By the time the rising sun breaks through the morning mist over the Mongla River, the rhythmic chug of motors strapped to wooden canoes is already audible as thousands of workers are hurriedly ferried across the waterway.
They jump on to the small landing dock, pick up a potato-stuffed shingara pastry for pennies and rush towards the factories in Mongla’s export processing zone (EPZ), which has transformed the small town into an employment hub in a part of Bangladesh ravaged by the climate crisis.
About 30 miles (50km) inland from the Bay of Bengal, Mongla is the gateway to the Unesco-listed Sundarbans mangrove forest, home to the endangered Bengal tiger. Its port, founded in the 1950s, has been the focus of an ambitious, decade-long project led by one of the world’s leading climate scientists to transform it into a town that actively welcomes climate refugees.
“In my 30 years here I’ve seen so many changes. The roads, the docks, the number of people coming here. It has all changed,” says Abdul Jalil, a 52-year-old boatman on the Mongla River. “We used to have a lot of problems; after rains the roads would be flooded, we had very little infrastructure around here.”
He used to row manually but says all the boats have motors now, with each carrying about 700 people a day across the river, on their way to work in the export zone or in Sundarbans tourism.
“These people crossing, they’re all from other places, from the villages near the Sundarbans. They work here in the EPZ, for tourism in the Sundarbans, instead of going to places like Chittagong. It’s safer here, there isn’t crime, there are jobs and the living standards are better.”
Bangladesh is an internal migration pressure cooker. There is nothing new in the country’s rural poor moving to cities in search of work. But catastrophic weather events are speeding up the waves of people flowing into the urban centres.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 4.1 million people (2.5% of the population) were displaced in Bangladesh as a result of climate-induced disasters as of 2019. A recent World Bank report predicted that the country will have 19.9 million internal climate refugees by 2050, almost half the projected number for the entire south Asia region.
Most of those forced to leave their homes head to the capital, Dhaka, one of the fastest growing megacities in the world and among the least liveable. Home to 20 million people, over a third of whom live in slums lacking even the most basic infrastructure, the city is dangerously overcrowded.
Against this grim backdrop of daily struggles and looming catastrophe, Prof Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), has formulated a vision of “transformative adaptation” to alleviate pressure on Dhaka and its conurbations. It aims to divert people to smaller urban centres with the capacity to expand and, crucially, jobs to sustain a rapidly growing workforce.
“The phenomenon of migration is age old – there’s nothing new here – but climate change is causing people to move and we are having to deal with this very, very quickly – that is what made us work on the idea,” says Huq.
More than a dozen satellite cities and towns, all adjacent to economic hubs such as sea and river ports or export processing zones, have been identified as potential migrant-friendly locations. “They are all secondary towns with populations of between a few hundred thousand and half a million which can absorb up to half a million climate migrants each,” says Huq.
Among those towns, Mongla stood out for the progress it had already made on climate breakdown mitigation, driven by the town’s dynamic mayor, Zulfikar Ali. In his 10 years in office, from 2011 to 2021, an array of infrastructural developments made Mongla a safer, more resilient town.
They include a 7-mile raised embankment along newly built Marine Drive designed to protect against flooding; two flood-control gates; an improved drainage system; two 40 hectare (100 acre) reservoirs and a fresh water treatment plant that has increased the proportion of houses with running water from a third to a half. Sheikh Abdur Rahman, who took over from Ali as mayor of Mongla in January 2021, has picked up the baton. “At one time the city was regularly flooded by high tides. Now it is being brought under climate-friendly city planning,” he says.
A public address system was installed to announce changes in weather to the community.
The town’s proximity to the second largest port in Bangladesh and an export processing zone that already employs 8,000 people also made it economically attractive, says Huq.
“The primary carrot [in luring people to a town] is jobs,” he says. “But that’s the easy part.”
The challenge, he says, is the “softer interventions”, the social and cultural changes required to bring about his vision of a network of towns whose existing residents welcome newcomers.
“Hostility between host and migrant happens everywhere,” says Huq. “In Bangladesh, we have several big advantages – one is that we look the same so migrants are not distinguishable; second, there is one language – we all speak Bangla; and third, we all have the same religion. What we do have is a class barrier, so the newcomer is a poor person eking out a living – and that is what we are working on, humanising what is initially seen as ‘other’.”
These softer interventions include making sure the children of migrants are well integrated in schools and encouraging them to go on to university to break the cycle of poverty. These may be relatively modest aims on paper but they require buy-in from educational institutions. Huq and his team have spent time talking to schools and universities to gain their support for the concept.
Mongla’s population was below 40,000 in the 2011 census but a decade later three times as many people are thought to be living there. Huq’s mission to actively encourage migration to the town is likely to swell that figure by tens, possibly hundreds of thousands more.
Mongla is the first town to adopt ICCCAD’s recommendations, but others will follow. “This is a 10-year action programme and we are taking it town by town, mayor by mayor,” says Huq.
Over time, towns will set up outposts in the coastal areas and villages where the majority of climate migrants come from. Huq envisages these outposts as mini embassies that will act as information hubs for migrants, steering them away from Dhaka and towards host towns that are better equipped to cope with an expanding population, and where migrants can be fully fledged, as opposed to second-class, citizens.
It is early days in a long-term process that has been hampered by Covid and the UK government cutting the aid which was funding the research, but Huq is confident that Mongla and its sister towns will become models of disaster management, adaptation and resilience.