Sea level rise forcing Bangladeshis to migrate

Bangladesh family migration - main
A family in Bangladesh gathers their things in preparation for migration. Copyright: G.M.B. Akash/Panos

Speed read

  • IPCC says Bangladesh particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise
  • Rising soil salinity from sea-level rise already affecting coastal farmlands
  • Bangladeshi farmers will increasingly migrate internally and internationally

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[ISLAMABAD] Increasing soil salinity that impacts crop productions will continue to remain a major cause of internal and international migration from the coastal districts of Bangladesh, a new study suggests.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its fifth assessment report identified Bangladesh as being vulnerable to sea level rise and predicted that the deltaic South Asian country’s at-risk population would grow to 27 million by 2050

Soil salinity in coastal Bangladesh has been attributed to several interacting drivers, including climate variability, salt water inundation, tidal influences, storm surges, and shrimp farming.*

“We are already working on developing climate-resilient and migrant-friendly cities and towns in Bangladesh to encourage migration away from population-dense areas, like Dhaka, Chittagong and Khulna, to less-populated towns and cities”

Saleemul Haq, International Centre for Climate Change and Development

The study, published this month (October) in Nature Climate Change, finds that although coastal households are already adapting to inundation of their farm lands by switching to aquaculture and livestock keeping, increasing salinity will force some 200,000 coastal residents to migrate annually.  

Valerie Mueller, an author of the study, assistant professor at the Arizona State University and researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, tells SciDev.Net that around 140,000 coastal residents would relocate annually within their own districts while around 60,000 others would move elsewhere.
The study is based on socio-economic data from the country’s sample vital registration system covering 147 coastal sub-districts from 2003 to 2011 and agricultural production data from household income and expenditure surveys in 2005 and 2010, covering nearly half a million coastal households in a year.
“Opportunities of alternative livelihoods for poor farming households are quite limited in most of the country’s coastal communities. However, we found increased out-migration rate in communities. Some households may be able to develop small businesses like rickshaw pulling, bike repair or selling prepared foods,” Joyce Chen, study co-author and assistant professor of economics at the Ohio State University, tells SciDev.Net.

Bangladesh’s coastal areas account for one-fifth of the total land mass and cover more than 30 per cent of the cultivable land. Chen says introduction of salt-tolerant crop varieties offers promising adaptation solutions for coastal farming communities, but large investments are required.
“We are already working on developing climate-resilient and migrant-friendly cities and towns in Bangladesh to encourage migration away from population-dense areas, like Dhaka, Chittagong and Khulna, to less-populated towns and cities,” says Saleemul Haq, director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

Says Golam Rasul, food security and farm-based livelihoods scientist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu: “Soil salinity is a long-term challenge because once the soil becomes saline, traditional crops are no more suitable — increased soil salinity does push out-migration.”

“Short-term measures could be promotion of salt-tolerant crop varieties and brackish water fish species, harvesting rainwater and constructing sweet water ponds to ensure fresh drinking water availability,” says Rasul.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

*This article was amended on 1 November 2018 to provide more information about the causes of soil salinity in Bangladesh.