Know the nature of Bangladesh

Country Profiles Migration: Data - History - Politics

Benjamin Etzold

Dr. Benjamin Etzold is a research associate at the Geographical Institute of the University of Bonn. He did his PhD on street trade in the megacity of Dhaka and was involved in a research project on climate change, hunger and migration in Bangladesh. His main research interests include geographic migration and development research with a focus on social vulnerability and working conditions. Email: [email protected]

Bishawjit Mallick

Dr. Bishawjit Mallick is a research fellow at the Institute for Regional Science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). As part of his doctorate, he examined the societal handling of climate risks in Bangladesh's coastal areas. He is currently working on risk-oriented spatial planning and climate-related migration processes in Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]

Bangladesh is one of the countries most affected by the effects of climate change. Sudden natural disasters and creeping environmental changes endanger the livelihoods of people in Bangladesh, who mainly make a living from agriculture. Migration is one of the human strategies to adapt to this development.

Passenger ships to almost all regions of the country leave from the ferry port in Dhakas. The trips on the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra or Meghna often take days, but are quite cheap. (& copy Benjamin Etzold)

Natural disasters such as floods, tropical cyclones and droughts are expected to become more common in Bangladesh in the future. At the same time, creeping processes such as river bank erosion, sea level rise and soil salinization will continue unabated. During the monsoon months, increased rainfall and runoff from the ground are expected, while the already low rainfall in the dry season will presumably decrease even further. Taken together, these changes put increased pressure on the marine and terrestrial ecosystem and lead to local water scarcity and soil degradation. So climate change has the potential to destroy the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in Bangladesh. The rural population living along the country's major rivers is particularly hard hit by floods, the coastal residents are threatened by cyclones, while people in the north of the country suffer particularly from periods of drought and heat waves. Smallholders and landless workers are particularly vulnerable to such climate risks as they are already grappling with chronic poverty and food insecurity [1].

Most of the rural population works in agriculture. In many regions, the land is additionally irrigated in order to achieve higher yields. Here two men repair a groundwater pump in a village in the north of the country. (& copy Benjamin Etzold)
Migration is often discussed as a possible strategy for coping with suddenly occurring natural disasters and slow processes of change in the natural environment. When people leave their place of residence because their existence is negatively affected by natural hazards and environmental changes, one also speaks of "environmental migrants" or "environmentally induced migration" [2]. In order to understand migration in the context of climate change, one should first look at existing mobility patterns and livelihood systems and then assess the additional burden that climate-related risks pose for the people affected. On the basis of the migration patterns presented above (see chapter Urbanization, Migration Systems in Bangladesh and Translocal Social Spaces), climatic changes cannot be considered as the The main causes of (internal) migration in Bangladesh apply. Nonetheless, natural disasters and environmental changes have changed the way the rural population tries to secure their livelihoods and have contributed to the decision of many people to migrate. Climate change is thus affecting the patterns of intra-state migration in Bangladesh. In contrast, extensive international migration movements from Bangladesh due to climatic changes are not to be expected.

In rural areas, most smallholders can barely support their families. Many are dependent on wage labor for large landowners. This is where female day laborers go to harvest potatoes in the north of the country. (& copy Benjamin Etzold)
Mobility can serve as a temporary coping strategy after a disaster. For example, the floods in 1987 resulted in the temporary displacement of 45 million people in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, a high susceptibility to natural hazards does not necessarily lead to permanent migration. Most of the survivors of violent tropical cyclones are only temporarily displaced and then return to their place of residence. Often it is only men who move to nearby cities to work, while their families stay behind and depend on remittances from migrants. Social networks, especially good translocal relationships, prove to be particularly important in the post-disaster phase [3]. However, disasters can also contribute to a decline in mobility because the affected areas have a high demand for labor to rebuild or because the resources needed for migration have been destroyed. Many families living in extreme poverty have little opportunity to migrate. Since they are mostly single parents or elderly people, they have neither adult male family members who could go to another location as migrant workers, nor the necessary resources that could facilitate migration, or even access to migration networks. These populations, "trapped" in their place of residence, including many elderly people and single female households, are often the ones most affected by disaster because of the limited resources available to them locally . They are largely dependent on disaster relief, mutual assistance and community solidarity. Their immobility increases their vulnerability [4].

The river islands in the north of the country can only be reached by boat. For the inhabitants of these islands, the ways to work, to high schools or to hospitals are long, arduous and expensive. (& copy Benjamin Etzold)
The great rivers are constantly shifting their course. The river banks are eroded by the floods, and the material is deposited elsewhere. Boats are the main mode of transport for the river islanders. (& copy Benjamin Etzold)

In addition to natural disasters that can hit an area suddenly and unexpectedly, there are also creeping environmental changes that can force people to leave their place of residence (temporarily). The erosion of river banks and coastal strips due to rising sea levels are two examples of such creeping processes. Since 1973, the major rivers of Bangladesh have eroded 158,780 hectares of land. In 2010 alone, 16,000 people who lived on the banks of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers were forced to give up their homes. The rise in sea levels, coastal erosion and soil salinization will - in addition to the not-to-be-forgotten economic and political factors - lead to the displacement of people from the coastal region and the densely populated delta region [5]. The 2011 census showed that the population in rural areas, which are hardest hit by flooding, tropical cyclones and riverbank erosion, is already shrinking [6]. It is estimated that by 2050, 26 million people in Bangladesh will be displaced by storm surges and rising sea levels [7]. If the climate changes only moderately, 250,000 people could be displaced annually as a result of climate-related natural disasters. However, such estimates must be treated with caution because of the precise reasons people are being displaced - or are they not migrating voluntarily? - are often not sufficiently taken into account. In addition, the underlying assumptions are often very simplistic. According to this, people are forever displaced by nature: they do not return, they do not migrate any further.

Migration is thus viewed as a one-time and linear process. This is not only thought to be very determined by nature, since all other social, cultural, political and spatial factors that can influence the decision to migrate are not taken into account. It also denies people the ability to cope with life-threatening situations and to adapt to environmental and other structural changes. Finally, compared to the 500,000 migrant workers who leave (and mostly return to) Bangladesh each year, a number of 250,000 people who are mobile within the country and settle in cities or move to other parts of the country as seasonal workers appears to be a manageable challenge to be the people of Bangladesh. Instead, increasing internal mobility and the expansion of translocal livelihood systems could pave the way for the future development of the country and improve people's resilience to dealing with natural disasters.

This text is part of the country profile for Bangladesh.