, or starve, first.

In this post, I’ll rely largely on The Guardian account. In a future post, I might examine the ICCCAD’s proposals more closely. Alas, today I was unable to download the group’s report from their website. So, for the moment, over to The Guardian:

By the time the rising sun breaks through the morning mist over the Mongla River, the rhythmic chug of motors strapped to wooden canoes is already audible as thousands of workers are hurriedly ferried across the waterway.

They jump on to the small landing dock, pick up a potato-stuffed shingarapastry for pennies and rush towards the factories in Mongla’s export processing zone (EPZ), which has transformed the small town into an employment hub in a part of Bangladesh ravaged by the climate crisis.

About 30 miles (50km) inland from the Bay of Bengal, Mongla is the gateway to the Unesco-listed Sundarbans mangrove forest, home to the endangered Bengal tiger. Its port, founded in the 1950s, has been the focus of an ambitious, decade-long project led by one of the world’s leading climate scientists to transform it into a town that actively welcomes climate refugees.

I’ve visited the Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, many times, drawn by its phenomenal bird life. I wrote about my last tripe to these wetlands for The National, a Dubai-based newspaper.  (see India and Bangladesh’s mysterious mangroves: The Sundarbans). Yet I’ve only visited the Indian side of the Sunderbans, and have never ventured into the Bangladeshi side. And I admit, I shudder a bit about the prospect of exploiting this ecosystem further economically – something already being done, and not just limited to tourism, trawling – on foot – for shrimp, and honey collection.

Per The Guardian account:

“In my 30 years here I’ve seen so many changes. The roads, the docks, the number of people coming here. It has all changed,” says Abdul Jalil, a 52-year-old boatman on the Mongla River. “We used to have a lot of problems; after rains the roads would be flooded, we had very little infrastructure around here.”

He used to row manually but says all the boats have motors now, with each carrying about 700 people a day across the river, on their way to work in the export zone or in Sundarbans tourism.

“These people crossing, they’re all from other places, from the villages near the Sundarbans. They work here in the EPZ, for tourism in the Sundarbans, instead of going to places like Chittagong. It’s safer here, there isn’t crime, there are jobs and the living standards are better.”

Bangladesh is an internal migration pressure cooker. There is nothing new in the country’s rural poor moving to cities in search of work. But catastrophic weather events are speeding up the waves of people flowing into the urban centres.

In particular,

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 4.1 million people (2.5% of the population) were displaced in Bangladesh as a result of climate-induced disasters as of 2019. A recent World Bank report predicted that the country will have 19.9 million internal climate refugees by 2050, almost half the projected number for the entire south Asia region.

Most of those forced to leave their homes head to the capital, Dhaka, one of the fastest growing megacities in the world and among the least liveable. Home to 20 million people, over a third of whom live in slums lacking even the most basic infrastructure, the city is dangerously overcrowded.

Against this grim backdrop of daily struggles and looming catastrophe, Prof Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), has formulated a vision of “transformative adaptation” to alleviate pressure on Dhaka and its conurbations. It aims to divert people to smaller urban centres with the capacity to expand and, crucially, jobs to sustain a rapidly growing workforce.

Migration in Bangladesh

Migration is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the departure of the British from India led to partition of the sub-continent, and the panicked migration of many from India to Pakistan and what’s now called Bangladesh, and vice versa. Over to The Guardian:

“The phenomenon of migration is age old – there’s nothing new here – but climate change is causing people to move and we are having to deal with this very, very quickly – that is what made us work on the idea,” says Huq.

More than a dozen satellite cities and towns, all adjacent to economic hubs such as sea and river ports or export processing zones, have been identified as potential migrant-friendly locations. “They are all secondary towns with populations of between a few hundred thousand and half a million which can absorb up to half a million climate migrants each,” says Huq.

Monga popped out as a prime destination for many reasons, which the Guardian summarizes:

Among those towns, Mongla stood out for the progress it had already made on climate breakdown mitigation, driven by the town’s dynamic mayor, Zulfikar Ali. In his 10 years in office, from 2011 to 2021, an array of infrastructural developments made Mongla a safer, more resilient town.

They include a 7-mile raised embankment along newly built Marine Drive designed to protect against flooding; two flood-control gates; an improved drainage system; two 40 hectare (100 acre) reservoirs and a fresh water treatment plant that has increased the proportion of houses with running water from a third to a half. Sheikh Abdur Rahman, who took over from Ali as mayor of Mongla in January 2021, has picked up the baton. “At one time the city was regularly flooded by high tides. Now it is being brought under climate-friendly city planning,” he says.

