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Nestled in Bangladesh’s Bay of Bengal, the industrial port city Mongla is steadily preparing itself for climate change. The mayor has built flood defences against rising tides, planted several thousand shade trees and installed a city-wide loudspeaker system that informs residents when extreme weather is afoot. These features are designed to protect Mongla’s current residents, but they’re also part of a wider plan to transform the city into an attractive destination for Bangladesh’s climate migrants – those who are being displaced along the country’s ravaged coastline by rising sea levels and storms. According to Sarder Shafiqur Alam, an adviser to the city’s mayor, in 2021, Mongla aims to make itself even more “migrant-friendly”, with plans for new educational facilities, housing and jobs.
This is one of a number of Bangladesh cities preparing themselves to receive climate migrants. In 2020, almost four million Bangladeshis were uprooted from their homes by extreme weather. Most end up heading for the Sprawling, overburdened capital city, Dhaka. But researchers in Bangladesh have been investigating how cities like Mongla and the southwestern city of Khulna, can be redesigned as refuges, providing jobs and resilient green infrastructure – and ease the burden on Dhaka. For these so-called “secondary cities”, climate migration also presents a chance for economic revival, “an opportunity to rebuild and rethink”, says Tasneem Siddiqui, the founder of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit in Dhaka, one of the organisations leading the research.
Bangladesh’s geography and expanding population make it exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. Yet it’s not the only country thinking about how its cities can play into the solution – and benefit in the process. By 2050, an estimated 25 million to one billion people will be on the move globally because of extreme conditions related to climate change – whether that’s sea level rise, storms, drought or unlivable heat. For most, cities will be their final destination. In the UK, coastal Wales is pondering what to do with its first potential climate migrants, who are threatened by sea-level rise. In the United States, Texas alone is projected to receive almost 1.5 million new migrants by 2100 as people try to escape extreme weather in other states, including Florida and Louisiana. In 2021, pressure will grow for urban transformation to meet this escalating need.
Cities are already developing mechanisms for that. In 2019, a coalition of ten cities – including Los Angeles, Bristol, Freetown, Zurich, Kampala and Milan – formed the Mayors Migration Council to help city leaders translate international refugee and migration policies into action at the local level, which will benefit both the municipalities and the newcomers. From its inception, members recognised that climate change will be “front and centre” in driving urban migration, says Vittoria Zanuso, the Council’s executive director.
Responding to that means different things for different cities. Some are starting simply by studying the terrain. The Canada-based Climate Migrants and Refugee Project is currently mapping climate displacement within, and into, the state of British Columbia, so it can give cities concrete recommendations on how to prepare. For others, transformation means ensuring equity for migrants by redesigning housing and transport systems and ensuring a greater diversity of jobs – as is the case in Bangladesh.
In post-industrial cities seeking an economic boost, climate migrants also represent a huge chance for reform. As Zanuso puts it, “If people move there, there’s an opportunity to revitalise by accessing funding for development that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to before.” The rust-belt city of Buffalo in New York State is currently positioning itself as a “climate refuge”, based on modelling that shows that it will have a Goldilocks-style climate under future temperature projections. As a result, it is taking steps to make the area appealing to future migrants wanting to escape hotter, more unpredictable climes.
Meanwhile in Alaska – a state familiar with climate migration as homes are lost to coastal erosion and thawing permafrost – the city of Anchorage is trying to thread that understanding into its own migration policies, says Mara Kimmel, an immigration attorney and Anchorage’s first lady.
The city is trying to boost migrant inclusion through language programmes, equitable access to transport that connects migrants with housing and work and by matchmaking newcomers’ skills with available jobs. Kimmel also believes migrants themselves carry a unique capacity for urban transformation – something impossible to measure, but beneficial to the cities that welcome them. “If we want to build resilience, one of the best ways you can do that is integrate people who have lived through shocks and stresses,” she says. “The notion of survivability, and the skillsets that come with that, are things we have to start recognising.”
Emma Bryce is a journalist based in London specialising in environmental and science writing.