From Fri May 11 07:30:03 2007
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Bangladesh's climate refugees
Date: Fri, 11 May 2007 10:59:48 +0200 (CEST)

Bangladesh's climate refugees

By Donatien Garnier, Le Monde diplomatique, May 2007

The major environmental consequences of global warming, especially high water and salt invasion, are likely to displace millions of people this century. Bangladesh has already entered that frightening futureo

Munshiganj Bazar, its full name, was the market town for all the local hamlets. It had a main street, perched on a huge dyke that protected the district from tidal bores and high spring tides. It was lined with stalls, businesses of every sort, tea houses and a few dwellings, and ended at a school and a small mosque. The monsoon came late last year, but a ferocious shower demonstrated its intensity, drenching women's saris and men's longhis (cotton skirts). Business did not falter.

Among the customers was Muhammad Abdul Mannan Molla, a man with thin legs and a round belly; his grey beard did not lend gravitas to his chubby face. Beneath the shelter of his coarse black canvas umbrella, Uncle Mannan, as he was known, complained about the price of the ingredients of the paan that he chewed all day: large bitter leaves, nutmeg shavings and quicklime. Finishing his shopping, he headed off briskly for home. Could he really be 70, as he claimed?

The hamlet where he lived, Pankhali, could only be reached by a narrow path along a dyke. He negotiated three kilometres of deep, slippery mud with disconcerting ease, stopping only to talk to neighbours his own age. The warmth of the greetings contrasted with the bleakness of the landscape; as far as the eye could see, nothing but vast stretches of water, criss-crossed by dykes and dedicated to farming shrimps for export. If it had not been for the coloured saris of the women carrying children and water jars, everything would have been drab and grey.

Without slowing his pace, Mannan explained: “When I was young, this was all ricefields and herds of cows. It was beautiful. But the tidal wave of 1988 contaminated the ground with salt and all the arable land has been replaced by shrimp farms.” Was this adaptation to a changed environment a success? “It brought in a lot of money,” Mannan conceded. “There was no bazaar before that.” A neighbour interrupted: “Money, but only for the rich. The poor just get poorer” (1) .The five or six people who gathered around Mannan argued about that. “Shrimp farming employs far fewer people than rice”… “There's no work any more”… “We used to burn dried cow dung as fuel. Now we have to cut wood in the Sundarbans”… “There used to be six seasons; now it seems like no more than four.” The little group sounded no more optimistic by the time it reached Mannan's house.

Root cause of the problems

Night fell over the three small houses, with their earth walls and palm roofs, where Mannan lived with his wife, Zohura, and the families of their two sons. Close by, someone was singing, accompanied by a harmonium. We went indoors to a single room, dimly lit by an oil lamp and furnished only with a bench, a table and a wooden bed without mattress. We sat on the floor, on matting, while Zohura offered paan. She was small and withered by work, and looked 10 years older than her husband although she was 10 years younger. We told her about the argument. “Everything has changed,” she said. “Every garden used to have its own freshwater well, but now all the water is salty and you can’t use it. You have to go to the bazaar or take a boat across the river to get drinking water.”

Even since the catastrophic tidal wave, salt contamination has increased. As sea levels rise, the monsoon tides regularly break over or through the dykes (2). Mannan, who often works as a foreman on the repairs, pointed out: “We raise them a few centimetres every year.” The problem has been compounded because the flow of the rivers during the dry season has fallen, offering less resistance to the increasing power of the sea. This has created a vicious circle. With salt water penetrating further inland and deeper into the groundwater, climate change—the root cause of the problems —is gradually destroying rice cultivation and jobs.

Anywhere else people would have to leave. But the mangrove forest has offered a temporary respite. Those farmers unable to get work in the shrimp industry have turned to fishing, hunting, and scouring the Sundarbans for wood and wild honey. Mannan's youngest son, 30-year old Abdul Rhaman Molla, fished in the mangroves: “Every day there are more boats on the water. Over the last five years, people from the north have been prepared to sail for three days to fish here… Stocks of young fish and shrimp larvae have fallen. There are places where I used to be able to catch 10 kilos in a single day, now I’d get only half that.”