One prime attraction of relocating Monga is the availability of  jobs – which are not easy to come by for the mass of refugees who otherwise might find themselves in Dhaka. But employment isn’t the only obstacle that climate refugees need to overcome after they’re resettled. Per the Guardian:

The town’s proximity to the second largest port in Bangladesh and an export processing zone that already employs 8,000 people also made it economically attractive, says Huq.

“The primary carrot [in luring people to a town] is jobs,” he says. “But that’s the easy part.”

The challenge, he says, is the “softer interventions”, the social and cultural changes required to bring about his vision of a network of towns whose existing residents welcome newcomers.

“Hostility between host and migrant happens everywhere,” says Huq. “In Bangladesh, we have several big advantages – one is that we look the same so migrants are not distinguishable; second, there is one language – we all speak Bangla; and third, we all have the same religion. What we do have is a class barrier, so the newcomer is a poor person eking out a living – and that is what we are working on, humanising what is initially seen as ‘other’.”

These softer interventions include making sure the children of migrants are well integrated in schools and encouraging them to go on to university to break the cycle of poverty. These may be relatively modest aims on paper but they require buy-in from educational institutions. Huq and his team have spent time talking to schools and universities to gain their support for the concept.

Mongla’s population was below 40,000 in the 2011 census but a decade later three times as many people are thought to be living there. Huq’s mission to actively encourage migration to the town is likely to swell that figure by tens, possibly hundreds of thousands more.

Ten-Year Program

These numbers may seem large, so I should provide some context. Low-lying Bangladesh is home to nearly 165 million people. Finding places to resettle those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change is imperative. Now, some might throw up their hands at the magnitude of the challenge Bangladesh faces.  I, however, applaud these efforts; let’s hope they’re more effective than King Canute commanding the tides not to rise. And at least, no one’s approving any fossil fuel exploitation permits – which all concerned understand only exacerbates climate change – rather than mitigate either causes or effects  Per The Guardian:

Mongla is the first town to adopt ICCCAD’s recommendations, but others will follow. “This is a 10-year action programme and we are taking it town by town, mayor by mayor,” says Huq.

Over time, towns will set up outposts in the coastal areas and villages where the majority of climate migrants come from. Huq envisages these outposts as mini embassies that will act as information hubs for migrants, steering them away from Dhaka and towards host towns that are better equipped to cope with an expanding population, and where migrants can be fully fledged, as opposed to second-class, citizens.

It is early days in a long-term process that has been hampered by Covid and the UK government cutting the aid which was funding the research, but Huq is confident that Mongla and its sister towns will become models of disaster management, adaptation and resilience.

Jerri-Lynn here. I’d like to delve further into this issue, by talking to Bengali contacts on both sides of the border, some of whom I hope might be able to translate accounts of this unitive that might appear in Bengali-language media. More anon.

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  1. Mary

    I encourage you to look again at BRAC, perhaps with a focus at their work with one million Rohingya refugees.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for bringing this issue to my attention

      My earlier impressions of BRAC were favourable and were based on my first-hand observations, as I indicated above. But I’ve not examined their work with Rohingya refugees.

      Now I will.

  2. Sue inSoCal

    J-L, thank you for this. It’s a ray of light in the climate discussion. I fear salt water incursion is and will continue to be huge.
    (Off the subject: I believe I once mentioned I thought Tencel and Lyocel were comprised of plastics, a la fleece. I’ve since read that those fabrics are bamboo based. Hmm. Safe? Ecological?)

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I don’t know much about bamboo-based fibers. They would seem to me to be both safe and sustainable. But I’m really not sure. I suppose it depends on how they’re produced.

  3. Sue inSoCal

    Thanks. I passed on them. Had one shirt and it was done for in fewer than two years. Fraying and eroding collar/cuffs. (I love your textile reporting. :)

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Why thank you! I’m currently working on editing a special textile issue of a Calcutta-based journal, which includes several articles about Indian textiles – some of my own work as well as that of others. Once it’s all done and dusted, I’ll supply a link, as I think some NC readers might be interested in many of the articles.

  4. John Zelnicker

    It is so refreshing to see a country doing something important the right way. And, it’s Bangladesh! Whoda thunk. (Showing my lack of imagination.)

    I was very interested in the fellow who talked about their three big advantages; they all look alike, speak the same language, and follow the same religion. For social cohesion, that’s hard to beat.

    Without those it’s going to be much more difficult for this country to replicate their success with any project addressing the human consequences of climate change. There are, I think, too many oligarchs wielding political power who realize that their safety (and profits), in the end, depends on keeping us divided by race, class, etc.

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