Cli­mate refugees in Dhaka.

Dhaka is on the front­line of cli­mate change dis­as­ter, as refugees from Bangladesh’s flood­ing south are mi­grat­ing to the cap­i­tal in ab­ject poverty. Ex­perts fear that fail­ure to per­suade re­gional towns to rapidly ex­pand could lead to an­ar­chy.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Matthew Clay­field

The slum is about the size of a bas­ket­ball court.

Hid­den be­hind a wall of cor­ru­gated iron, it is eas­ily mis­taken for a va­cant lot or con­struc­tion site, con­sist­ing of a se­ries of sweat­boxes, also made of cor­ru­gated iron, no larger than a cou­ple of square me­tres each. They line two paths about 25 me­tres long, which are con­nected to one another at the back, near the wash­room. A sin­gle, commode ser­vices about 200 peo­ple.

For the res­i­dents, this small slice of Dhaka is home. They are all cli­mate mi­grants.

“We moved here a year ago,” Bu­lia tells me. “The floods had been get­ting worse for years, but last year our land was com­pletely de­stroyed. We lost ev­ery­thing.” Orig­i­nally from Bager­hat Dis­trict in Bangladesh’s south-west, the 35-year-old moved to the cap­i­tal with her hus­band and two chil­dren after their rice and potato crops were wiped out. They ar­rived with noth­ing.

Josna, 51, came to Dhaka five years ago after her home on the banks of the Brahma­pu­tra River in Manikganj Dis­trict was sim­i­larly de­stroyed by flood­ing.

“At the time, I thought we were unlucky,” she says. “But now lots of peo­ple are ar­riv­ing from Manikganj and say­ing the same thing hap­pened to them.”

Josna is some­thing of a leader here, a ma­tri­arch in re­gal pur­ple, dom­i­nat­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.

“We have no clean water and have to boil ev­ery­thing,” she says. “In the mon­soon sea­son the en­tire area floods. The toi­let backs up and the chil­dren get sick.” Like all the women here, Bu­lia and Josna work as do­mes­tic ser­vants, mak­ing 150 Bangladeshi taka, or $A2.30, a day, while their hus­bands and elder sons ride cy­cl­er­ick­shaws. The chil­dren start work­ing – beg­ging, mostly – as soon as they’re deemed old enough. The slum-dwellers re­ceive no govern­ment as­sis­tance.

“We make enough to eat and that’s all,” Josna says. “It’s a hard life, but there’s noth­ing for us to go back to.”

In March, a World Bank re­port, “Groundswell: Pre­par­ing for In­ter­nal Cli­mate Mi­gra­tion”, said that more than 140 mil­lion peo­ple in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, South Asia and Latin Amer­ica may be forced to move within their coun­tries’ borders by 2050 as a re­sult of cli­mate change. Fif­teen mil­lion are likely to be dis­placed within Bangladesh alone.

The UN In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change has pre­vi­ously pre­dicted that ris­ing sea lev­els will wipe out more cul­ti­vated land here – po­ten­tially 20 per cent of the coun­try’s land­mass – than any­where else in the world.

When it comes to cli­mate change and its ef­fects – de­bates about its ex­is­tence ended long ago in th­ese parts – Bangladesh is one of a grow­ing hand­ful where the fu­ture is al­ready well un­der way. Dhaka may even be said to be the city of to­mor­row.

It is a grim vi­sion. Dhaka has un­ri­valled pop­u­la­tion den­sity, inad­e­quate in­fra­struc­ture and rock-bot­tom liv­ing stan­dards – last year it was ranked 214th among 231 cities for qual­ity of liv­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Narun Nabi, di­rec­tor of the De­part­ment of Pop­u­la­tion Sciences at the Uni­ver­sity of Dhaka, con­di­tions here will only worsen as mi­grants ar­rive in ever-greater num­bers.

“We can’t even look after the 18 mil­lion peo­ple who cur­rently live in the Greater Dhaka Area,” he says. “We’re talk­ing about see­ing that num­ber dou­ble by 2050. ” Based on pop­u­la­tion growth mod­els, the Global Cities In­sti­tute at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto projects that Dhaka will be the world’s third-largest city by mid cen­tury, with a pop­u­la­tion of some 35.2 mil­lion. “This will be an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter,” Nabi says.

“We have san­i­ta­tion prob­lems, sewerage prob­lems, high lev­els of air pol­lu­tion, un­equal ac­cess to clean water and health­care,” he says. “Forty per cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives in slums. Eighty per cent lives in con­di­tions that are not much bet­ter. Pop­u­la­tion growth ex­ac­er­bates th­ese prob­lems at a rate that out­paces our abil­ity to ad­dress them.”

Nabi says one of the key prob­lems is that Dhaka re­mains the lit­eral and eco­nomic cen­tre of the coun­try: lit­tle has been done to de­velop mid-sized cities in other re­gions in a way that would make them at­trac­tive, not only to in­ter­nal mi­grants, but to in­vestors and the mid­dle­class. “When ev­ery­thing is cen­tralised in Dhaka – govern­ment de­ci­sion-mak­ing, big busi­ness, op­por­tu­ni­ties – it’s not re­ally sur­pris­ing that ev­ery­one winds up here,” he says. “De­cen­tral­i­sa­tion won’t solve the city’s prob­lems, but it will give it enough breath­ing room to start catching up. It will re­lease some of the pres­sure.”

