by Asmeeta Das Sharma, September 22, 2022
Maplecroft’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI), has repeatedly highlighted the uneven distribution of the impact of climate change across the globe. Densely populated, economically disadvantaged developing countries have been identified as the most vulnerable and at the forefront of climate disasters. Further, the Low Elevation Coastal Zones (LECZs) in these countries have higher exposure due to their population densities and vulnerability to multiple climate hazards like sea level rise, land subsidence, typhoons, tsunamis, and water contamination. The LECZs lie below 10 meters above the sea level accounting for 2 percent of the total land area and 11 per cent of the world’s population. Apart from the small island nations, a large share of the population of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) and the Developing Countries, resides in this zone. For example, 40 per cent of the land and 46 per cent of the population in Bangladesh resides in the LECZ.
These countries have low resilience towards gradual and sudden natural disasters, due to their poor coping capacity, under-developed infrastructure, high population densities, and a wide lower socio-economic base population. The people under the poverty line, who are often socio-spatially marginalised, are usually the hardest hit. They inhabit the most vulnerable areas and are excluded from the institutional framework of the state leaving them with minimal access to basic amenities and low coping capacities. These countries juggle the challenges posed by the large population, mammoth scale of development, provision of basic amenities, and the added climate risk.
The coastal communities in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta are victims of this complex phenomenon. For decades they have been residing in the volatile riverine islands in the delta, devising their own coping mechanisms. They begin with innovative attempts to rebuild their livelihoods by diversifying sources of income or using alternate agricultural and pisciculture practices. Civil society organizations often support these attempts by aiding community action, connecting them to the market, and empowering women with alternate skills. However, the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters force people to undertake migration to safer urban areas in search of alternate and stable livelihoods. The process begins with the emigration of an earning member of the family who is responsible for the post-disaster reconstruction and maintenance of his or her family. However, the increasing climatic stress and its impact on life, assets, and finances as well as the access to better services, ultimately leads to the emigration of the entire family.
This uncontrolled forced emigration from areas under high climatic stress to the fringes of the relatively safer urban areas within the region and at times across country borders as in the case of the India-Bangladesh border which cuts through the evolving Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta. However, this migration transposes them from the rural fringe to the invisible informal margins of the urban. Here too they remain at the forefront of the climate risks faced by the city.
The impact of this climate migration on the region can be seen in extended urban economic centres like Dhaka and Kolkata. These cities are reeling under the pressure of the rapidly increasing population and struggling to provide basic amenities to all their citizens. The World Bank predicts the climate displacement of over 13 million people in Bangladesh by 2050, further threatening the already saturated city of Dhaka. Both India and Bangladesh have had various approaches to this issue. Multiple in-situ solutions like promoting shrimp farming, employing water purification technologies, women self-help groups, and improving infrastructure, have been deployed in the region. However, the measures have managed to retain communities at source only in the short term.
Meanwhile, new peripheral urban/rurban clusters have evolved to act as transit hubs connecting the remote rural areas to the destination areas, markets, and other services. This presents an opportunity to mould the development of these tertiary cities and towns to absorb the climate migrants. Planned economic development and efficient connectivity will enable these towns to provide employment and offset the pressure on the current cities. Through collaborative local governance and regional economic and livelihood planning, inclusive secondary settlements can be created for the mutual benefit of the host and migrant populations. This approach creates a triple-win situation. First, with livelihood opportunities closer to home, the migrants can retain their cultural identities, and safeguard intangible traditional knowledge and social capital. The strength of the community and the interdependence is known to increase their resilience in times of disaster. Second, the coastal areas will attract development due to their proximity to the new economic centres and the increased need for infrastructure. This can potentially attract more funding, research, and development efforts. Third, polycentric urbanization will reduce the pressure on the major cities, facilitating good governance and improving the quality of life for all.
The port city of Monga, Bangladesh is already testing the ‘migrant-friendly’ city model together with the International Centre for Climate Change and Development. The city is following the institute’s guidelines on infrastructure and economic cluster development. Efficient connectivity will provide the migrants with multiple opportunities and facilitate their development as opposed to their current state of invisibility and desperation. Investigative research, international support, and a collaborative approach to local governance can enable towns and cities in the delta regions to live up to this mammoth restructuring challenge as well as provide a dignified life to these communities.
About the Author
Asmeeta is an urban strategist with a passion for complex strategic thinking across scales and geographies. Trying to bridge the gap between human needs and urban development, her work focuses on innovation through strategy and policy to promote equitable development.
Asmeeta holds an MSc in Architecture and the built environment with specialization in urbanism from Delft University of Technology. She is inclined towards human migration, climate resilience and their impact on urbanisation and governance and to use city and regional planning to facilitate the inclusion of marginalised communities in developing nations.