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Vulnerability and population displacements due to climate-induced disasters in coastal Bangladesh



Climate  change  is  one  of  the  greatest  challenges  for  the  world  today.  The intensity and frequency of climate-induced disasters have been increased in recent years. The low-lying and  coastal  countries  like  Bangladesh  are  the most  vulnerable  to  the  adverse  effects  of climate  change.  These countries are already experiencing frequent natural disasters like floods,  cyclones,  droughts,  earthquakes,  river  erosion,  etc  with  millions  of  population displacements.  The climate-induced migrants are often discriminated and face different problems during or after the displacement.  In many cases, the policies and institutional frameworks are not sufficient to protect the displaced people. Therefore, there is a need  to review  the relevant policies and  institutional  frameworks  identifying  the protection gaps and adopting  new  policies  to  protect  the  environmental  migrants.  In this paper, the author reviews the vulnerability and population displacement issues, existing policies, and suggests necessary policy and institutional frameworks with regard to extreme climate-induced disasters in coastal Bangladesh.

Keywords:   Climate Change, Sea level rise, Vulnerability, Displacements, Environmental migrants


Climate change has emerged as the greatest threat facing the mankind today (Clime Asia 2009). the adverse effects of climate change undermine the economic development, human security, and people’s fundamental rights (UNDP 2007). It deteriorates the poverty situation and obstructs the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the least developed countries, who are highly vulnerable to the climate-induced disasters (Vashist and Das 2009).

Disaster  statistics  shows  that  the  frequency  and  intensity  of  extreme  natural  events  have been  increased  in  recent years  (UNDP 2004). Additionally, global climate change and sea level rise may affect low-lying and coastal countries displacing millions of people from their homes, occupations and livelihoods (World Bank 2007). The International Organization on Migration (IOM) has estimated that by 2050 there will be 250 million people who could be described as climate or environmental migrants (IOM 2009). The findings of a joint report by the  United  Nations  Office  for  the  Coordination  of  Humanitarian  Affairs  (UNOCHA),  the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) show  that  at  least  36 million  people were  displaced  in  2008  by  the  sudden-onset  natural disasters (IDMC and UNOCHA 2009). Among them, 20 million people were displaced due to climate related events and the number of displaced persons is expected to rise in coming years with increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognizes that Small Island Developing States (SIDS), low-lying and coastal countries, Africa, and the Least Developed Countries  (LDCs)  are  particularly  vulnerable  to  the  impacts  of  climate  change  (UNFCCC 2007). The Global Climate Risk Index 2010 (CRI), which was developed by a German-based organization “Germanwatch”, recognized Bangladesh as the most vulnerable country to the extreme weather events and most affected in the period of 1990-2008 (Harmeling 2009). On the other hand, UNDP (2004) identified Bangladesh to be the most vulnerable country in the world to tropical cyclones and the sixth most vulnerable country to floods.

Millions of people of the coastal areas of Bangladesh are under threat of climate change and climate variability issues.  According  to  a  recent  report,  over  35 millions  of  people will  be displaced  from 19  coastal districts of Bangladesh  in  case of 1 meter  sea  level  rise  in  this century  (Rabbani  2009).  IOM  (2009)  indicated  in  a  study  report  that  many  people  have already migrated  to  the urban slums from the coastal zones of Bangladesh due  to  frequent cyclones, storm surges, river erosion, etc.

The Cyclone Aila, which hit  the coastal Bangladesh on 25 May 2009, caused huge  loss of properties  and  infrastructure,  and  displaced  a  large  number  of  people  from  their  homes (DMB 2009). The coastal embankments damaged by the cyclone and tidal surges could not be repaired even after one year of the cyclone (Oxfam 2010). As of August 2010, a  large number  of  displaced  people  have  been  living  in  the  makeshift  houses  of  the  damaged embankments without  adequate  food,  safe  drinking water,  proper  sanitation  facilities,  etc.

To protect these displaced people, the relevant policies and institutional frameworks should be reviewed on urgent basis to identify key-gaps in protection needs and launch new policy and institutional frameworks.  In  this  paper,  the  author  reviews  the  vulnerability  and population  displacement  issues  identifying  critical  gaps  and  challenges,  and  suggesting important policy or  institutional  frameworks with  regard  to  the experiences of Cyclone Aila 2009 in coastal Bangladesh.

