Rising tide of climate migrants spurs Dhaka to seek solutions

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 26 April 2016 10:55 GMT

A street vendor pushes a cart of watermelons along a busy road in Old Dhaka, in Bangladesh’s capital. TRF/Laurie Goering

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"The rich can learn much from the poor on how to be resilient," says one expert

By Laurie Goering

DHAKA, April 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On the streets of this South Asian mega-city, jammed solid with rickshaws, honking taxi vans, cars, bicycles, sweating pedestrians and lumbering buses with their paint scraped off in tight squeezes, getting anywhere quickly by road is impossible.

The 100-metre drive from the airport parking lot to the first intersection can take half an hour. Getting right across town requires many hours. That's what keeps Sirajul Islam, chief urban planner for Dhaka South City Corporation, awake at night.

"Traffic," he sighed, asked about his main concerns for the fast-growing city. "Though of course there are so many worries."

Bangladesh's capital city of 20 million people is growing by close to 5 percent a year, in part as rural families migrate to the city seeking work or having lost their homes to worsening river erosion and storm surges that flood fields with salt water.

The stream of migrants, expected to surge as climate change problems like sea-level rise intensify, could double the already crowded city's population in 15 years, said Omar Rahman, vice chancellor of Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).

"We are in the eye of the storm here," he told participants at a conference on community-based adaptation to climate change in Dhaka this week.

WHATSAPP FOR GARBAGE?

But Dhaka is also proving a testing ground for solutions to deal with the rising tide of migrants, and with climate change.

In communities around the city, including some of the poorest slums, government agencies, researchers, non-profit groups, businesses and communities themselves are experimenting with ideas aimed at making Dhaka - and potentially many cities around the world - more livable in the years to come.

In poor neighbourhoods, communities are training emergency response volunteers, installing solar panels, starting community savings schemes and providing job training.

City-run efforts, meanwhile, aim to improve garbage collection and keep stormwater drains clear, in part by tracking street sweepers via Whatsapp on their mobile phones. Concrete roofs are set to be covered with gardens to provide food, trap rainwater and offer respite from soaring summer temperatures.

At Dhaka South City Corporation, responsible for the southern half of the city, managers from all departments now meet each Sunday morning to coordinate plans and make sure problems don't slip through the cracks.

"All the departments have responsibility for climate change now," Islam said.

Such government involvement is crucial in bringing about fundamental shifts to tackle climate change in urban areas, said David Satterthwaite, an expert on slums and urban poverty at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, one of the conference sponsors.

Community efforts to adapt to climate change "can't work without local government", he said. "They can do amazing things but they can't... build water treatment plants or put in drains."

Fiona Percy, who coordinates the Adaptation Learning Programme for Africa launched by aid agency CARE, said many cities around the world need a "paradigm shift" to coordinate not just community and government action on climate change, but also wider development schemes and funding.

"In Ghana, when districts create development plans, climate change now has to be fully embedded," she told the conference.

But when the two are brought together, applying for money from funds designated just for climate change or just for development becomes more complicated, she added.

RETHINKING MIGRATION

IUB's Rahman said one of the keys to managing growing migration and climate change will be persuading more decision makers that movement from rural areas to cities is an effective form of adaptation.

"For too long we have seen that as an adverse consequence," he said. "Urban migration is not only inevitable, it is in fact very positive in terms of economic growth (because) urban centres... are really the drivers of the world economy."

The challenge, experts said, is that new migrants can't all end up in the same overcrowded cities.

"People come to Dhaka, they tell you, because that's where the money is. If you want to manage this process and spread it around, we have to make sure we develop other cities as attractive destinations," Rahman said.

That means investing in good sanitation, water and energy systems, health clinics and schools.

It also means improving education to reduce the chances that migrants will arrive ill-equipped to find jobs and support themselves, he said.

"We need to upgrade their skills, give them a path to becoming more productive," Rahman said.

Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), another of the conference organisers, said Bangladesh and other poor countries were fast gaining expertise in adapting to climate change, and should now become a resource for other nations looking for ideas.

Rich countries may have the technology and competence on things like clean energy, Huq said, but "when it comes to adaptation, the paradigm of developed countries knowing more doesn't hold".

"The rich can learn much from the poor on how to be resilient," he added. (Reporting by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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