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Climate migrants cause baby boom in Bangladesh's urban slums

by Syful Islam | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 2 March 2012 12:03 GMT

Trend for displaced families to have more children ? in part to deal with uncertainties - is a worry with climate displacement expected to surge

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AlertNet) – Climate and economic migrants to Bangladesh’s urban slums are contributing to a population boom that is creating social strains in this tiny and impoverished country of 160 million people.

“Lack of awareness and education, unavailability of contraceptives, absence of a social safety net and uncertainty over the future are among the reasons behind the baby boom of the slum refugees,” said Ainun Nishat, an environmentalist and vice chancellor of Brac University.

Bangladesh is suffering increasingly frequent flooding from cyclones and from heavy rainfall that experts believe is associated with climate change. Its coastal plains are particularly at risk, but many who live in the country’s interior are also vulnerable to river bank erosion – or conversely to drought.

When flooding and erosion displace families, and in many cases leave them landless and penniless, they often take refuge in urban areas, and have little option but to live in slums. There, lack of education about family planning, poor access to birth control and worries about financial security combine to result in large families.

“These unlucky people feel that in old age they will have to depend on children to secure a living. So, they prefer to take more number of children to be sure that at least one of them will take care of the parents,” Nishat said.


According to the 2006 Bangladesh Urban Health Survey, the total fertility rate – the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime – is 4.5 in urban slums, far higher than the overall national rate of 2.5.

Bangladesh’s total fertility rate has plummeted over the past five decades from a peak of more than 7. But the country’s population density, the increasing frequency of natural disasters, and heavy migration to cities mean that the higher fertility rate among slum dwellers is set to create growing economic and social pressures.

Hamid Mia, 50, is a father of five who works as a boatman near the Korail slum in Dhaka, the country’s capital, where he has lived for 20 years. He lost his village home in Chaulakathi, in the southern district of Barishal, after the Kochar River claimed his family's land.

Mia’s two sons are rickshaw pullers while his three daughters work in garment factories to help the family.

“My sons and daughters are also working, as I can’t bear all the expenses of a seven-member family,” he said.

The World Bank estimates that nearly 42 million Bangladeshis, somewhat more than a quarter of the country’s population, live in urban areas. According to Nurun Nabi, a professor in the University of Dhaka’s Population Science Department, around 40 percent of urban residents live in slums, and they contribute three-quarters of live births in urban areas.

“Every couple (of child-bearing age) in the slums has around five to six children, while the other city dwellers have on an average two to three babies,” said Nabi.

“I do not know if all the slum dwellers are climate refugees but most of them have come from the countryside as they lost living places due to river erosion (or were) displaced due to natural calamities and lacked somewhere to live,” he said.


The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that about 70 percent of slum dwellers in Dhaka have experienced some kind of environmental disaster. By some accounts, half a million people move to the city each year, mainly from coastal and rural areas.

Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of the Centre for Global Change, a non-governmental organisation, said that the capital contributes 31 percent of the country’s GDP, making it attractive to people displaced by climate change and disasters and looking for jobs.

Ahmed and fellow researcher Sharmind Neelormi estimate that erosion, soil salinity and waterlogging of soil alone have the potential to displace about 100,000 rural residents annually. But population migration due to flooding is on a far greater scale.

Tahera Akter, a researcher with Unnayan Onneshan, an NGO, found that during the period 1970-2009, Bangladesh suffered major floods every three years on average, and that each occurrence displaced an average of a quarter of the country’s population. Akter predicts that as many as 78 million people could be displaced by floods, cyclones and droughts by 2020. 

Dhaka’s population has grown to about 12 million since the nation’s independence in 1971, and the city’s slum population has increased from 275,000 in 1974 to 3.4 million in 2005, according to the Centre for Urban Studies, a Bangladeshi think tank.

Ahmed said that many slum residents are illiterate and do not understand that a big family can bring burdens for society as well as for themselves. To stop the population boom, he said that ensuring education of girls and women is crucial.


International studies show that educating women and providing health care to ensure their children survive is one of the surest ways of reducing birth rates.

M.M. Neazuddin, director general of the government’s Family Planning Directorate, said that while family planning activities outside cities are meeting with success, the lack of adequate health services and awareness programmes in slum areas is causing the population boom in urban slums.

Neazuddin said that his office will implement a crash programme within a year to try to bring down the fertility rate in city slums.

In Korail slum, Hamid Mia said that some health centres run by the city corporation did exist.

“Health workers there offer family planning advice but I think those are not enough to reduce population growth. Providing contraceptives free of cost as well as motivation may help,” he said.

Brac University’s Nishat said that in the past health workers had supplied free contraceptives door to door, which had helped reduce population growth.

“But the government, on the World Bank’s advice, has stopped the door-to-door service and made it health-centre based,” he said. The problem is that the health centres are often far from people’s homes, and as a result, “people feel discouraged to avail themselves of the facility,” he said.

Syful Islam is a journalist with The Financial Express newspaper in Dhaka. He can be reached at: youths1990@yahoo.com.

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