Vulnerability of Bangladesh to climate-induced disasters

Bangladesh having around 160 millions of people is highly vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise (Rabbani 2009). The geographical location and low-lying characteristics of the country makes it more vulnerable and susceptible to different natural and climate-induced disasters (Figure 1).  It is the world’s third most vulnerable country to sea-level rise in terms of the number of people, and among the top ten countries in terms of percentage of people living in low-lying coastal zones (Pender 2008). Currently, almost 40 million people live in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. Loss of coastal land to the sea, currently predicted to 3% by the 2030s and 6% in the 2050s, is likely to generate steady flow of displaced people (Tanner et al. 2007). Figure 2 shows the vulnerable coastal of Bangladesh exposed to cyclones and storm surges.

Over  the  past  years,  several  natural  disasters  like  cyclonic  storms,  floods,  drought,  etc caused  enormous  loss  of  lives  and  properties  in  Bangladesh.  Table  1  shows  the  major natural  disasters  in  Bangladesh  by  the  number  of  affected  population  during  the  last  30 years. Only in 1988 flood, a total of 45 million people were affected including huge number of displacements.

Bangladesh is also highly vulnerable in terms of number of people killed in the past natural disasters (Table 2).  It  is seen  that  in 1991 cyclonic storm, a  total of 138,866 people were killed causing millions of injuries, huge loss of properties and infrastructure, socio-economic disruptions, etc. Among other extreme events,  the super cyclone  ‘Sidr’  in 2007 killed 4,236 people and caused huge damages in agriculture, fisheries, forestry, health, water supply and sanitation.

The  Intergovernmental  Panel  on  Climate  Change  (IPCC)  estimates  that  climate  change would contribute to 0.6 meter or more of global sea level rise by 2100 (Harvey and Nicholls 2008).  The low-lying and least-developed countries like Bangladesh are very vulnerable against sea level rise. According to a World Bank report, Bangladesh would face 30 cm to 50 cm  sea  level  rise  in  2030  and  2050  respectively  (Faisal  and Parveen  2004). A study has revealed that sea levels in the Bay of Bengal have risen much faster over the past decades. As a result, low-lying and small islands are at the greatest risk. Recent satellite image shows that the New Moore Island or South Talpotti (the uninhabited territory) has disappeared due to sea level rise (Rahman 2010). It is predicted that other small islands in the Bay of Bengal may disappear like South Talpotti in the coming decades.

The  coastal  areas  are  particularly  vulnerable  to  tropical  cyclones  and  associated  storm surges.  The  cyclones  occurred  in  1970,  1985,  1991,  1997,  2007  and  2009  caused  huge losses  and  displaced  millions  of  people  in  the  coastal  areas  (Akter  2009).  As shown in Figure 3, in 1991 Cyclone, around 15% population of the country and 4% population of the coastal area were displaced from their homes.

Over 500,000 inhabitants of the Bhola Island in Bangladesh lost their home when the island was permanently submerged by floods in 2005 (Chhabara 2008). A vast number of families lost their homes permanently and compelled to move  to urban slums  in metropolitan areas such as Dhaka, Rajshahi, Khulna and Chittagong  (IOM 2009). Dhaka’s slum population  is estimated at 3.4 million, which  is expected  to grow as 400,000 migrants arriving each year from  rural  and  coastal  areas  resulting  from  natural-induced  disasters  (World Bank,  2009). Along with the internal displacement, 12 to 17 million people have migrated to the adjacent states of India, mostly in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura since 1950s (Reuveny 2005).

The consequences of cyclone Aila 2009

The  cyclone  Aila,  which  struck  on  25  May  2009,  caused  enormous  loss  of  properties, infrastructure, social and economic disruption, environmental degradation, etc in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. A total of 190 people were killed and estimated 4.82 million people were affected in total 11 coastal districts (Table 3).

