Most of the informal settlements in Bangladesh are slums and squatter settlements in the major cities. And being the capital, Dhaka holds the largest slum settlements in the country. Slums, despite lacking the basic necessities and filled with poor sanitation, unhygienic environment, and immense vulnerability to fire hazards, have become shelters for millions of people with low and irregular income in the cities as they are cheap and affordable. BBS data of 2015 shows that about 2.23 million people live in slums across the country.
Almost all or most of the dwellers in the informal settlement are migrants from rural areas and previously lived in areas hit hard by the impacts of climate change. Bangladesh, geographically, is a climate vulnerable country faced with multiple climate induced hazards and disasters. Both sudden and slow onset events include erratic rainfall, cyclones, drought, prolonged and flash flood, riverbank erosion, waterlogging and salinity intrusion that creates unemployment, loss of livelihoods and exemplifies poverty for the rural poor.
This leaves the already marginalized people with no choice but to migrate towards the cities which they perceive as a place to survive and also with more economic opportunities. According to a report by National Geographic; on average 700,000 people were internally displaced each year over the last decade with up to 400,000 migrants arriving in Dhaka per year. Though migrating to an unfavourable environment is not easy for these rural poor as they start living in slums with miserable conditions, they work hard to adapt to the new lifestyle and manage to feed their families with their low but daily income. For decades, this has been the scenario in the country. In fact, the prospect of Bangladesh emerging as a 'middle income country' has been made possible by the hard work of the cheap labour and informal jobs.
Then, suddenly the country faced a rapid economic and physical shutdown for more than two months, due to the Covid-19 induced lockdown. The lockdown had a severe impact on the income of the urban poor living in informal settlements. According to a TBS report covering a research conducted by LightCastle Partners, hawkers, street vendors, and similar job holders witnessed a 70 percent decline in income, while public transport workers reported a loss of around 50 percent of their monthly income. Being unable to meet their daily needs, most of the slum dwellers and other informal settlers were forced to go back to their native villages with minimum or no savings at all.
Flow diagram of the prevailing cycle of problems
Let us not forget that these communities come from climate vulnerable and climate change affected areas. Now, with little or no savings these communities are back to their roots but now they are in a more acute crisis as the opportunities for income whether from agriculture or other means have gone down further due to post lockdown impact. Moreover, the country has been facing consequent hazards and disasters in the past few months. Though Bangladesh is no stranger to cyclones, in May 2020, cyclone 'Amphan', worst in last 13 years, wreaked havoc in Bangladesh affecting 26 out of 64 districts amidst the Covid-19 situation. Among the affected districts, coastal districts of Satkhira, Bagerhat, and Patuakhali were hit the most. 150 kilometres of embankments in 84 places got damaged or completely collapsed, inundating the cropland and fisheries nearby. In Bhola alone, 6 kilometres of embankments and 763 hectares of cropland were destroyed. According to another TBS report, water that rushed through the embankments affected 1,80,500 hatcheries with financial loss worth Tk325 crore.
As if that was not enough, the country witnessed the first phase of flood from last week of June 2020 caused by the onrush of upstream water and heavy downpours affecting around 15 districts. The rising water level in the Brahmaputra, upper Meghna, and Padma basin inundated the low-lying areas in north-eastern districts of Sunamganj, Sylhet and Netrokona and northern districts of Kurigram, Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur and Gaibandha, northwest Natore and Noagaon, north-central Bogura, Sirajganj, Jamalpur and Tangail. Then a second spell of flood started due to continuing torrential monsoon rain and onrush of water from the upstream affecting another three districts of Faridpur, Shariatpur, and Madaripur.
According to the National Disaster Response Coordination Centre (NDRCC) report, over 2.4 million people are directly affected by the flood and more than 548,819 families remain waterlogged and lost their houses in 90 upazilas and 523 unions across the affected 18 districts. The flood has submerged nearly 62,000 hectares cropland, damaging crops worth nearly Tk350 crore, and is going to pile up further losses. Flood affected families who are living in makeshift houses on dykes and roads are suffering from an acute shortage of food, drinking water, and sanitation facilities. Flood protection infrastructures such as embankments, dykes, dams, and sluices are also damaged.
Though people of Bangladesh have been facing and fighting with disasters for centuries, the intensity and frequency of disasters have become multifold in recent years due to climate change. On top of that, the losses of income caused by the pandemic induced economic stagnation have made it even harder for the affected communities to face the disasters. As a result, the vulnerable communities living in the affected areas as well as the urban informal settlers that were forced to migrate back to the villages are now trapped in these climate vulnerable hotspots. It could be assumed that with the rising shortage of water and food, health risks, loss of income, socio-economic insecurities and the risk of exposure to deadly coronavirus for these vulnerable and trapped populations, a prolonged humanitarian and economic crisis is in the offing. A timely and well-prepared plan considering short term necessities, mid and long term economic recovery in alignment with climate change projections, and proper execution of the plan is a must needed formula to save the trapped population.
The authors are part of the Climate Change Programme, BRAC
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