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Minus Akther wakes up before dawn every day in a 100-square-foot shack she shares with her husband and two children. She opens the creaking door, snakes through the zigzagging alleys, and waits for a gas burner in the communal space shared by 10 other families.
Akther, 32, is one of the nearly 200,000 people living in the Korail slum in Dhaka, the megacity capital of Bangladesh. She used to live on the southern coast of the country where her family grew rice and raised cattle on half an acre of land, but a monsoon washed away everything. With her home and livelihood gone, her family moved to Dhaka.
Climate change is prompting mass migration in many parts of the world, but Bangladesh’s low sea level, high population density and inadequate infrastructure make it particularly vulnerable. This has been particularly evident in recent weeks as torrential monsoon rains killed at least 60 people, submerged villages and inundated major rivers. The country, which is approximately the same size as New York State, has a population of 168 million. It is beset by over 10 million climate refugees, and an estimated 2,000 people are moving to Dhaka every day, according to the Mayors Migration Council.
Since Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, Dhaka’s population has shot up from 1.5 million to 22 million. The population growth became so overwhelming that in 2011, the city was split into two to provide better social services. The government predicts that by 2050, one in every seven Bangladeshi citizens will be displaced by climate change.
“My city is overpopulated, but I can’t turn migrants away” says Mohammad Atiqul Islam, mayor of Dhaka North, where the Korail slum is.
Bangladesh’s population is currently growing at an annual rate of around 1%, but Dhaka’s population has jumped 3.39% from 2021 to 2022, according to government statistics. And the migrants keep arriving.
‘A Wicked Problem’
Akther misses life back in her hometown — her children get diarrhea constantly from contaminated water that flows through rubber tubes, and she has to pay for rent and food, whereas back home, or where home used to be, farm life was self-sufficient. She works as a maid in the city and earns about 6,000 Bangladeshi taka (around $70) a month. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, she lost her job. But she must carry on paying rent.
“I don’t know where else to go,” Akther said.
Climate migrants seeking job opportunities in Dhaka have to put up with squalid conditions at illegal settlements like Korail. There is no fresh water and drains regularly clog with sewage. Illegal gas lines criss-cross through the alleys, and flames from burners and short circuits have frequently caused fires. But an even more existential threat is the foundation the slum is built on. Originally built on vacant high grounds in the late 1980s, the slum gradually expanded into more hazardous low-lying areas near water’s edge.
Slum Expansion Due to Growing Population
Akther’s dilemma is symptomatic of Dhaka’s broader woes — the city’s infrastructure has been pushed over the brink, and it’s a matter of time before a rising sea level swallows Korail.
“Dhaka is a wicked problem,” said Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development in Bangladesh.
Huq said migrants flock to Dhaka for job opportunities, and the only solution to alleviating Dhaka’s overcrowding is to incentivize migrants to go elsewhere. His organization has identified two dozen second-tier towns across the country with populations of around half a million and could potentially absorb another half a million refugees.
Huq says the key to building migrant-friendly towns are twofold: First, each town should have climate-resilient infrastructure. The southwestern town of Mongla, where Bangladesh’s second-largest seaport is located, offers a blueprint.
The town’s population has ballooned from 40,000 in 2011 to 150,000 in 2021, and migrant workers are arriving daily to work at the town’s Export Processing Zone. To prevent storm surges, the town has built a 7-mile embankment along a marine drive and improved its drainage system to effectively channel storm water into canals. Secondly, and crucially, is to make migrants feel at home.
“There’s universal hostility between host populations and migrant populations, and that’s what we are trying to address,” Huq said.
While prejudice against migrant workers is hard to reduce, Huq says education for the next generation is a good equalizer. To integrate migrant families into the local societies, Huq believes the towns need to be equipped with schools for the children of the migrant workers.
Bangladesh’s migrant crisis is a microcosm of one of the most egregious inequalities today — climate injustice. The average Bangladeshi emitted about 0.56 tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 — compared with about 14.24 tons for the average American, yet the country is bearing the brunt. Relentless cyclones, monsoons, floods and hurricanes have eroded shorelines and rising sea levels have swallowed homes.
Ground Zero for Climate Change
Bangladesh, occupying low-lying floodplains, has one of the world’s largest river deltas and is highly vulnerable to climate hazards
At the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, wealthy countries pledged to mobilize $100 billion of climate finance every year to developing countries by 2020. The target was never reached. At COP 26 in Glasgow last year, who, when and how much reparation should be paid to developing countries became the elephant in the room.
“There was a lot of talk at COP 26,” Mayor Islam said. “But I need solutions. I need climate justice.”
Since Islam took office in 2019, the city of Dhaka received a total of $95 million of funding from the World Bank, or about 0.2% of California’s $37 billion climate change budget. An OECD report estimates that donor nations will reach the $100 billion target in 2023, but details remain opaque.
Bangladesh has another card stacked against it. The country is set to graduate from the UN’s Least Developed Country (LDC) group in 2026 after meeting all three eligibility criteria (income, human assets and economic and environmental vulnerability) for the second time. While the graduation will improve its credit rating and attract more foreign direct investment, it will also put a stop to LDC-specific funds that Bangladesh has been receiving.
“Grants are debilitating. Once you get grants, you don’t look for other kinds of money,” Huq said. “It’s what beggars do. They have no volition. They have no agency of their own.”
Huq said Bangladesh has a huge learning curve if the country wants to secure more green finance amid the ESG boom. But the absence of uniform standards, or taxonomy, across Asia and market barriers in developing countries pose great challenges.
When Bangladesh was founded half a century ago, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger predicted that the country would be a “basket case” and survive on other nations’ charity. Huq said today’s Bangladesh proves Kissinger wrong — it has a thriving real estate market, a growing middle class and a booming cultural scene.
“We’re making huge strides,” Huq said. “And we still have a long way to go.”