Challenges facing climate migrants

Fellows Fall 2009

By Joanna Kakissis

December 15, 2009

Aired on BBC/PRI's "The World"

Droughts, floods, and sea level rise caused by climate change could displace millions of people from their land. Where will these climate migrants go? The South Asian nation of Bangladesh is grappling with that question. Joanna Kakissis reports.

One big topic being discussed in Copenhagen is how to help people who will be displaced by climate change. Scientists say millions of so-called climate migrants could be driven from their homes by droughts and floods and rising seas later this century. It's more than a theoretical problem in the low-lying nation of Bangladesh. Farmers there are already fleeing coastal villages, and they say they have no good options for where to go. Joanna Kakissis has this story from south-western Bangladesh.

Sawpna Mandal walks past her husband's ruined paddy field in the village of Kalikabari, Bangladesh.
(Photo: Ross Taylor, )

Ashok Mandal is an elegant man with thick hair and intense eyes. He lives with his family in a bamboo hut, with chickens in the yard.

He used to lead a good life, in this sunny village called Kalikabari. He farmed rice and sold enough of it to support his wife and three daughters. But over the past decade, he says, farming conditions have deteriorated.

"In recent years, our crops have stopped growing properly because of the excess salinity in the water. The water has no nutrients."

Nearly all of the farmers in Kalikabari are losing their crops to salty water. There are many reasons for the problem. A large dam in neighboring India and water diversions for shrimp farming have reduced the flow of the nearby river. The coast is sinking as the land compacts. But many farmers say, and scientists agree, that a major culprit is climate change, which is raising the level of the sea.

Ashok Mandal, who lost his rice crop to salinization caused partly by climate change, and his three-year-old daughter, Anka, in front of their hut in the village of Kalikabari, Bangladesh. (Photo: Ross Taylor)

Binod Mandal is 60 years old. He's been farming here most of his life.

"There's already been a big change in the weather. There's more seawater, more flooding than there used to be. And it's increasing day by day."

He tells his son-in-law Tapan Halder that he has nightmares that the sea will drown the village and his grandchildren.

"He is very, very afraid. Most of the time he tells us, "˜What will we do? Where will we go?'"

Binod Mandal. (Photo: Joanna Kakissis)

Where WILL they go? Many politicians and aid groups are asking that question because the farmers of Kalikabari are on the leading edge of what could be a great wave of migration. Studies estimate that the effects of climate change could force 30 million Bangladeshis from their homes by the middle of this century. Many environmental migrants are already showing up here "” in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka.

More than half of the city's residents live in densely packed slums "” in mud-and-bamboo shacks on dirt lanes damp with sewage. Experts say at least three million of those living here came because they lost their homes to environmental degradation.

Mukhles Rahman says a river washed away his dreams of a better life. He shares a tiny, dank hut with his wife, son and older brother. They moved here from their village near the coast after erosion washed away their home and tea stall and ten acres of cropland.

"I lost my business and land to the river. I lost my livelihood. There were no jobs in the village, so I had to come here."

Dhaka is crowded. At least 12 million people already live here and the population could double in a decade, according to the World Bank. Atiq Rahman is executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies and one of the country's top climate change scholars. He says such rapid urbanization could be disastrous for this poor country, causing food shortages and government instability.

"Destabilization anywhere in the present world is not good for other parts of the world, either."

Instability in Bangladesh could cause millions of refugees to try fleeing across the border to India. But India doesn't want them. In fact, the country is constructing a ten-foot-high border fence to keep out illegal immigrants. Many question if the fence will work, but the message is clear: Keep Out.

So some Bangladeshi politicians and policy experts are floating a bold and controversial migration plan. They say the nations that have caused global warming "“ largely, the U.S. and Europe "“ must take responsibility for the people who will be displaced. Again, Atiq Rahman.

"Just swapping money is no good. You have to swap families or human beings, or give them accommodations, or give them a right to migrate to the countries which are causing these problems in the first place."

But it's unlikely that Bangladeshi refugees will be moved en masse to Europe and North America. Many experts say the best way to help Bangladesh's climate migrants is to make it so they don't HAVE to migrate. Rabab Fatima is the South Asia representative for the International Organization of Migration.

"So instead of the people moving, it might be a much more sustainable solution to find some sort of measures for them right there"¦whether by providing them land there or some sort of livelihood option there, so they don't actually have to make the move."

Boatmen navigate rickety wooden vessels across a trash-filled lake in Dhaka to reach Korail, one of the largest slums in the city. Millions of environmental migrants live in slums. (Photo: Joanna Kakissis)

The Bangladeshi government is trying to help villagers threatened by climate change. It's spending millions of dollars to dredge rivers, build embankments, and plant mangroves along the coast "“ though it says billions of dollars are needed. Scientists are also developing hardier rice strains that can withstand high salinity levels. But it could take many years for these efforts, and any deals made in Copenhagen, to make a real difference for the people in places like Kalikabari.

As evening arrives in the village, Ashok Mandal's daughters practice a song.

It's about a lost friend and the pain of being separated from a loved one. Their father watches from beside his ruined paddy field. He's given up on farming. Now, he works as a laborer and earns just a dollar a day.

"It's not enough," he says. "I'm in debt." He can't wait for the world to save Kalikabari. Tomorrow, he leaves to work in another town.

For The World, I'm Joanna Kakissis, Kalikabari, Bangladesh.

Joanna Kakissis' report from Bangladesh was produced with the assistance of the International Reporting Project.