The  cyclone  and  tidal  surges  collapsed  the  coastal  embankments  at  several  points inundating  the  vast  areas  (DMB  2009).  The houses, livestock, assets, crops, etc were washed away by the floodwater. Over 1,700 km of flood embankments have been damaged by the cyclone and tidal surges. The people, who lost everything, left their homesteads and took  shelter  in  the makeshift  houses  on  roads,  damaged  embankments, markets,  growth centre,  schools  or  even  open  sky  (Sarawat  2009).  Figure 4 shows the affected areas detected by COSMO SkyMed satellite images as of 30 May 2009.

The embankments, built in the 1960s, had been a source of protection to the coastal people from the rivers and tidal flooding (Sarawat 2009).  For the last 20-30 years, these embankments had been cut at several points to enter the saline water to the cultivable lands for shrimp cultivation. Besides,  these  embankments  had  not  been maintained  properly  for past  years  by  the  concerned  authority.  Therefore,  these  vulnerable  embankments  had  breached  easily  against  the  recent  cyclone  Aila  inundating  the  large  area  and  making thousands of people homeless.

The precarious situation created by cyclone Aila has resulted in increased migration to the cities or other areas.  More  than  400,000  people  have  been  reportedly  displaced  by  the cyclone  in  the  coastal  areas  of  Bangladesh  (Wapedia  2010).  According  to  the  ECHO (European  Commission’s  Humanitarian  Aid  Office)  partners’  assessment,  about  40,000 people migrated due to Cyclone Aila from the Koyra upazila (sub-district) of Khulna District in Bangladesh (ECHO 2009). The figure is around 30,000 in Paikgacha, 18,000 in Dacope and 12,000 in Batiaghata upazila. Figure 5 shows the number of displaced families in Dacope and Koyra upazila over the last months.  International Organization for Migration has estimated that a number of 11,118 families in Dacope upazila and 5,533 families in Koyra upazila were displaced in November 2009 (IOM 2010). Along with the internal displacement, some people of the coastal areas are reported to migrate to the neighbouring countries like India (Gain 2010).

Even after one year of cyclone Aila (as of August, 2010), most of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have been living on damaged embankments and other high strips of land. Poor has become extremely poor and many non-poor have been thrown into poverty and food insecurity by the destruction of Aila (Mallick 2009). As  the drinking water sources and sanitary  latrines  have  been  damaged,  people  are  living  in  unhealthy  and  unhygienic condition without  adequate  food,  pure  drinking water  and  proper  sanitary  facilities  (Dhaka Mirror 2010). The cyclone Aila caused huge damages of ponds, where community people used to store sweet water between September and November each year and use that water for the rest of the year. The internally displaced people also faced the problems of physical insecurity,  stress  due  to  traumatic  experiences,  lack  of  livelihood  opportunities,  loss  of documentation, etc (CRG 2006). In addition, educational activities of the affected areas have been affected greatly.

The response from the Government of Bangladesh to overcome this disaster has not been adequate and well-coordinated.    It  has  provided  monthly  20  Kilograms  of  rice  for  each affected  family  through Vulnerable Group Feeding  (VGF) cards, which makes  them difficult to maintain their families (IOM 2010). The government has also made a number of attempts to  repair  the  damaged  embankments  with  the  help  of  the  local  administration  and  the community people. But due  to  lack of proper steps and other problems,  the embankments have  not  been  repaired  even  after  one  year.  Some repaired embankments have been collapsed repeatedly due to water pressure of new moon tides (NNN-IRIN 2010).

International  Organization  for  Migration  (IOM)  undertook  two  field  assessments  in  the affected area in response to cyclone Aila and at the request of the government and the Inter-Agency  Standing  Committee  (IASC)  of  the  United  Nations  (IOM  2009).  Based  on  these assessments,  IOM  is  implementing  a  project  to  assist  over  24,000  displaced  families providing  temporary  shelter  supports  and  other  essential  non-food  items.  To facilitate the implementation of the project, IOM is setting up a temporary office in the affected areas and closely coordinating with the local administration and partner NGOs for ensuring its effective and rapid implementation.  Other international organizations such as European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), Oxfam, and Caritas have also undertaken a number of emergency response and relief operations in the affected coastal areas.

