Human Vulnerability to Climate Change and Migration in Bangladesh–Sundarbans

What is Vulnerability?

Vulnerability to climate change is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. However, the term ‘vulnerability’ does not have a universal definition. Robert Chambers defines vulnerability in the context of international development as a consequential outcome of the poverty and deprivation faced by communities at risk of disasters. According to him vulnerability is the ‘exposure to contingencies and stress, and difficulty in coping with them’ (Chambers, 2006, p. 33). Since Robert Chambers’ definition, various scientific experts have explained this term and disagreed with Chamber’s definition, which focuses mainly on poverty. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) defines vulnerability as the ‘characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard’ (UNISDR, 2009). In their Fourth Assessment Report, the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) defined vulnerability as ‘the degree to which a system is susceptible to or unable to cope with the adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate change and variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity’ (IPCC 2007). In the local context of Bangladesh Sundarbans, in which the current study is based, people understand vulnerability as durbolota, meaning weakness. Our field interlocuters observed that those who faced the greatest danger from natural disasters were the helpless and vulnerable people entrenched in a vicious cycle of poverty and insecure tenure. Their understanding of vulnerability was closely linked to their socio-economic status.

Does Climate Change Only Produce Vulnerability?

There is no doubt that global warming and recurrent natural disasters triggered by changing weather conditions are important contributors to vulnerability. However, this is not the only cause. Environmental vulnerability, coupled with poor infrastructural and socio-economic factors like income, education, health status, institutional capacity, access to clean water and the absence of basic sanitation further reduces the capacity of people to tackle the impacts of environmental stresses and build resilience within the community.

Maximising the Resilience of Local People to Combat Vulnerability

The fertile floodplain of Bangladesh supports millions of people, who depend on the monsoon rain for successful agriculture. The destruction of mangrove forests has heightened the vulnerability of the coastal population to climate disasters, as monsoon patterns have changed with erratic downpours, followed by low-pressure systems that produce destructive cyclones during the pre-monsoon season. The most recent were the cyclones Yaas (2021) and Amphan (2020), which caused major disruption to life in the Sundarbans delta (Climate Tribune, June 2021). This is further exacerbated by the difficulties of coping with natural disasters such as cyclones, flash floods, salinity intrusion, riverbank erosion and other environmental stresses (Uddin, M.N. et al., 2019).

A culmination of all these uncertainties and unpredictable weather patterns in the recent climatic history of the delta have severely impacted the livelihood of the communities. Historically, the livelihoods of the coastal communities have been dependent on natural resources (minor forest products) and majority of local people practiced wet rice cultivation and inland freshwater and deep-sea fishing. But over the years, agriculture has reduced due to salinity intrusion, declining freshwater flows, irregular rainfall patterns, and dry spells.

Many farmers in Shyamnagar, where fieldwork was conducted using photo voice and focus group interviews, narrated that their agriculture farms were badly affected by cyclone Aila in 2009. The soil became more saline, affecting the quality of arable land as well as freshwater. Many farmers and fisherfolk lost their livelihoods as their land and fish enclosures were washed away during the cyclone sea water surge and inundation. Following the event, the livelihood pattern in the area went through a major transition with the introduction of shrimp farming.

Vast shrimp enclosures in the coastal district of Shyamnagar, Satkhira. Photo by Sumaiya Anwar

In order to find a solution to their livelihood uncertainty, the local people adopted alternative livelihood practices. Saline-tolerant crops and fisheries had to be explored. Shrimp farms emerged as a quick-profit alternative; these soon became popular among local farmers and spread across the saline land and brackish water. This aquaculture activity further infringed salinity into nearby soils, making paddy farming almost impossible. As the shrimp farms continued to grow, so did the salinity conditions. Although many rice farmers initially opposed shrimp farming, they were later forced to choose it as their livelihood.

When shrimp farms start encircling this area, I realise it will be very beneficial for the rich, but it will be very harmful for both the low-income people and the environment. So, I protested. However, for some political reason, I failed to stop this initiative. After that, I noticed that the shrimp farm around my crop land had made it more saline and I was not making profit like before. So, I was forced to start shrimp farming. (Shuvankar Mondal, Telephone Interviews, Shyamnagar Upazila, Satkhira, November 2020)

As many small-scale shrimp farms failed to sustain their operations due to growing salinity and incidences of virus, some farmers have shifted to crab farming, which is a more saline-tolerant option, while others focused on raising poultry as an alternative livelihood or working as day labourers in brick kiln fields as migrant workers. Those who could not manage to make their ends meet chose to migrate out of their village for alternative livelihood opportunities. Mostly the working-age male adults moved out to seek opportunities elsewhere, often leaving behind their female counterparts, children and elderly family members in the village.

