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Countries Underwater: the Looming Crisis of Climate Migration

A recent statement to a UN council by Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the prime minister of Bangladesh,  declared that the predicted one meter sea-level rise would render 30 million people in coastal areas homeless and migrating to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

A staggering number, comprising the combined population of Belgium and the Netherlands, and one that has been much contested by studies and during international talks.

We asked Dr. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and a world expert on climate change adaptation, how accurate his prime-minister’s statement is, and how Bangladesh is planning for the climate migrants to come.

The smokescreen of numbers

“The emphasis on numbers in the current debate is a very great distraction, generating more noise than coming up with any strategy on how to deal with the issue. This type of debate is creating a smoke curtain, without necessary having a fire behind it,” urges Dr. Huq.

“The number of expected climate migrants in Bangladesh being 30 million is not what matters here. Thirty million is as right as any number. Nobody can be certain of the exact amount of climate migrants that our global society will have to deal with.”

“What we can say with absolute certainty,” states Huq, “is that ‘human-induced climate change is causing sea-levels to rise’ as well as ‘more than 30 million people living in coastal Bangladesh now will no longer be able to live where they are living today if the sea-level rises by 1 meter’.  When discussing the future, attributing migration to human induced climate change can be done with a lot of credibility and a strong scientific basis.

“It becomes more problematic when you are trying to determine the pace at which these processes are currently developing: most projections for a 1 meter sea-level rise for the coast of Bangladesh run well past 2100, by which time of the population itself will have doubled, if not tripled.

“Low-lying areas like the coast of Bangladesh and island states like Tuvalu and Kiribati will disappear into the ocean. And when these lands disappear, their inhabitants will become climate migrants and climate refugees, without any question. Whether climate migration is already happening TODAY, is still strongly disputed in the current debate, because migration always has multiple reasons: they can be political, sociological or environmental reasons. And attributing climate change as the main or only reason for moving, to any group of migrants, is a very difficult thing to do … for now.”

He adds: “Climate change is already a super-imposed factor in the web of push- and pull-factors that makes people decide to leave their homes. And more and more of these climate-related factors are going to contribute to push-factors for migrants making the decision to leave their homes. In the future, the existence of climate migrants will be undeniable.”

Terminology Counts

“When talking about climate migration, terminology counts: the media has adopted the terms ‘climate migrants’ or ‘climate refugees’ to describe this issue, although in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, these terms do not exist, because none of the parties can agree on what they mean. But to be able to deal with the issue, we have to find a way to name it first,” states Huq.

Although consensus is lacking regarding the definition of climate migration and whether it is a phenomenon that is already taking place or not, the issue itself did already find its way into the negotiations of the United Nations.

In the UNFCCC – which is a negotiated treaty within the United Nations for which a Conference of Parties (or COP) takes place every year – the discussion of climate migration falls under a category called ‘Loss & Damage’ (L&D).

L&D forms the last of three chapters making up the Paris Agreement, with the first two being ‘mitigation’, which regulates the scaling down of emissions, and ‘adaptation’, or building resilience against climate change. In some cases, it is too late for the first two strategies to protect communities from the effects of climate change, and the loss and damage that come with climate change-induced effects are inevitable.

Dr. Huq explains: “Loss refers to things that are lost for ever due to climate change, such as human lives or species loss, while damages refers to things that are damaged, but can be repaired or restored, such as roads or embankments.”

Although this third chapter in the Paris agreement opens up a discussion for climate migration, recognising that climate change can indeed cause the necessary harm for people to become displaced, the chapter itself is also very controversial and the product of a decade-long international debate.

One of the most significant steps forward in this discussion, before the Paris Agreement, was made during COP19, which took place in Poland in2013, where the Warsaw International Mechanism or WIM was put in place.

The WIM is an integral part of the L&D chapter, and is the first formal international mechanism that addresses the effects of  irreversible damage due to human-induced climate change.

It includes an executive committee and a 9-item action plan, one of which is ‘forced migration due to climate change’. Together with an additional article in the Paris agreement (article 8), these 2013 and 2015 landmarks delineate the progress so far.

A country under water

In Bangladesh, however, the government is already several steps ahead of what little progress has been made in an international context. Dr. Huq states: “Our country already has a climate strategy and action plan in place, performing adaptation projects and building climate resilience. This plan now recognises, however, as the recent statement of our prime-minister confirmed, that we will be dealing with millions of people who will have to leave the coastal areas.”

The forced migration away from the Bangladeshi coasts, additional to the direct trauma it inflicts on people, also holds a greater sociological threat that can have enduring consequences for Bangladeshi society: the resettlement will mainly be a move from rural to urban communities.

Dhaka city is already the fastest growing mega city in the world, with a current population of 15 million people and predicted to absorb another 10 million in the coming two decades.

The high influx of people from rural areas into cities is likely to cause large bodies of people without the background or skill-set to make a living in an urbanised environment, causing enduring poverty, a strong class division and political unrest in a country where large areas of rural land are soon to become part of the seafloor.

“Our current revision of the national climate strategy and action plan will still keep helping coastal communities to adapt to their changing environment. Additionally, as a long-term strategy to deal with the predicted rural-to-urban migrations, education will be a key adaptation strategy: we are handing over the right skills and knowledge to the youth, so they don’t need to become farmers and fishers like their parents, and they are able to get jobs in towns elsewhere.”

By both educating the youth in rural areas, as well as creating new job opportunities in provincial towns, the Bangladesh government is hoping to stimulate so-called ‘facilitated or assisted migration’ to address both the projected loss of agricultural communities and the overpopulation in the capital.

Saleemul Huq explains, “By helping people to become more resilient to climate change, and by educating them so they can utilise migration as a choice instead of a necessity, we are turning the rising sea-level around from a problem to an opportunity. Planned migration offers a solution by enabling people instead of forcing them to move.”

Arthur Wyns is a tropical biologist passionate about biodiversity and climate change action. He’s been involved in research teams all over the world, and recently joined the Climate Tracker team as a campaign manager. He Tweets at @ArthurWyns.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

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Arthur Wyns is a tropical biologist passionate about biodiversity and climate change action. He’s been involved in research teams all over the world, and recently joined the Climate Tracker team as a campaign manager.

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