Climate Refugees or Labour Migrants? Climate Reductive Translations of Migration from Coastal Bangladesh

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Shrimp-induced migration, riverbank erosion and waterlogging are various environmental factors contributing to choices to migrate in Bangladesh, but to reframe these movements as ‘climate-induced’ would erase the political and socio-economic context in which these processes are embedded.


In 2014, I met with Bangladeshi migration researchers in Dhaka who had gained significant funding for a project on ‘climate-related migration’ following Cyclone Aila in 2009. I asked [in Bangla] how migration was related to climate change. The researchers replied that since their main focus is on migration, they could continue their work by using climate change as a masala to attract funding. They further pointed out that shrimp farming was the main cause of outmigration: “The main reason why the flooding was so devastating during Aila was due to the damages shrimp farms [ghers] made on flood-protection embankments. The devastation was caused by a cyclone, but its impact would have been less had it not been for ghers”. Bangladesh is often portrayed as a ‘climate hotspot’ where its coastal migrants are described as victims of climate change who are ‘forced’ to migrate due to climate change, or else risk drowning in rising sea levels or in cyclonic events). This essay draws on my recent article “Climate Refugees or Labour Migrants? Climate Reductive Translations of Women’s Migration from Coastal Bangladesh” published in the Journal of Peasant Studies to discuss how ‘climate reductive translations of migration’ misread climate vulnerabilities in Bangladesh.

The above vignette illustrates how donors are increasingly allocating funds to climate change in ways that result in development brokers engaging in ‘climate reductive translations’, i.e. they create a causal narrative that links their particular activities to the policy theory of climate change, in order to continue with their ongoing activities (Dewan, 2020, 2021b).[1]

‘Climate reductionism’ refers to “the increasing trend to ascribe all changes in environment and society to climate change” (Hulme, 2011, pp. 255–256) – a climate reductive translation of migration represents migration as caused by climate change. Climate reductive translations of migration may attract international attention for Bangladesh’s plight, but it misreads coastal vulnerabilities while normalising a victimising discourse where there is no space to discuss political solutions that could alleviate agrarian livelihoods such as rural employment schemes, silt management and freshwater agriculture.

Floods in Bangladesh are not solely about climatic change. Most importantly, not all kinds of floods must be prevented.

Rural livelihoods thrive on fertile agricultural soils and the original purpose of flood-protection embankments in this region was to keep out saline intrusion in the rivers during the dry season (Dewan, 2021a). Since the 1990s ‘fake Blue Revolution’ (Deb, 1998) introducing tiger-prawn cultivation through land grabbing (Adnan, 2013), shrimp businessmen drill unauthorised pipes and cut embankments in order to flood these arable lands with brackish waters – rendering them structurally unstable (de Silva, 2012). Such forced salinisation of the soil reduces local food production and increases the cost of food and other household items and worsen rural livelihood opportunities. Salinisation negatively affects reproductive activities (cooking, cleaning, housekeeping, crafts) as well as mental and bodily wellbeing (Dewan, 2021b). Based on these socio-environmental effects, the International Organisation of Migration (2010) states that even without the projected impacts of climate change, increasing salinity and population pressure will escalate emigration pressures in Bangladesh’s coastal zone. This illustrates how the vulnerability of agrarian livelihoods in this delta is shaped by a complex interplay of land use practices.

Such an ecological vulnerability is compounded by the lack of state provision in an aid-dependent landscape where discourses of climate change obscures the unequal access to water-land resources held by the more powerful (Dewan, 2021b). Considering this historical and political context of inequality, climate reductive translations of migration that represent people migrating from tiger-prawn producing villages in the wake of cyclones as ‘climate migrants’ are deeply problematic. A climate reductive translation of migration from tiger-prawn producing areas obfuscates the environmental degradation that exacerbates structural socio-economic push factors of migration. It is therefore important to separate migration caused by environmental degradation and broken embankments resulting from shrimp farming from ‘climate-induced’ migration.

Figure 1. Huffington Post article on ‘Climate Change Refugees’. Source: Nikitas 2016 Photo courtesy Probal Rashid.

The above also illustrates how floods in Bangladesh are not solely about climatic change. Most importantly, not all kinds of floods must be prevented. Monsoon borsha floods have long been integral to agricultural activities when silt-laden river water mixed with rain and inundated these deltaic wetlands, which fertilised the soil and irrigated rice fields while providing essential breeding ground for fish (Zaman, 1993). The construction of donor-funded ‘flood-protection’ embankments in the 1960s obstructed these borsha floods and trapped silt in the outside river (Dewan, 2021a). The difference in elevation of a raised riverbed and a sunken floodplain resulted in rainwater being unable to drain and caused damaging jalabaddho floods or drainage congestion, waterlogging (Iqbal, 2010) that we often see in media portrayals of ‘flooded Bangladesh’ (Dewan, 2021b).

Figure 2. Embankment and raised banks due to siltation. Photo by Author.

Embankments contribute to waterlogging and obstruct the delta’s ability to raise its land levels through sediment deposits, and therefore pose greater flood risks than rising sea levels (Auerbach et al., 2015). Indeed, the unembanked Sundarbans have gained 1-1.5 meters of elevation, while embanked floodplains (like Nodi) are sediment deprived (van Staveren et al., 2017). A reductive translation of migration as caused by climate-related floods removes attention from the fact that ‘flood-protection’ embankments – through a century of poor infrastructure design by colonial powers and western donors – actually worsen jalabaddho floods (Dewan, 2021b). Migration due to waterlogging is not ‘climate-induced’.

Embankments further contribute to the silting up several important water bodies, rivers and canals (Dewan et al., 2015). This further exacerbates Bangladesh’s climatic risks as the monsoon is expected to shift and this poses a grave threat to lives and livelihoods in South Asia (Amrith, 2018). Silted waterbodies have less capacity to retain freshwater monsoon rains over the dry season and this hampers their ability to counter the salinity of the yearly dry saline season (Dewan, 2020). This siltation and salinisation is also affected by India’s diversion of freshwater through the Farakka barrage that has increased salinity of Ganges flows since the 1970s (Government of Bangladesh, 1976; Khan et al., 2015) and the conversion of agricultural land into saltwater tiger-prawn farms that salinize soil and water since the 1980s (Bernzen et al., 2019). In order to address flooding as the monsoon rains and dry seasons are expected to shift with climatic change, silt management of the delta and long-term solutions against waterlogging that increase the water-retention capacities of rivers and canals is of urgent importance to help sustain agrarian livelihoods.

Embankments contribute to the silting up of vital water bodies, but they are also subject to accretion and erosion of the Bengal delta. The Ganges River has meandered eastwards for millennia eroding land, riverbanks and now flood-protection embankments as it changes its course while creating new lands (Brammer, 2012). This held an important role in shaping land revenue policies from Mughal to colonial times (Dewan, 2021b). O’Malley (1908) writes “…the streams are constantly eating away on one bank and depositing on the other, until the channel in which they formerly flowed becomes choked up”. Riverbank erosion swallows up land into the river. This is not a new phenomenon causing vulnerability in the Bengal delta, recognising how land was swallowed up by the rivers. As a senior government official in Bangladesh’s water sector stated: “you cannot correlate climate change [directly] with riverbank erosion…The delta is in a formation stage, it eroded in the past, it’s eroding now, and it will continue to erode in the future as well.” [2]

Figure 3. Riverbank erosion in Satkhira district January 2015. Photo by Author

Riverbank erosion (nodi bhangon) is damaging and disruptive; ruining water-sided road cum embankments causing those who live on top, or outside, the embankment to lose their homes and move away. My interlocutors in Nodi perceived riverbank erosion as part of the course of the river – this displacement is one they had seen for generations, resulting in people having to migrate. Such erosion is increasingly cast as being caused by climate change where Western media and the aid industry portray these erosion-displaced peoples as ‘climate refugees’, their land ‘swallowed by the river’. A short-term environmental shock like riverbank erosion does not itself constitute climatic change (Bernzen et al., 2019), nor are riverbank-displaced peoples necessarily climate migrants (Lewis, 2010). Such a climate reductive translation of migration deflects attention away from the fact that riverbank-induced displacement forms part of a wider political problem of regular land loss in a context of land fragmentation and a growing population. Labelling this as ‘climate-induced’ makes it difficult to properly discuss the long-term political solutions of equitable and pro-poor land settlement that forms part of contemporary agrarian struggles in Bangladesh.

To conclude, climate reductive translations of migration misread the socio-economic and environmental processes shaping migration in coastal Bangladesh in ways that obscures discussion on highly political issues. Firstly, the long-term salinisation of arable lands by brackish aquaculture has contributed to rural hardship and outmigration since it was introduced to the coastal zone already in the early 1990s as its damages to embankments have further contributed to cyclone-related migration. Secondly, waterlogging floods are deeply entangled with man-made infrastructure impeding the drainage of monsoon rains. Thirdly, land being ‘swallowed by the river’ is due to river-bank erosion (rather than floods) and is a geological feature of the Ganges. By portraying river-bank displaced peoples, migrants from tiger-prawn producing villages and people suffering from waterlogging as ‘climate refugees’-political solutions are ignored such as land-compensation schemes, stopping shrimp farming, and remediating the flaws of flood-protection embankments through tidal river management and regular canal excavation through rural employment schemes. Climate reductive translations of migration fail to address policy solutions that remediate rural underemployment, floods, riverbank erosion and salinisation by aquaculture – issues that should be part of discussions concerning Bangladesh’s path towards any future of ‘sustainable development’.




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