MONGLA, Bangladesh (AP) — Monira Khatun, 29, was left devastated after her husband suddenly left her. She returned to her father, only to suffer another blow: he died shortly thereafter, leaving her in charge of three other family members. With no work, she worried about how she would feed them.
“I lost everything. It was darkness everywhere,” Khatun said. “My parents’ house had gone to the river because of erosion, we had no land to cultivate.”
She ended up working at a factory in a special economic zone that employs thousands of climate refugees – like Khatun – in the southwestern city of Mongla, home to Bangladesh’s second largest seaport.
These refugees from climate-affected areas of Bangladesh lost their homes, land and livelihoods but found a new life in the coastal riverside town some 50 kilometers (30 miles) inland from the Bay of Bengal.
Today, about 150,000 people live in Mongla – many of them migrated from villages near the Sundarbans Forest, the world’s largest mangrove forest that straddles the Bangladesh-India border and is home to endangered Bengal tigers.
Being forced to move within or beyond limits by climate change is a growing reality that is expected to accelerate in the coming decades. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rising seas, drought, scorching temperatures and other climate-related disasters are likely to uproot 143 million people over the next 30 years published by the United Nations last month. Leading in Asiaalready one of the hardest hit continents, are struggling to face up to the major changes taking place.
Climate scientists like Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Center for Climate Change and Development, are branding Mongla as a climate-resilient city for the refugees.
“In terms of customization, Mongla is a success story. The changes there are an example of how climate refugees could transform their lives through new opportunities and a new approach to adaptation,” said Huq, whose institute conducts environmental research.
“Mongla has given them new opportunities. With its seaport and export processing zone and climate-resilient infrastructure, the city of Mongla has become a different story,” said Huq.
“Now we expect to replicate the Mongla model to at least two dozen other coastal cities across Bangladesh as safe homes for climate refugees,” he said. “We are currently speaking to mayors and officials from nearly half a dozen communities about Mongla’s success.”
According to Huq, more than a dozen satellite cities, all bordering economic hubs such as sea and river ports, have already been identified as potential migrant-friendly locations.
“These are all secondary cities with up to half a million people, each capable of harboring up to another half a million climate migrants,” Huq said. “In this way we can offer alternatives to at least 10 million climate refugees over the next ten years.”
Climate scientists say that low-lying Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and millions of people are at risk of being displaced – due to sea level rise, river erosion, hurricanes and saltwater intrusion to climate refugees. The World Bank said in a new report last year that Bangladesh will have more than 19 million internal climate refugees by 2050, almost half the projected number for the entire South Asia region.
Huq said a transformative adaptation approach in about two dozen small coastal towns, including Mongla, could relocate at least 10 million climate refugees instead of forcing them to move to slums in big cities like Dhaka, the country’s capital.
“The trend is for climate migrants to move to where there is economic activity for them. We cannot stop the displacement, we can only offer alternatives that they accept,” he said.
The vision of transformative adaptation is to create opportunities for climate migrants to live and work in an environment where the host population accepts them.
He said the incremental adaptations, like the introduction of salt-tolerant rice varieties, have been happening in Bangladesh for years, helping climate refugees cope with the effects of climate change where they live today.
“But we won’t make it forever. So we have to choose a transformative adjustment that will allow them to go somewhere else and be better off,” Huq said.
In recent years, the Bangladesh government has spent millions of Bangladeshi taka (tens of thousands of dollars) to protect the city of Mongla with climate-resilient infrastructure and to attract vulnerable people from the most remote villages.
Investment – mostly from abroad – has doubled in the Mongla Export Processing Zone over the past four years, creating new jobs in its factories for the region’s climate refugees. The funds, which have come from the US, Japan, South Korea and China, among others, have prevented the refugees from moving to the big cities.
Nazma Binte Alamgir, spokeswoman for state regulator Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority, said about 10 more factories are in the pipeline to start production soon in Mongla, creating thousands of jobs.
“This is good news for the suffering people in the region. They will have a chance to survive in other ways,” she said.
To gain resilience, Mongla has built an 11-kilometer dam along a newly built sea lane designed to stop flooding, two flood defense gates, a better drainage system, a water reservoir and a water treatment plant, said Sheikh Abdur Rahman, Mongla’s mayor since January.
“We need more investment to protect the city of Mongla from erosion and flooding. People feel safer now, but we have to do more,” he said.
Rahman said the government is building new infrastructure at the seaport and dredging the Mongla River to widen its canal and allow large ships, while more investment flows into the Export Processing Zone, or EPZ. He said a new railway line is being built to link the city to a major land port across the border with neighboring India.
“In 2018, there were only about 2,600 workers in EPZ Mongla, but now about 9,000 workers are employed in different factories,” he said. “The changes are visible.”
Reshma Begum, 28, is one of them.
Begum used to catch fish in the river that swallowed her house and left her family of three homeless. Now she temporarily lives on another man’s land and works in a factory in EPC.
“Now I earn a good amount of money every month to support my family,” she said, adding that her husband is a day laborer and contributes to the family’s income.
“Maybe in the future we’ll build a new house by saving some money,” she said.
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