Mahima Begum moved to the port town of Mongla in southwestern Bangladesh after a natural disaster struck her village and destroyed the home her father had built.
The 32-year-old is one of the millions of people in the South Asian country who have been forced to relocate due to climate-related disasters.
Historically, migrants have made their way to the country’s capital, Dhaka.
But the city is already one of the most overcrowded places on Earth and it’s poorly equipped to accommodate the waves of people moving from climate-impacted areas of the country into urban centers, seeking residence and employment.
Mongla, located around 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Bay of Bengal, is emerging as an alternative for climate-displaced people.
The town’s seaport and export processing zone (EPZ) have turned it into an economic and employment hub, attracting people from parts of Bangladesh ravaged by environmental disasters.
“Here I’ve found job opportunities. The city’s environment is livable. The cost of living is not too high. After losing my home due to natural disasters, I wanted to come here and start a fresh life,” Begum said.
Building a climate-resilient hub
Zulfikar Ali served as Mongla’s mayor for a decade before stepping down in February 2023.
“Earlier, people used to leave Mongla and go to other cities in search of work. But now there are more and more jobs in the port and the export processing zone. So people from different areas are coming here,” he told DW.
“Mongla will be a regional economic hub in the next five years. Rapid industrialization here will accommodate thousands of migrants,” the ex-mayor added.
The port town has also focused on building climate-resilient infrastructure amid rising sea levels and increasingly severe cyclones.
It built an 11-kilometer (6.8 miles) embankment along a marine drive designed to stop flooding, two flood-control gates, a better drainage system, a water reservoir and a water treatment plant, as well as loudspeakers to warn residents of incoming storms.
“We are working to make Mongla a climate-resilient city. At one time, the city was regularly flooded by high tides. Now it is being brought under climate-friendly urban planning,” said Sheikh Abdur Rahman, the current mayor.
“Affordable housing, schools and health services are available here. We plan to modernize these services,” he told DW.
20 million internal climate refugees by 2050?
Mongla’s population was below 40,000 in 2011 but a decade later it has grown to about 150,000.
Many of these newer inhabitants moved from villages near the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, home to the endangered Bengal tiger.
The town’s population of displaced people is estimated to grow rapidly as catastrophic climate events increase in frequency and intensity.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), some 4.1 million people, accounting for about 2.5% of the population, were displaced in Bangladesh as a result of climate-induced disasters as of 2019.
A World Bank report estimated that the country will have about 19.9 million internal climate refugees by 2050, almost half the projected number for the entire South Asia region.
Plans to create ‘migrant-friendly’ cities
Against this backdrop, the research institute International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) has conceptualized a scheme to alleviate migration pressures on megacities like Dhaka and instead redirect climate migrants toward smaller towns and cities.
Mongla is the first town to have implemented plans laid out by ICCCAD.
“We have shared our recommendations with the local administration. Mangla municipality has already done a lot of work based on the recommendations,” said Sardar Shafiqul Alam, an ICCCAD official.
“There are employment opportunities in this city. More job opportunities will be created in the future,” he added.
The organization is also working with local officials and NGOs to create more such “migrant-friendly” cities that, collectively, are expected to accommodate millions of climate-displaced people in the coming years.
“Climate-driven people can live in these cities if civic amenities are properly ensured,” said Alam.
Zakir Hossain Khan, a climate finance analyst and executive director of Change Initiative, said that compact townships should be planned in coastal cities for the welfare and rehabilitation of people displaced by climate change.
“For this, area-wise plans should be implemented by formulating strategies quickly. In this plan, capacity-based training should be given considering the capabilities and needs of the vulnerable population.”
Editor’s Note: This article was written in connection with a recent conference, “Connecting the Dots: Debating Displacement in South Asia,” hosted by the DW Academy and the Calcutta Research Group.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru