Climate Change Refugees in Bangladesh

Of all the countries in the world, Bangladesh is one of the most threatened by the changing climate. Food production depends highly on the many rivers and the yearly monsoon season, both of which have become destabilized. Many rice fields have become salinized, rendering them useless. As a result, large numbers of people have to migrate from the countryside to the cities, especially the capital Dhaka, to search for work. The population of Dhaka is now predicted to double its size every 10 years, according to Ian Williams in ‘In Bangladesh, Climate Change is a Matter of Life and Death’. Thus, the country is changing rapidly because of rising rivers and increased greenhouse gas emissions, the latter of which mainly originate from developed countries.

This article will examine how the changing climate is affecting Bangladesh and the responsibility of rich countries in that regard. The main sections of this article will concern the impact on food production, migration into cities and whether the definition of what a refugee is should change.

Rising Seas and Natural Disasters

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Its population is approximately 165 million and the land area is 133,910 square kilometers, according to Richard Welford in an article published in CSR Asia and 67 percent of the land can be farmed, which means there is potential to grow a lot of food. Despite this potential, 60 percent of the country is a mere 5 metres above sea level. This is quite dangerous given that in India and Bangladesh, seas are rising at least 1.2 millimetres every year and in the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges Delta, the figure is 5 millimetres every year, state Grant et al in an article published in The Guardian. This means that it is only a matter of time before most of Bangladesh will sink. The impacts are already being felt as rice fields become clogged with salty water. Rice and wheat production have decreased by 10 and 30 percent, respectively. As a result, the rice price has increased by 12 percent and the price of lentils, beans and peas, all important staples in Bangladesh, have increased by 23 percent, states Friedman in an article published recently in the Scientific American magazine.

Bangladesh also experiences a very large number of natural disasters. Bangladesh is the most prone country in the entire world to cyclones and the sixth most vulnerable to floods. Floods in Bangladesh should occur every 20 years, but they are now occurring every 5 years. In September of 2008, there was a very unusual flood, according to scientists. After the flood, 6000 people were homeless and 35,000 people were left with no means to escape, notes Friedman. These events may become more and more regular if emissions continue to rise. Large numbers of people in Bangladesh as well as India may have to be evacuated. This will include 70,000 people in India alone. There is some hope for Bangladesh because of mangrove forests. In 1997, when Cyclone Sidr hit, many people were protected by mangroves in the Sunderbans Forest, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Mangroves generally grow in coastal regions that are very saline; however, as sea levels increase, the salt may be too much for the mangroves to handle and the mangroves are likely to disappear.

The Overload on Dhaka

In the last 30 years, the population of Dhaka has skyrocketed. In 1975, the population was just over 2.1 million, according to the United Nations Popu-lation Division, whereas the population right now is approximately 12 million. One of the main reasons the population has increased so much is the flight from rural areas due to environmental factors. In the past, some people would migrate for a short period to Dhaka in order to earn money; however, because of the increased damage to agricultural production, people have no choice but to stay in Dhaka. Currently, half a million migrants arrive in Dhaka every year.

As a result of this migration, Dhaka’s slums are becoming overcrowded. Currently, 3.5 million people live in Dhaka’s slums and more are coming every year. Informal surveys indicate that about 70 percent of the slum dwellers moved to Dhaka because of environmental problems in the countryside, states Friedman in a special report titled ‘A City Exploding with Climate Migrants’. Many of the slum dwellers are earning less than $1 dollar per day because there are not enough jobs for everyone. It is quite likely that this will worsen every year, especially if the waters rise further.

This is also likely to happen in other developing countries, as it has been predicted that 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, notes Friedman in the report. According to the UN, of the 21 cities that will become larger than 10 million people, 17 will be in developing countries, states the United Nations Population Division. Many of these cities will experience a shortage of water and a lack of sanitation services.

Although there has been an increase in the number of poor and landless people in Bangladesh, another phenomenon is occurring alongside this. In 2008, 15,000 new cars were sold in the country, which was a new record. It has also been predicted by the World Bank that Bangladesh will become a middle income country within 20 years. Currently, per capita greenhouse gas emissions in Bangladesh are very small: 0.3 tons compared to 20 tons per person in the US; however, as the population becomes richer, there will be a need for greenhouse gas emission reduction.

In the short run, richer governments need to invest money to ensure that Bangladesh will not sink. The Bangladeshi government has stated that at least $500 million is needed to raise embankments, according to Friedman in special report ‘Bangladesh Needs the West’s Help, but isn’t waiting for it’.

What is a Refugee?