The Sundarbans are dangerous. Pirates kidnap and beat fishermen for ransom. Bengal tigers kill about 100 people every year. The incongruous cheerfulness that had accompanied our depressing conversation fell away at such thoughts. After the musical neighbour joined our group, the only sound outside was the croak of thousands of frogs. That these people were still here proved their deep attachment to this region where moderate Islam tolerates music, does not oppress women and allows peaceful coexistence with the Hindu population; Muslims and Hindus even share the cult of Bono Vidi, the goddess of the forest.

But the beauty of the Sundarbans is being destroyed; the mangroves are unable to adapt to human overexploitation, rising salt and sea levels, and higher water and air temperatures. The biggest trees are disappearing, along with many animal and vegetable species. Without the forest's biodiversity, the delicate balance that allows humans to survive in southwest Bangladesh will be destroyed, forcing hundreds of thousands to migrate. More than 8,000 families depend directly, and at least five million indirectly, upon the Sundarbans.

“Go? Go where?” said Zohura. “I’d rather die here.” Although her guests laughed, her son Rhaman was more pragmatic: “I’d take my family to Dacca. What choice do I have?” So far this hadn’t been an issue; the main priority had been to adapt from one day to the next.

Higher, longer floods

I visited Dacca in July 2006. With its unmade roads and new, sometimes unfinished, houses already occupied, the Niketon district looked as though it had sprouted from the ground after the monsoon. Dacca is one of the planet's fastest-growing cities; its current population of 13 million is expected to rise to 21 million by 2015, making it the world's fourth largest city by population. Everywhere there was building work, often done too fast and too close; glass skyscrapers, shanty towns, villas, seven- and eight-storey housing developments with garages at street level and balconies disfigured by mismatched air-conditioning units.

One of these unattractive buildings housed the offices of the Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad (3), a research organisation run by Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, author of articles on the impact of global warming on Bangladesh.

Ahsan sat bolt upright in an armchair, its back covered with a towel to soak up sweat when the air-conditioning broke down, and gave a dispassionate account of the situation. “So far it's the people living in southwest Bangladesh who are most affected by global warming, but in the long term the entire population will suffer.” With a population density of 1,001 per sq km, Bangladesh is one of the world's most vulnerable countries; the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change, published in 2001, calculated that a rise in sea level of 45cm would displace 5.5 million people and submerge 10.9% of the country (4).

Flooding is normal in Bangladesh. Hundreds of waterways, including three of the world's great rivers, the Ganges, the Meghna and the Brahmaputra, flow through it, carrying 92% of the water from Tibet, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Most of this water arrives during the monsoon, flooding an average 33% of the country. Ahmed said: “People have learned to adapt, but now global warming is changing everything.” As monsoon rainfall intensifies and the Himalayan glaciers melt, a greater flow of river water encounters rising sea levels. The annual floods will become higher and longer lasting, upsetting the delicate balance established over the centuries by a still largely rural population dealing with capricious natural forces.

Rising temperatures combined with significantly reduced rainfall outside the monsoon season could also cause drought in the northwest of Bangladesh. With low rivers unable to offer any resistance, the tides will drive salt water further north, contaminating fields and groundwater. Although Ahsan regards storm swells as a factor in raising sea levels, he is wary of blaming global warming for the increased strength of hurricanes. The bottom line, though, is that damaging consequences of climate change will affect every part of the country.

Mohon Kumar Mondal was up in Dacca for a few days to raise funding for his own NGO, Gana Unnayan Sangstha (5). He had used this tiny local organisation to set up ecological clubs in the hamlets of the Munshiganj district, where people could discuss the changes they have observed and work out solutions to the problems, such as planting trees, raising dwellings, managing drinking water, and introducing varieties of rice less vulnerable to salt. Unlike many of the pompous NGO officials from the Munshiganj Bazar district, he expressed himself calmly and precisely: “If we want to avoid a massive migration into the towns, we must help people understand what's happening.”

Uncle Mannan is a member of the Pankhali club, which allows him to make regular presentations to his neighbours, although he is illiterate. “People here notice changes, but they are too ill-informed to understand them. So we’ve got a troupe of local actors and musicians to go round with travelling shows that use familiar representations to help people see what's happening on a global scale.”

