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“The ocean is torturing us, we can’t stop it”: The Climate Refugees of Bangladesh

Updated: May 3

Very little remains of the coastal villages on the Bangladeshi Island of Kutubdia. One village used to be home to a thriving community of 250 families but now there is very little evidence of this. For the past 5 years, the island has been under attack from the rising sea levels, which has consumed the land piece by piece. Many of the villagers have fled the island to seek refuge on the mainland.

“The ocean is torturing us” said Pushpo Rani Dasa, a 28 year old mother of three who has been forced to move home four times on the island to escape the sea flooding her home. Rani now fears that she will have to leave the island altogether like many others have already done.

The unpredictable weather has made the Bangladeshi people resilient. Many have learnt from ancestral knowledge to adapt agricultural practices in response to extreme weather changes. Nevertheless, a great number of families are struggling to survive on the island. The Saldas family have for many generations lived a good life as farmers and fishermen, but the increasing sea levels has caused fresh water to become salty, while the rice crops have begun to fail and the diversity of the fish has declined. The Saldas family have adapted their farming practices to the salinity of the water and now only farm shrimp but they know that this is only a temporary solution. With the intensification of climate change, they fear that the sea levels will eventually wash away their house, forcing them to migrate to a city where they will no longer be able to farm and will need new skills to survive.

Stories like Ranis’ and the Saldas’ family are all too common in Bangladesh. The volatile weather is forcing mass migration. Bangladesh is located in low-lying land and acts as a delta for the Himalayas, but the water flowing through the intersecting rivers is increasing at a rapid rate. By the end of the century, sea levels are expected to rise by another 3 feet, which will displace 20% of the country’s population.

Bangladesh has the 10th highest population density in the world, meaning that this process will drive around 30 million climate refugees to move inland to cities like Dhaka.

Experts agree Dhaka has exceeded its capacity, and many climate refugees will have to migrate to other countries. Every day, an estimated 2,000 people arrive in Dhaka city, the capital of Bangladesh, because the rapidly changing climate has given them no choice but to go there for refuge. According to the International Organisation for Migration, an estimated 70% of Dhaka’s slum residents have fled because of some sort of environmental disaster. However, Dhaka city is woefully unprepared for this influx of climate refugees; there is little housing available, forcing people to live in cramped unsanitary conditions in the slums. The Bangladeshi government has drawn on the limited ground water reserves to supply enough water for the increasing population, but this has causing it to be prone to saturation during the monsoon season dramatically increasing the likelihood of flooding in Dhaka.

The migration of large numbers of people can also lead to conflict. Bangladesh’s mostly Muslim population are not welcome in its neighbouring countries of India and Myanmar. Both countries currently have a strong anti-Muslim political rhetoric which has increased under India’s Hindu nationalist President Modi and which can be seen in Myanmar with the Rohingya crisis, where Muslims are suffering extreme persecution and fleeing to surrounding countries like Bangladesh. In 2017, India built a fence around its territory, to be 90% complete, a pertinent symbol of India’s nationalism. Frequently, there is violence at the fence due to India’s zero tolerance policy and there have been many reports of teenagers being shot while attempting to cross the border to seek work in India.

With people fleeing to Bangladesh from Myanmar, this is placing even more strain on Bangladesh and forcing vulnerable people to other places where the effects of climate change are not much better.

Climate refugees are currently not recognised under UN treaty and in the Paris climate agreement climate refugees were removed from its agenda. It is therefore essential, particularly if other countries are unwilling to accept climate refugees, to tackle climate change through international cooperation. Developed nations with the highest carbon outputs such the UK, which currently stands at 5.6 tonnes carbon output per person (compared to Bangladesh’s carbon output of 0.5 tonnes per person), must recognise that they are the main drivers of climate change, while Bangladesh and other developing nations are disproportionately affected by it. It is imperative that the Paris Climate agreement puts climate refugees back on their agenda and they must become recognised under UN treaty law. Without this millions of people are at risk of becoming stateless.


About the author

Ethan Burn is a recent anthropology graduate and currently works as a COVID vaccinator. In his spare time, he volunteers with different organisations, including Conversation Over Borders, and is passioniate about cooking.

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