In 1951, The Geneva Convention spelled out what a refugee is. At that time, it covered those who were persecuted based on race, religion, nationality and political opinion. Refugees usually have to leave their home because they had no choice in the matter. The word refugee implies that other governments should accept that person because there is a strong possibility that they will die if they continue to live where their home is. Human rights campaigners feel strongly that the refugee is facing some sort of persecution because of what they believe in.

The question is, should this term be applied to those who escape their home because of the changing climate? According to the Bangladeshi Finance Minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, many people will be displaced from their homes because of rising waters and the West has a responsibility to accommodate those people because their emissions caused this situation. Because of this, the West disputes that the word ‘refugee’ applies to people displaced because of the changing climate. Western governments often choose the word ‘migrant’ because it implies that people had a choice of where to go; however, it is clear that many people will not have a choice in the future. Given that emissions have historically originated from developed countries, these countries should accept climate change refugees.

Climate Change Mitigation Measures

At the recent Copenhagen conference, there were arguments over who is responsible to pay for mitigation measures. Many developing countries argue that it is the West’s responsibility; however, Bangladesh is not waiting for that assistance to come. Bangladesh is now building cyclone shelters and early warning systems to protect the country. Fifteen years have been spent developing salt resistant rice. The average number of children is also dropping; 30 years ago, the average family had 7 children whereas the current norm is 3. However, because of the increase in the number of people moving from Bangladesh to India, India is now erecting a wall to stop illegal immigrants. This fence should be completed by March of this year.

India has stated that there are at least 5 million people from Bangladesh living in India illegally, but this figure has been disputed by the Bangladeshi government, notes Friedman in the report ‘A Global “National Security” Issue Lurks at Bangladesh’s Border’. It is clear that many Bangladeshi people are moving to India and some families even move together. India is now a rapidly developing country and there are more job prospects than in Dhaka. If India is a richer country than Bangladesh, does it have a responsibility to accept climate change refugees? This question will become more pertinent in the years to come.


Bangladesh has encountered many problems in the past with natural disasters but it has always bounced back. There are reasons to hope for the country; however, rich countries still have a responsibility to decrease greenhouse gas emissions immediately and to help fund mitigation measures. In the long term, cities in developing countries will have to change in order to accommodate climate change refugees, as many areas of the countryside may become uninhabitable. This presents a threat to small scale agriculture, which many people in deve-loping countries participate in, including Bangladesh. Finally, the definition of ‘refugee’ will have to change in order to account for those who have to move because of climate change. This will generate a lot of debate and controversy, but it is completely necessary if those affected by climate change are to find a safe home.


Ian Williams “In Bangladesh, Climate Change is a Matter of Life and Death”

Richard Welford “Climate Change Refugees: Who Cares about the Poor?”

Discovery Bangladesh “Bangladesh:: Land, Resources and Natural Regions” land_resources.html

Harriet Grant, Jamese Randerson and John Vidal “UK should open
border to climate refugees, says Bangladeshi minster” <>

Lisa Friedman “Climate Change makes Refugees in Bangladesh”

Lisa Friedman “Ugly Experiments in Nature’s Laboratory”
United Nations Population Division “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision” wup2001/WUP2001_CH6.pdf

Lisa Friedman “A Global “National Security” Issue Lurks at Bangladesh’s Border” bangladesh/part_four

Siddhartha Kumar “Feature: Cracked Fields, Broken Lives: The Changing Monsoon Season” db900SID/MYAI-7YA9DD?OpenDocument&RSS20=02-P

It is imperative to maintain portions of the wilderness untouched so that a tree will rot where it falls, a waterfall will pour its curve without generating electricity, a trumpeter swan may float on uncontaminated water and moderns may at least see what their ancestors knew in their nerves and blood.

Bernand De Voto
Fortune, June 1947

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Author Information

Miriam Katz is a freelance writer and English teacher, currently based in Tokyo, Japan. She has many interests including climate change, renewable energy and food issues. Miriam has an Honours BA from the University of Toronto in political science and environmental studies. This fall, she will attend York University in Toronto for her Master's in environmental studies.

2 Responses to “Climate Change Refugees in Bangladesh”

  1. Jennifer Doherty #

    Hello, This is such an excellent article,

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don?t think we will, the major players are not in the process, Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University?s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. ?The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,? said Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ?climate refugee? protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ?refugees`.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:08 pm Reply
  2. You did a good job concerning migration related information. In this regard, I would say that we do not need more information on this issue rather we need proper implementation about existing policies relate to climate vs migration. Hence, my argument is that please do get involve in action process rather than produce colored information for the so-called personeel who provide political aid of economy. Otherwise, we will see this refugee’s truly shelterless in the contemporary international economy!

    March 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm Reply

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