Two people stand on a wooden foot bridge in Khulna, Bangladesh in January 2016. Khulna is a sprawling coastal zone city that has absorbed displaced people from Bangladesh's coastal zone. Photo: Timmons Roberts / Brookings

By Timmons Roberts
13 January 2016

(Brookings) – I spent the past week in Bangladesh, visiting the countryside on a fascinating and heartening trip from the country’s massive capital, Dhaka, to the south, a region being hammered by climate change. I came to give some speeches and took the opportunity to see for myself how foreign aid and local sweat and equity are being used to fight the rising seas in a country so low that 30 million people may become refugees. For them to secure a livelihood in their home places, the developed countries need to be engaged, with our resources, our hands, and our minds. We simply cannot afford not to be here.

After being asked for years to come, I’d finally made the trip to attend the 2nd annual Gobeshona conference, a gathering of researchers seeking to understand the reality and best policy and actions Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries can take in the face of rising seas, intensified cyclones, saltwater intrusion, fatal heat waves, and droughts. Bangladesh, with its 180 million people living on an ancient river delta, is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and has become a national laboratory for how we all are going to cope. As Dr. Saleemul Huq, who leads the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and is a world leader on adaptation, puts it, “if you want to see what climate change looks like, and more importantly, what tackling it looks like, you must come to Bangladesh. What will happen to the rest of the world tomorrow is already happening there today. The rest of the world can therefore learn from Bangladesh how to tackle the problem.”  

In 2015 we saw how the influx of 1 million refugees from Syria has challenged the whole European Union system, and taxed resources and cultures across the region to keep their doors open. Imagine the disruption that might come from 30 or 300 million climate refugees if emissions are not controlled and poor nations’ needs are not addressed. Migrants are likely to follow past patterns of movement. First, they will try stay in their homelands, and if they have to move, they will seek to move to cities as close as possible to their homes, so they can remain in touch. When they get to cities, they will be forced to live in shantytowns and other “irregular settlements,” in shacks often built on precarious land in floodplains, subject to mudslides, extreme heat, and unsanitary conditions. They will be forced to work in the informal sector, earning pennies and living hand-to-mouth. Once uprooted, further disruption then can send them on to other cities or countries.

I met a neighborhood of people in Khulna, a sprawling coastal zone city that has absorbed displaced people from Bangladesh’s coastal zone. Their fields are made worthless by saltwater flooding, with their wells now often too salty to drink or use for irrigation or watering animals. Tin shacks with dirt floors were packed together in one tiny piece of land they rented, with 20 families sharing cooking facilities, a water tap, and washing place.

In this way, they had adapted to climate change, in a common way that humans have throughout history: they moved and reinvented themselves in a new place. The men learned how to pull rickshaws in the savage traffic, heat, pollution, and dust of Khulna, earning a scant living through long shifts that run from morning until late at night. Some of the women have secured low-paying jobs as domestic servants for families of more means, cleaning, cooking, and caring for children. If they can, they keep in touch with the people who stayed back home, sending money when they can to their elderly parents or spouses to survive. [more]

Helping tomorrow’s climate refugees by engaging today: A dispatch from Bangladesh



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