Long-term Migration – An Unenthusiastic Adaptation Response to Climate Change

UN Photo/Kibae Park, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The recent IPCC report has listed Bangladesh as the world’s seventh most climate-vulnerable country. Climate change wreaks havoc each year; natural catastrophes like cyclones, flash floods, landslides, and heavy monsoon rain have become yearly occurrences. These events have far-reaching ramifications not just on human lives and livelihoods but also on the ecosystem; high salinity, land degradation, and water scarcity.

Climatic hazards push destitute people to migrate to nearby cities for better livelihood opportunities. According to the recent Country Climate and Development report, the number of internal climate-induced migrants could reach over 13 million by the period 2050. Often, these migrants take shelter in urban slums.

The recent research by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) on the three largest slums (Notun Bazar, Ghat no. 5, and Ghat no. 7) of Khulna City and the two largest slums (Ramchandrapur and Sreerampur) of Rajshahi City revealed that around 49 and 18 percent of the participated slum dwellers from Khulna and Rajshahi city respectively are climate-induced migrants.

However, these slums are not well-structured and lack basic amenities and wash facilities. Additionally, the displaced households lack social networks, access to institutions, and networks, which makes it harder for them to obtain sources of income and build assets. The unsanitary slum environment and urban hardship exacerbate the difficulties faced by the migrants. The hardship in the urban slums and the limited accessibility to basic public services leave them with extremely low coping capability to deal with experienced climate shocks and in consequence, push them to slide down to the bottom of the poverty ladder.

In collaboration with the London School of Economics (LSE), BIGD undertook a nationally representative survey to understand the perceptions of people about climate change and their patterns of future migration decisions. A Randomized Control Trial (RCT) approach was used, where a group of respondents were informed about the scientific predictions on the likelihood of heat stress, irregular precipitation, high salinity, and low agricultural productivity, among many others to the respective districts and divisions. Around 98 percent of the respondents were found to believe that there will be a substantial change in the climatic parameters in the foreseeable future and this change will have major negative effects on economic activities. Respondents in the same study also offered their opinions on how climate change will affect the frequency of natural disasters.

Despite their perceptions about the recurrent incidences of climatic catastrophes, approximately 73% of respondents would choose to remain in their current locations rather than migrate in the future. A separate survey undertaken in Bangladesh’s natural hazard-prone coastal districts of Khulna and Satkhira by a research team from the Economics Discipline at Khulna University corroborated the prevalence of voluntary non-migration in those areas. The study reports more than four-fifths of the respondents consciously choose to stay in their current location and refuse to migrate to nearby cities in the face of environmental vulnerabilities and human-induced hazards.

The latter investigation identifies three primary probable and prospective factors that have significantly influenced coastal residents’ voluntary non-migration decisions: social capital, which includes the relationship between local government and non-governmental organizations and social safety net program; psychological viewpoint, which examines security and better income prospect; and lastly, easy access to natural resources, such as the availability of timber and livestock rearing opportunities in the local area and so on. Besides the main factors, several secondary variables contribute to rural people’s voluntary non-migration. For instance, people’s decisions to migrate are stalled by the unpredictability and difficulties of urban life and livelihood as well as the financial support, relief, and social assistance they receive locally. Moreover, after a natural disaster, people usually borrow money from usurers at exorbitant interest rates to cover the additional costs of migration, which frequently makes them more vulnerable and locks them in deep poverty. This study advocates voluntary non-migration as an adaptation strategy in the face of dangers brought on by climate change as it not only strengthens the climate resilience of coastal populations but also relieves the population stress in urban areas.

In order to promote voluntary and climate-friendly non-migration, it is crucial to draw the attention of the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the need to take measures, such as diversifications of job opportunities in local and nearby areas including but not limited to agriculture. Informal works like construction, industrial and other sectors need to be made more resilient. Decentralization of urban cities and the development of peri-urban growth centres nearby to the place of origin could be another way. In addition, local government and local stakeholders should collectively work together to strengthen social safety net programs (i.e. relief support for both ex-ante and ex-post climatic events) and other associated programs to foster a degree of assistance and protection in disaster-prone areas.

Sonia Afrin is a Research Associate at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.