The al­ter­na­tive, he says, is an­ar­chy. “We won’t need to be in­vaded from out­side. If the city’s pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to grow at this rate and we do noth­ing to slow it, civil un­rest will in­evitably fol­low. I say this in all se­ri­ous­ness. We will be killing one another in the streets.”

A world away from this dystopian vi­sion, in the ball­room of the Radis­son

Blu on the city’s air­port road, Bangladesh is cel­e­brat­ing its el­i­gi­bil­ity to grad­u­ate from least-de­vel­oped-coun­try sta­tus to that of a de­vel­op­ing one. It will of­fi­cially do so in 2024 and has plans to grad­u­ate to de­vel­oped sta­tus by 2041, a her­culean un­der­tak­ing re­quir­ing an eight­fold in­crease in per capita in­come from cur­rent lev­els.

The di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change and De­vel­op­ment, Dr Saleemul Huq, has faith in the coun­try’s abil­ity to face its cur­rent and fu­ture chal­lenges. “Bangladesh may be ground zero as far as cli­mate change is con­cerned, but as a re­sult we’re also at the fore­front of work­ing out how to deal with it,” he says.

While not a great be­liever in in­fras­truc­tural so­lu­tions – “All we can do is tin­ker at the edges, mov­ing the traf­fic jam from one sec­tion of the city to another” – Huq does be­lieve in the ca­pac­ity of peo­ple to adapt to chang­ing cir­cum­stances. He points to the coun­try’s achieve­ments in health as an ex­am­ple. “When­ever we used to have floods in this coun­try, they would be fol­lowed by large out­breaks of cholera and other diar­rhoeal dis­eases. You don’t see that any­more.

You see pho­to­graphs of women wad­ing chest-deep in water on their way to col­lect clean drink­ing water. By ed­u­cat­ing the pop­u­la­tion through tele­vi­sion and ra­dio, by fo­cus­ing on that hu­man el­e­ment, Bangladesh has all but de­feated diar­rhoeal dis­ease.”

But there’s no doubt that cli­mate change is unique. “On the one hand, it’s a long-term prob­lem. On the other, we’re al­ready see­ing its ef­fects. In­creased coastal flood­ing, salin­ity in­tru­sion, and the be­gin­nings of what will be­come largescale cli­mate mi­gra­tion. As a re­sult, we have to de­vise so­lu­tions on two sep­a­rate but par­al­lel time lines: a short-term one and a longer-term one of about a decade to two decades.”

The short-term so­lu­tions are aimed at slow­ing or ar­rest­ing cli­mate mi­gra­tion by as­sist­ing those in af­fected ar­eas. For ex­am­ple, Huq says, va­ri­eties of salinere­sis­tant rice are be­ing de­vel­oped, and in ar­eas where sa­line lev­els are al­ready too high farm­ers are be­ing taught to breed prawns. But he also ac­knowl­edges that mit­i­ga­tion has its lim­its. “In the long run, we will lose th­ese bat­tles,” he says. “We know that peo­ple will no longer be able to live in th­ese ar­eas. But we can help them to stay there as long as pos­si­ble and ed­u­cate their chil­dren so they don’t have to be farm­ers when the time comes to leave.”

The ques­tion of where they will go when that hap­pens leads us to the longterm so­lu­tions. Like Nabi, Huq be­lieves de­vel­op­ing mid-sized cities is the only real way that in­ter­nal cli­mate mi­gra­tion can be prop­erly ad­dressed.

“We are in the process of iden­ti­fy­ing, and have iden­ti­fied, a dozen in­land towns that can be­come what we call cli­mate-re­silient, mi­grant-friendly cities,” he says. “They’re away from low-ly­ing coastal ar­eas and all have pop­u­la­tions of about 500,000, which we’re look­ing to in­crease to about 1.5 mil­lion.

“If we can at­tract a mil­lion peo­ple to each of th­ese towns – which means gen­er­at­ing em­ploy­ment, de­vel­op­ing ties with sis­ter towns on the coast, ex­ploit­ing eth­nic con­nec­tions – then that’s 12 mil­lion peo­ple who aren’t mov­ing to Dhaka.

“Ba­si­cally, we need to move away from what we have now, which is un­planned, dis­tressed mi­gra­tion, to a model of planned, fa­cil­i­tated, pos­i­tive mi­gra­tion.”

To date only three of the 12 towns un­der con­sid­er­a­tion have com­mit­ted to the plan. “It’s true that the other nine are scep­ti­cal,” Huq says. “There’s a mind­set against mi­grants as bad peo­ple, which we need to change.” Next month, he will run a week-long work­shop de­signed in part to con­vince the hold-outs. He’s con­fi­dent he will be able to do so.

His op­ti­mism isn’t shared by some in the lo­cal hu­man rights com­mu­nity. Mah­bul Haque, the di­rec­tor of the Bangladesh Cen­tre for Hu­man Rights and De­vel­op­ment, finds the govern­ment’s de­vel­op­ment goals lu­di­crous. “You get a dif­fer­ent view of things at the gran­u­lar level,” he says.

In the slum, when I ask Josna about the cli­mate mi­grants ex­pected to fol­low her and her neigh­bours to Dhaka over the next decade or so, she cocks an eye­brow and pats my knee.

“Do you re­ally think we think about th­ese things? We have other prob­lems.”

Do they have any hope things can im­prove? Does Bu­lia be­lieve that her chil­dren will have it bet­ter than her?

“My chil­dren have no fu­ture,” she

• says.

Dhaka slum res­i­dent Josna.

MATTHEW CLAY­FIELD is a free­lance for­eign cor­re­spon­dent.

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