"Climate Refugees" in Bangladesh – Answering the Basics: The Where, How, Who and How Many


(Displacement Solutions) June 10, 2010 – Extreme climate events – be it the result of environmental destruction by people, or naturally occurring changes in cl

imate – are forcing people to flee their traditional place of residence with

enormous sufferings in points of transit and the points of destination without any support from aid agencies or Government authorities. ACR (Association for Climate Refugees), a network of NGOs have been making some efforts in seeking answers to basic questions, like how and where the people have been made refugees*, who the refugees are, and how many there are.

Where and how: Mass scale forced displacement has been caused by tidal floods in the exposed coastal area and loss of land due to erosion in the main land river basins

The population living in South and South-East Asia on the coastline extending from the east coast of India to Myanmar have been buffeting by annual cyclones from the Bay of Bengal and ever increasing tidal floods. Due

to its extensive coastal geography, Bangladesh is undoubtedly one of the most affected countries. Cyclones not only result in human casualties and destruction of property, but also leave behind perpetual tidal floods. Notably, over the last few years deadly cyclones have been commonplace: Cyclone Sidr of 2007, Nargis of 2008, Aila of 2009, and Laila of 2010. Bangladesh was hit directly by Sidr while Nargis, Aila, and Laila also wreaked havoc in Myanmar and India, respectively. Research in Dakshin Bedkashi (Koyra Upazila) reveals that the tidal flood water level has risen by 1 meter over 5 years (2004 to 2008) and it rose by an additional meter in 2009 and in 2010 it continues to rise further. Twelve coastal districts in the south of Bangladesh are particularly at risk: Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat, Pirojpur, Barguna, Patuakhali, Bhola, Laxmipur, Feni, Noakhali, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar.

Around one million people have been rendered homeless due to river erosion in the mainland river basins over the last three decades, as the Brahmaputra-Jamuna continues to widen because of obstruction from upstream sediment and poor downstream erosion management. Official statistics show that the Brahmaputra-Jamuna, a major river system in Bangladesh, has widened by 11.8 km and from 8.3 km in the early ’70s, eroding about 87,790 hectares of land. (CEGIS, 2006). NGOs affiliated with ACR working in the mainland river basin report observing people forced to flee their traditional place of residence due to increasing river erosion. Ten districts are hotspots, namely Kurigram, Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Bogra, Sirajganj, Rangpur, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari, Mymensingh, and Netrakona.

Bangladesh is comprised of 64 districts, out of which 22 are at risk of climate-induced displacement.

Who and how many: The poorer people who used to live in exposed locations are the climate refugees and they are 6 million in number

The poorest people who live in the extremely exposed locations in the coastal belt and the mainland river basins of Bangladesh will be the first to become climate refugees in upcoming years.

Tidal floods have already badly affected 56% of the 422 unions (lowest unit in the local government) of the 48 upazilas (sub-districts) in the exposed coastal zone of Bangladesh. Most of the villages in the badly affected 236 unions are flooded by tidal saline water twice a day over the last 3 years. The Houses, Land, and Properties (HLP) of 2,462,789 people (32%) of 7,693,331 inhabitants (in the affected unions alone) have been destroyed by repeated cyclones and rising tides. Of them, 1,568,980 (64%) are languishing as Local Climate Refugees (LCR) on remaining embankments or higher ground in exposed zones; 675,113 (27%) are squatters, or Internal Climate Refugees (ICR), in cities including Dhaka; and 218,656 (9%) are have crossed international borders, as Global Climate Refugees (GCR), in order to earn an income. The situation on the exposed coast is worsening and it is predicted that the number of climate refugees will increase to 3 million people by the end of 2010.

River bank erosions have already badly affected 44% of the 407 unions (lowest unit in the local government) of the 36 upazilas (sub-districts) in the exposed mainland river basins of Bangladesh. Most of the villages in the badly affected 179 unions are being eroded by flash flood waters every year over the last 3 decades. Houses, Land, and Properties (HLP) of 1,452,588 people (42%) of the 3,490,500 inhabitants (in the affected unions alone) have been destroyed by annual river erosion often coupled with devastating floods. Of them, 951,531 (66%) are languishing as Local Climate Refugees (LCR) on neighboring embankments or higher ground in exposed zones; 375,793 (26%) are urban squatters, or Internal Climate Refugees (ICR), in internal cities, like Dhaka; 125,264 (8%) have crossed international borders and are Global Climate Refugees (GCR). The situation in the river basin is worsening and it is predicted that the number of climate refugees from the river basin will increase to 2 million by the end of 2010.

The remaining 397 upazilas, which are not dangerously exposed on the coastline, still are at sea-level and will perhaps generate another 2.1 million climate refugees. Thus, the total number of climate refugees in Bangladesh as of May 2010 stands at 6 million, out of which at least 1 million are living in Dhaka. The total number of climate refugees in Bangladesh is expected to increase to 7.5 million by the end of 2010.

Hotspots of climate refugees at the point of origin: Island upazilas of Koyra, Shyamnagar and Dacope in the west, and Kutubdia, Hatiya and Swandip in the east of the coastal belt of Bangladesh

In one way or another, all exposed upazilas are generating climate refugees, but some are more immediately and particularly exposed. The middle coast (Barisal Division) enjoys the comparative advantage of being an active delta with land formation in progress as well as a freshwater ecosystem, but the west (Khulna Division) and east (Chittagong Division) coast have been unlawfully deprived of that active delta privilege by India’s unilateral interception in the river course originating from the Himalayas. Hence the west coast has 3 hotspots i.e. Koyra and Dacope in Khulna district, and Shyamnagar in Satkhira district. The east coast also has 3 hotspots i.e. Kutubdia in Cox’s Bazar district, Swandip in Chittagong district and Hatiya in Noakhali district.

Response to the plight of the Climate Refugees

The Finance Minister of Bangladesh Government has said, “We are asking all our development partners to honour the natural right of persons to migrate. We can’t accommodate all these people – this is already the densest [populated] country in the world,” in a video interview with the Guardian. Repeated cyclones and tidal floods have substantially destroyed the life line of coastal dwellers.

More than 200 NGOs in Bangladesh are working for the resettlement of the climate refugees. They have participated, as a finalist, in the World Bank’s Global Competition on Climate Adaptation held on 10-13 November 2009 in Washington, D.C. but could not win a grant. However, the World Bank ’s Innovation Practice Manager wrote “We are indeed working on a range of ideas in which we can communicate with your host governments, other funders in the space, and like-minded partners who can support your projects and perhaps find ways to work with you” in a post of the NGOs’ Team Leader in World Bank’s DM Blog. NGOs are continuing to negotiate projects with potential donors on climate refugee issues.


Climate change is likely to lead to increase the number of climate refugees, and it is vital that evolving frameworks for climate change adaptation address this issue so that national and international communities can peacefully resettle climate refugees. Climate change ignores country borders making it a global problem; however, we cannot ignore country borders and have to begin to work regionally and globally for mutual benefits and interests. We welcome suggestions and assistance for effective and efficient resettlement of climate refugees.

*This article refers to climate-induced migrants as “refugees,” but Towards Recognition is of the stance that such a designation muddies the traditional definition of the term and could lead to weakened legal protection.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Displacement Solutions, but has been edited for Towards Recognition by Kayly Ober.

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