Migration dynamics in the study areas have also shifted in the context of climate change. Depending on the severity of different environmental challenges and whether they occur suddenly (for example, floods) or gradually (for example, salinity intrusion), people’s migration responses can take different forms. People in the Sundarbans delta are either displaced permanently by riverbank and coastal erosion of the farmland or migrate temporarily for seasonal work outside their village. Migration as an adaptation strategy can bring economic opportunities, but has its own set of challenges, as these different migration responses influence people’s vulnerability in different ways.

The migrants have very low skills to start with. Those who migrate often break the social networks at their place of origin and it takes them a long time to create new social network in their destinations. As a result, significant time is needed for a male migrant to save sufficient funds to send back home, further increasin the precarity of their subsistence. Furthermore, after facing environmental hazards, people need capital to move. Without financial capital (access to credit, money for transportation and new housing), social capital (networks in potential destinations) or human capital (skills, knowledge), poor peasants cannot even migrate if they want to. Sometimes, if people cannot move because of a lack of capital, environment changes could erode their livelihoods, resulting in the further depletion of the social capital needed to move. As a result, they may be among the most vulnerable to the impacts of environmental change.

A woman of Shyamnaga, Satkhira with her cattle grazing in the field. Photo by Sumaiya Binte Anwar

Women who aspire to migrate often face social stigma of living and work alone without family support. Left behind at home, women take the tripartite responsibility of taking care of their children, elders and farming activities. This domestic and livelihood assignment makes women’s daily responsibilities much greater than those of men who move out of the house for work. Therefore, it is important to analyse the differences between female and male migrants among environmental refugees, as females lack the social capital to migrate, unlike their male counterparts. Focusing only on men as migrants leaves half of a society’s resources underused, thereby limiting the possibilities for economic and social progress. Migration is one adaptation strategy to climate change, and since women and men experience migration differently, a gendered perspective offers important evidence for the formulation of policies. However, migration cannot be the only solution to combat vulnerability produced by climate change-induced hazards.

A woman in Shyamnagar catching fish fries from the estuaries and tidal rivers running through the Sundarbans. Photo by Sumaiya Anwar

Though still frequently limited to small scale activities, Bangladesh was one of the first countries to develop a National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) as early as 2005 to identify responses to their urgent and immediate need to adapt to climate change. Through government and private initiatives, salt-tolerant seed varieties have been produced.

Saline Tolerant Paddy Field in Shyamnagar, Shatkhira. Photo by Sumaiya Anwar

As climate change exacerbates the uncertainties of livelihood opportunities, local NGOs are coming forward to help cope with climate risks by empowering women and locals in coastal areas by training them in diversified livelihood activities, health and sanitation needs and agricultural production. Through this training, they have adapted to more efficient kitchen gardening, livestock rearing and fish farming in brackish conditions. Such initiatives are only a narrow civil society response to salinity issues and do not address the wider problem of vulnerability in their local community.

Training by Caritas Bangladesh on Homestead Gardening and Organic Compost. Photo by Sumaiya Anwar

The ability to cope with the future climate change uncertainty will largely be determined by actions that strengthen the current capacity of coastal communities in Bangladesh to manage the impact of hydro hazards. This is not an easy task. For resilient livelihood, we must create new opportunities for communities at the forefront of environmental disasters, so that migration and displacement of affected communities can be checked. Besides this, public-funded programs by the state and international doner agencies could help non-migrants invest in eco-friendly livelihoods such as community-based fisheries management and ecotourism. Going forward, public programs also could help with job-placement services and loans for relocation expenses. Programs could include textile factory work, commercial driving, auto repair, and computer maintenance, including training for women. Therefore, a more resilient livelihood will only emerge if the state works closely with the disaster-affected communities by creating opportunities that will help them to settle and adopt to the changing environment by diversifying their livelihood opportunities, using innovative technologies and indigenous knowledge that best suits their everyday needs and sustains their livelihood and well-being.

About The authors- Sumaiya Binte Anwar and Mahmuda Akter both are Research Officer at ICCCAD.

Faizah Jaheen Ahmed is a Research Intern at ICCCAD.

Originally this blog was published on 14 July 2021  on Environmental Refugees: Climate, Health and Livelihood in the Indian Ocean World project Website.