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Climate refugees: diaspora response to a human health crisis

Bangladeshi women try to adapt their livelihood strategies to a landscape changing rapidly due to climate change. Photo: Mohammad Zaman


Over the next 30 years, some 30-40 million Bangladeshis will take what they can from their homes and move to higher ground. They will pour into Dhaka and other Bangladeshi cities, overflowing the already expansive slums and bastees; they will cross international borders into India, Myanmar and other countries looking for livelihoods, homes and some semblance of security for their families. This mass of humanity, at least equal in size to the entire population of Canada, will not be pulled to the cities by the promise of a better future. Theirs will not be an economic migration associated with new opportunities, but instead a forced exodus driven by an unprecedented environmental calamity that they have played virtually no part in causing. They will make up the largest group of climate refugees this world has ever seen.

Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated deltaic country. More than half of the country’s 160 million inhabitants make their homes on a massive delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. A one-meter rise in the sea level – as is predicted by some of the most conservative climate change models – would inundate roughly a third of Bangladesh’s land and trigger a forced migration unprecedented in its scale.

The Ganges (locally called Padma), one of the three major rivers, is eating away valuable agricultural lands every year, making thousands homeless and landless destitute. Photo: Mohammad Zaman

Vancouver is home to some 6000 Bangladeshis who are all too aware of the disaster facing their home country. Over the past 8-10 years the impending humanitarian crisis facing Bangladesh has grown from a topic of conversation to a focal point of organization within Vancouver’s Bangladeshi community. In 2009 the Society for Bangladesh Climate Justice was formed as a unified effort to enhance awareness of climate change, promote the cause of Bangladesh internationally, support action research in the areas of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and to work with the Canadian government to help Bangladesh manage what is sure to be an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe.

Dr. Mohammad Zaman is Executive Director of the Society for Bangladesh Climate Justice. He points out that the community of South Asian states (SAARC) has established mechanisms for sharing climate change data, but has done nothing to address the issue of climate refugees and migration. Indeed, the international community in general has yet to devise a framework for handling the estimated 200 million people around the world who will become permanent climate refugees by 2050. Such a framework will be necessary to manage the inevitable international migration of people displaced by flooding, drought, coastal erosion and other climate induced crises. According to Dr. Zaman, however, the solutions to these problems must also include strengthening the capacity of countries like Bangladesh to mitigate and adapt to them.

Climate refugees face a set of problems distinct from those affecting other migrant groups. Unlike those who uproot to the cities in search of economic opportunities, climate-induced migrants often lack preparation for the journeys they embark on. They leave their homes in a state of distress and may be unable or unprepared to establish new livelihoods. They experience ongoing trauma with lasting effects on their physical and mental health. In this context, Dr. Zaman points to the need for a holistic approach to health incorporating community building, livelihood development and trauma counseling – in addition to medicine and treatment for the physical body.

Riverbank erosion alone displaces over 100,000 people every year. People displaced are poor and need urgent support and assistance. Photo: Mohammad Zaman

The crisis facing Bangladesh is not a potential consequence of climate change; it is catastrophe that is unfolding at this very moment. Already 100,000 Bangladeshis are displaced by climate-induced erosion along riverbanks and coastal areas every year. Nor is it a problem peculiar to Bangladesh. Upwards of 50 million Indians face the prospect of forced migration as rising sea levels subsume coastal areas in that country. Meanwhile, island nations like the Maldives could be completely submerged in mere decades.

For most people living in the high-consumption countries responsible for the vast majority of green house gas emissions, climate change represents an amorphous threat lurking somewhere in the uncertain future. For Dr. Mohammad Zaman and the Society for Bangladesh Climate Justice, climate change is an immediate and dire threat to the lives, livelihoods and health of their loved ones and countrymen. Their objective is to convince the public and the government of Canada that concrete actions must be taken not only out of compassion for Bangladeshis, but out of recognition that the scale of the humanitarian crisis facing Bangladesh and its neighbouring countries is of grave consequence to the entire world.

Dr. Mohammad Zaman is part of a distinguished panel of speakers participating in the Engaging Diasporas in Development project’s “Improving Global Health” dialogue. Dr. Zaman will share experiences and insights from his work with the Society for Bangladesh Climate Justice and will highlight the environmental, economic and social determinants of health. Those interested in joining in the discussion can register for the dialogue here. For more information on the Engaging Diasporas in Development project, please visit the project website here.

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