Existing national policies and institutional frameworks in Bangladesh

Bangladesh,  being  one  of  the  most  disaster-prone  countries,  has  adopted  a  number  of policies and institutional arrangements to face the natural disasters and climate change. The institutional framework for disaster management consists of different disaster management committees at different levels comprising government, non-government, voluntary and other relevant stakeholders. The National Disaster Management Council  (NDMC) headed by  the Prime  Minister  is  the  highest-level  forum  for  the  formulation  and  review  of  disaster management  policies  in  Bangladesh.  The Inter-Ministerial Disaster Management Coordination Committee is in charge of implementing disaster management policies and the decisions of the NDMC, assisted by the National Disaster Management Advisory Committee.

The  Ministry  of  Food  and  Disaster  Management  is  the  focal  ministry  for  disaster management in Bangladesh.  Its Disaster Management Bureau (DMB) is mainly responsible for coordinating national disaster management interventions across all agencies.  In  2000, the  government  published  ‘Standing  Orders  on  Disaster’,  which  provides  a  detailed institutional framework for disaster risk reduction and emergency management, and defines the roles and responsibilities of different agencies and committees.

The Ministry of Environment and Forest is the focal ministry for climate change challenges including international negotiations. Under its Department of Environment, a Climate Change Cell supports the mainstreaming of climate change into national development planning and developed a network of 34 focal points in different government agencies, research and other organizations (MoEF 2008).  Among  others,  National  Environmental  Policy  (1992),  the Coastal  Zone  Policy  (2005),  etc  play  an  important  role  for  managing  disasters  and environmental  problems.  In  2005,  the  Government  of  Bangladesh  launched  its  National Adaptation  Programme  of  Action  (NAPA),  which  highlights  the  main  adverse  effects  of climate change and identifies adaptation needs.

Bangladesh  supports  the  Bali  Action  Plan,  which  identified  a  set  of  actions  essential  to achieve  a  secure  climate  future  in  the  13th Conference  of  Parties  (COP  13)  to  the  UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC), held  in Bali  in December 2007.  In response  to  Bali  Action  Plan,  government  of  Bangladesh  launched  Bangladesh  Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) in 2009.

Bangladesh has taken a number of development programmes  to  face  the natural disasters and climate change over the last years. Currently Bangladesh government has undertaken a project aims at building a number of 207 eco-villages for rehabilitating the climate change victims and creating self-employment opportunities for them (Daily Purbanchal 2010). Under this project, a total of 10,650 families affected in the recent climate-induced disasters will be rehabilitated in these eco-villages.

The gaps and challenges regarding policies and institutional frameworks

The national policies and institutional frameworks of Bangladesh are not sufficient to protect the climate-induced migrants.  The  national  policies  concerning  the  climate  change  and environment  issues  such  as  National  Environment  Policy  1992,  the  coastal  zone  policy 2005, and the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) 2005, Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2008 indicate the climate change problems. But there are no  clear  indications  how  population  displacement  problems  will  be  addressed  in  these policies  (Akter  2009).  In  addition,  there  are  no  detailed  action  plans  with  a  timeframe  to tackle this problem.

As  experienced  in  cyclone  Aila,  there  are  weaknesses  and  inefficiency  in managing  the natural  disasters  in  Bangladesh.  The Government of Bangladesh could not repair the damage embankments even after more than one year in severely affected districts. A large number of people have been displaced from their homes. There are no proper and adequate rehabilitation programmes for the displaced people. In addition, there is lack of accountability and transparency in implementation and monitoring of response and rehabilitation programmes.  In many cases, negligence and corruption of the local disaster management authorities have been reported in relief and rehabilitation programmes  in  the  recent natural disasters in Bangladesh.

There  are  normative  frameworks  under  the  1998  UN  Guiding  Principles  on  internal displacement  that  states  have  the  primary  responsibility  to  help  the  internally  displaced persons  (IDPs). But there are challenges on the ground to ensure the protection of IDPs. Because,  the  states  are  sometimes  unable  to  protect  the  displaced  people,  and  in  some cases even deny  the entry of  international protection and assistance agencies  referring  to the principle of national sovereignty and non-interference (NRC 2009).