Forced to leave

Despite Mohon's best efforts and the powerful home loyalties of the people of Munshiganj, many of those unable to find work in the shrimp industry or the mangroves have been forced to leave. When Muhammad Abdul Hamid, 25, found himself unable to feed his two children, he moved to Dacca, where he pedals a rickshaw tricycle through the heavy traffic. It is exhausting work and he was thin, his voice hoarse with the pollution. “I can’t imagine anything worse,” he said. “Every time I go home it takes me a few days to put on a bit of weight. I do that every month, once I’ve saved enough money for my fare and to give to my wife and children.”

Hamid relied upon the support of a small group of young men, all from around Munshiganj. The rickshaw owner, who rented them a small room in which to cook and socialise, as well as a bamboo floor on which they collapsed after 10 or 12 hours' backbreaking work, was a detached, sensible man who missed the quite recent days when he had been a farmer with a shed full of cows rather than tricycles, and kept hay and straw where the pedallers slept. The town engulfed his fields but the rickshaw business was doing well. “There's more and more of them coming to me looking for work,” he said, stretched out on the wooden bench from where he kept an eye on business.

Hamid confirmed this: “Last year when I arrived, there were only 11 of us from Munshiganj. Now there are almost 50.” Were they prepared to stick to a job that, even while they were young and healthy, barely provided a livelihood? Hamid dreamt of saving enough to set up a small shrimp business back home.

Maudood Elahi is a geographer and an expert on internal migration. His simple, modern office, in a tawdry tower block in one of the private universities that have mushroomed in Dacca recently, was a million miles from the Khilgaon district where the rickshaw riders packed together. He predicted a different future for Hamid: “It's the same old story. The head of the family arrives first. At first he sends money back to his family, convinced that he’ll be able to go home eventually. But usually the opposite happens.” He confirmed that Dacca, the main destination for migrants, has grown in area by 40% in 20 years.

If, as the most recent IPCC report (6) predicts, climate change continues to pressure Bangladesh, massive population movements must be expected everywhere in the country. Dacca will be incapable of absorbing this rural exodus; it is under threat from major floods like those in 2004.

If Bangladeshi refugees flee to neighbouring countries there will be violence. Maudood Elahi said: “It would be very difficult to migrate to India or Myanmar. India already has enough of its own problems with demography and climate change, let alone the political issue. That's why it's vital that we look for cooperation outside south Asia. Organisations like the United Nations and the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) have a central part to play in preparing for the massive migrations that we anticipate. I believe that countries with large land areas will have to change their immigration policies. If we agree that climate change is a global problem, then we must look for global solutions.”

Atiq Rhaman founded the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, a research centre that has led the study of the socio-economic impact of climate change. He has spent 20 years campaigning for a global approach and knows much about the science. He had a simple line on the relationship between international justice and global warming. “For Bangladesh, which is already suffering the effects of political negligence and repeated natural disasters, this is the final critical factor. Our country is responsible for only 0.3% or 0.4% of total greenhouse gas emissions, less than the city of New York. We recognise our moral obligation to reduce our emissions. But if the rest of the world does nothing there will be a massive humanitarian catastrophe. Who will be to blame for that?”

He added: “For a long time I have proposed this solution. Every country must take on, must transport and accommodate, a quota of climate refugees proportional to its past and present greenhouse gas emissions.” That solution would have to start with the extension of refugee status, as defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention, to those affected by climate change. The idea is startling. Time to consider it.


(1) See C├ędric Gouverneur, “Bangladesh in the grip of globalised trade”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, August 2005.

(2) There is little that Bangladesh can do about this. Fishermen in the southwest have observed a significant rise in the sea level over the past 30 years. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) puts the global rise during the period at 12-22 cm.

(3) See

(4) IPCC third assessment report, Climate Change 2001, the Scientific Basis (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

(5) The 2006 Kyoto international forum recognised the organisation's achievements.

(6) IPCC fourth assessment report, “Climate Change 2007, the Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers”, Paris, 2 February 2007. See