How do you leave a sinking island?

by Max Martin | University of Sussex
Tuesday, 10 March 2015 16:00 GMT

A view of Gabura island, in Bangladesh's southern Sundarbans region. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Max Martin

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Migration out of Bangladesh's disappearing delta looks far different than what was predicted

On a monsoon morning, my local guide, a social worker, took me to Gabura, a Sundarbans delta island in southwestern Bangladesh.  Our small, low boat chugged across a sprawling river towards what looked like a flat, barren, disc, a deep grey cloud hovering above, pouring down. This place would become a field site for my doctoral research on climate-related migration.

Sheets of needle-sharp raindrops pierced through my light waterproofs and backpack. Passing many men and women fishing in canoes, we reached Gabura in an hour or so. The boatman docked his craft beside a muddy embankment. We climbed over, my guide holding me tight by my arm so that I did not tip over or sink into the ankle-deep mud made of Himalayan silt.

In the village informal education centre, a small house, about 20 local women gathered to talk with us over tea. Their husbands were away, in farms of some other villages, or in some regional town. They had to migrate to work for four to five months a year. No crop grew in Gabura in 2012.

Cyclone Aila of 2009 had hurled a 3-metre storm surge at Gabura, breaching the embankment, flooding fields for several months, leaving them saline, barren.  The women said they lived in fear. The Bay of Bengal spawns fierce storms once every three years on an average.

Would they move out if the government gave them a better place? Away from the stormy Sundarbans, infested with tigers, crocodiles and river pirates.

“No.” The women sounded sure. 

“It’s our home.” “Our ancestors were born, lived and were buried here.”

People staying put in such hazard-prone places defined the storyline of my doctoral work. It was part of a CDKN-funded migration research project, assisting professors and peers at Sussex and the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at Dhaka University. We studied Gabura and other places exposed to storms, floods and droughts – 14 villages in three districts.

The villagers told us that migration is a tried and tested livelihood choice, one among many. They migrated for many reasons, for short and long duration, to near and far places. It helped them escape seasonal poverty, and offset the impacts of floods, cyclones and droughts.

Sometimes a fast-flowing, silt-laden Himalayan river – Ganga, Meghna, Brahmaputra – or a tributary would sink or sandpaper off chunks of a village farm or part a house. In the pre-harvest season of shortage and hunger, men and boys move out, looking for temporary work anywhere. During a flood or a storm surge, entire families might find refuge on a higher plane or an embankment, as they did in Gabura. Farm losses, food shortages, water scarcity and soil salinity could undermine livelihoods. Then people would migrate to earn better.

At the same time disasters could also wipe out resources needed for migration, forcing people to stay back, trapped.

People who move out often come back when the floods subside or the spell of drought is broken, gathering money to repair the house, resow the farm. Sometimes young women go out to work in the garment factories of Dhaka or Chittagong.

The latest (2011) census shows people moving out from the relatively less developed southwestern coastal belt, even from Khulna city,  the third biggest. Poverty in villages and rapid growth in cities provide the push and pull for migration. Experiences of climate and the environment appears to work in the background – not making direct, linear link to migration.

However the predominant narrative,  especially in popular media, is all about year-to-year climate variability and longer-term climate change making people move out permanently – to faraway places, even to western countries.

The story we find is that migration is a complex phenomenon, driven by overlapping influences. It is often local and short-term. In a future that is wetter, warmer and uncertain, these patterns could dramatically change.

Even then speculating that people living in places like Gabura on the margins of the map will catch the next flight out of the country is a tabloid fantasy. Just that.