The international migration policies are not enough to protect the environmental migrants. As climate  or  environmental  migrants  are  expected  to  rise  in  coming  years  due  to  climate change and sea level rise, developed countries will find demands to accept climate refugees from  the  affected  countries.  Accepting climate refugees faces opposition already by the different countries. For example,  India has planned  to  fence off Bangladesh by erecting a 2,500  mile  long  barbed  barrier  to  prevent  filtration  of  terrorists  and  illegal  immigrants (Chhabara 2008; BBC 2006).

The gap between disaster research and practice exists. Disaster management strategies are not often adopted on the basis of intensive and in-depth disaster analysis. The lack of proper vulnerability assessment to the climate change impacts in the vulnerable communities is a drawback.  There are also challenges of raising funds and implementing adaptation programmes for the most vulnerable countries like Bangladesh.

Recommendations and conclusions

Existing policies should be reviewed and reevaluated for better disaster preparedness and emergency responses. National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) of  the vulnerable countries  should  include  explicit  and  effective  strategies  for  addressing  climate-induced migrations.  In addition, adequate assessment of vulnerabilities in terms of different social, cultural and environmental impact indicators is needed within the vulnerable communities to take appropriate actions in reducing disaster risk and vulnerabilities.

Synergies  among  Disaster  Risk  Reduction  (DRR),  climate  change  adaptation  and development should be developed ensuring representation, participation, and coordination of different stakeholders  in  the society. Poverty  reduction strategies of  the climate vulnerable countries  must  take  the  impacts  of  climate  change  into  consideration  and  undertake necessary measures to protect the vulnerable population and their livelihoods. An integrated approach involving many different ministries and agencies, civil society and the business sector is needed to tackle the climate change in the countries like Bangladesh.

The gaps and weaknesses  in existing  institutional arrangements  for disaster  response and rehabilitation  activities  in  Bangladesh  should  be  identified  from  the  experience  of  recent disasters  like  cyclone  Aila.  Coastal  embankments  damaged  by  cyclone  Aila  2009  in Bangladesh  need  to  be  repaired  and  rebuilt  urgently  to  protect  the  internally  displaced persons  and  their  livelihoods. Affected  displaced  people  need  greater  rehabilitation  and resettlement  supports  from  the  government  as  well  as  the  international  communities. Professionalization of resettlement programmes should be ensured incorporating experts and local knowledge.

The capacity of the governments and other concerned organizations to plan and implement adaptive  programmes  should  be  strengthened  to  meet  the  challenge  of  climate  change. Proper education and training programmes will have to be undertaken for building capacity and raising public awareness. People friendly and timely early warning systems should be established considering regional variability.  Additionally,  proper  implementation  of  the relevant  policies  and  guidelines  need  to  be  ensured  for  better  protection  of  the  displaced persons.

Recent natural disasters indicate that Bangladesh, which is under threat of sea level rise and climate change, may face more climate refugees in coming years. Therefore,  international migration  policies  and  programmes  should  be  reformulated  in  the  light of  influx  of  climate refugees  particularly  from  the  situation  of  climate  vulnerable  nations.  Countries and humanitarian agencies should review the legal and institutional arrangements, and find legal gaps in protection. More research and systematic displacement monitoring are needed in this regard.


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  1. Jahedi Rezaul Maksud says:

    Human intervention on nature is the main causes for climate change,albeit, climate change is accerelaration due to emit greenhouses by developed countries.For the vested interest of the big heads of the world not to sign the kyoto protocol.It is the bad luck for the LDCs nation. so, due to adverse impact of climate some part of Bangladesh are facing the saline water intrusion,internally displacement of the coastal people.It is the right time for Bangladesh to make a strong voice against the wrong activities of the super powers.

  2. Shahzada Mohiuddin says:

    I agree with Jahedi vai and Just want to add one thing, Synergies among Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), climate change adaptation and development should be developed ensuring representation, participation, and coordination of different stakeholders in the society. Poverty reduction strategies of the climate vulnerable countries must take the impacts of climate change into consideration and undertake necessary measures to protect the vulnerable population and their livelihoods. An integrated approach involving many different ministries and agencies, civil society and the business sector is needed to tackle the climate change in the countries like Bangladesh.

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