National Geographic: Climate change creates a new migration crisis for Bangladesh

The country, already grappling with the Rohingya crisis, now faces a devastating migration problem as hundreds of thousands face an impossible choice between battered coastlines and urban slums.

Forida Khatun stands behind her house in Gabura, Bangladesh, in November. Two of her sons migrated to Dhaka after the family home was destroyed by storms multiple times and agricultural jobs were lost due to salinity intrusion. “Only Allah can save us," she says. "We don’t have any power to save our children.” (Photo by Tim McDonnell)

Forida Khatun stands behind her house in Gabura, Bangladesh, in November. Two of her sons migrated to Dhaka after the family home was destroyed by storms multiple times and agricultural jobs were lost due to salinity intrusion. “Only Allah can save us," she says. "We don’t have any power to save our children.” (Photo by Tim McDonnell)

This story was first published in National Geographic.

DHAKA, BANGLADESHGolam Mostafa Sarder starts every day before dawn, rising from a thin reed mat in the shed that he shares with fifteen roommates. Each has just enough space to lie flat. He dresses in gym shorts and t-shirt by the light of a single dangling bulb.

Outside the shed’s open doorway, in the outskirts of Dhaka, the sprawling megacity capital of Bangladesh, is the brick factory where Golam and his neighbors work for fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, at least six months a year. His home in Gabura, a remote village on the country’s southwestern coast, is more than a day’s journey from the city by bus, rickshaw, and ferry.

Golam’s job is to push wheelbarrows of mud down the production line. Waist-high rows of drying bricks spiral off from a towering kiln that belches smoke over an area the size of a city block. By 6 p.m. his lanky frame is spattered in gray mud. The evening air swims with mosquitoes. He has just enough strength left to clean his bare feet and angular face, inhale a dinner of lentils and rice, and collapse back onto his mat.

Golam has never heard of global warming. But he says he knows one thing for sure: “If the river didn’t take our land, I wouldn’t need to be here.”


Bangladesh, a densely populated, riverine South Asian nation, has always survived its share of tropical storms, flooding, and other natural disasters. But today, climate change is accelerating old forces of destruction, creating new patterns of displacement, and fueling an explosion of rapid, chaotic urbanization. report last week from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the State Department and other foreign aid agencies have not done enough to combat climate change-induced migration in developing countries, and highlighted Bangladesh as particularly vulnerable. And as climate change drives the migration of up to 200 million people worldwide by 2050, Dhaka offers a cautionary tale for refuge cities around the globe.

Interviews with dozens of migrant families, scientists, urban planners, human rights advocates, and government officials across Bangladesh reveal that while the country is keenly aware of its vulnerability to climate change, not enough has been done to match the pace and scale of the resultant displacement and urbanization, toppling any prospect of a humane life for one of the world’s largest populations of climate migrants.

“Right now the government’s vision is to have no vision,” says Tasneem Siddiqui, a political scientist who leads the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka. “It’s just that everything is in Dhaka, and people are all coming to Dhaka. And Dhaka is collapsing.”

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