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Global development| Global development

Abdul Jalil, 52


BAs thousands of workers rush across the waterway, the rhythmic chug and hum of motors attached to wooden canoes begins to be heard as the rising sun breaks through the morning fog over the Mongla River.

They get on the small landing dock to pick up a potato-stuffed potato. shingara pastry for pennies and rush towards the factories in Mongla’s export processing zone (EPZ), which has transformed the small town into an employment hub in a part of BangladeshThe climate crisis has devastated the country.

Mongla, located about 30 miles (50 km) inland of the Bay of Bengal is the gateway to the Unesco-listed SundarbansThe Bengal tiger is a resident of mangrove forests. Its port, founded in the 1950s, has been the focus of an ambitious, decade-long project led by one of the world’s leading climate scientists to transform it into a town that actively welcomes climate refugees.

Abdul Jalil, 52
Abdul Jalil, 52 years old, ferry people across the river to reach the export zone.Photograph by Kaamil Ahmed/The Guardian

“In my 30 years here I’ve seen so many changes. The roads, docks, and the number people who visit here. It has all changed,” says Abdul Jalil, a 52-year-old boatman on the Mongla River. “We used to have a lot of problems; after rains the roads would be flooded, we had very little infrastructure around here.”

He used to manually row, but now all boats have motors. Each boat can carry approximately 700 people daily across the river on their way from the export zone to Sundarbans Tourism.

“These people crossing, they’re all from other places, from the villages near the Sundarbans. They come here to work in the EPZ for tourism in Sundarbans. It’s safer here, there isn’t crime, there are jobs and the living standards are better.”

Bangladesh is a hotbed of internal migration. There is nothing new in the country’s rural poor moving to cities in search of work. However, the influx of people into urban centres is being accelerated by severe weather events.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC), 4.1 Million people are affected by climate change. (2.5%) of the population were forced to move.As a result of climate-induced catastrophes in 2019, Bangladesh is now in crisis A Recent World Bank ReportIt is predicted that the country will have 19.9 millions internal climate refugees by 2050. This number is almost half of the total for the entire region of south Asia.

A woman walks in the ruins of a house damaged by floodwaters on a riverbank in Bangladesh
A woman walks in the wreckage of a house near Dhaka. In 2019, 4.1 million people had been displaced by climate-induced disasters. Photograph: Monirul Alam/EPA

Most of those forced from their homes travel to the capital. Dhaka is one of the fastest-growing megacities in the globeAnd Among the most unliveable. Over 20 million people call this home, with more than a third living in slums. Even the most basic infrastructure is lackingThe city is It is dangerously crowded.

Against this grim backdrop of daily struggles and looming catastrophe, Prof Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), has formulated a vision of “transformative adaptation” to alleviate pressure on Dhaka and its conurbations. It is designed to divert people towards smaller urban centres that have the potential to grow and, most importantly, to provide jobs to sustain a rapidly expanding workforce.

“The phenomenon of migration is age old – there’s nothing new here – but climate change is causing people to move and we are having to deal with this very, very quickly – that is what made us work on the idea,” says Huq.

More than a dozen satellite towns and cities have been identified as potential migrant-friendly areas. They are all located near economic hubs like sea and river ports, export processing zones, and export processing zones. “They are all secondary towns with populations of between a few hundred thousand and half a million which can absorb up to half a million climate migrants each,” says Huq.

Among those towns, Mongla stood out for the progress it had already made on climate breakdown mitigation, driven by the town’s dynamic mayor, Zulfikar Ali. A variety of infrastructural improvements were made during his 10 years as mayor, which spanned the period from 2011 to 2021. Mongla, a safer, stronger town.

Workers in Mongla queue to make the return journey home across the water by boat.
Mongla workers line up to return home by boat. Extreme weather is forcing more people into cities to find work.Photograph: RafiqulIslam Montu/The Guardian

These include a 7-mile elevated embankment that runs along the newly constructed Marine Drive to protect against flooding; two flood control gates; improved drainage system; two flood-control gate; two flood-control gates; two flood-control gates and two 40 hectare (100 acres) reservoirs. A fresh water treatment plant has also been installed, which has increased the number of houses with running water by a third to half. Sheikh Abdur Rahman, who replaced Ali as Mongla’s mayor in January 2021 has taken over the responsibility. “At one time the city was regularly flooded by high tides. Now it is being brought under climate-friendly city planning,” he says.

To announce changes in the weather to the community, a public address system was installed.

Mongla city buildings
Mongla was once regularly submerged by high tides. But, new defences have helped protect it.Photograph: RafiqulIslam Montu/The Guardian

The town’s proximity to the second largest port in Bangladesh and an export processing zone that already employs 8,000 people also made it economically attractive, says Huq.

“The primary carrot [in luring people to a town] is jobs,” he says. “But that’s the easy part.”

The challenge, he says, is the “softer interventions”, the social and cultural changes required to bring about his vision of a network of towns whose existing residents welcome newcomers.

“Hostility between host and migrant happens everywhere,” says Huq. “In Bangladesh, we have several big advantages – one is that we look the same so migrants are not distinguishable; second, there is one language – we all speak Bangla; and third, we all have the same religion. What we do have is a class barrier, so the newcomer is a poor person eking out a living – and that is what we are working on, humanising what is initially seen as ‘other’.”

These soft interventions include ensuring that children of migrants are well-integrated in schools and encouraging them on to university to end poverty. These are modest goals on paper, but they require the support of educational institutions. Huq and his team spent time talking with universities and schools to get their support for this idea.

Mongla’s population was below 40,000 in the 2011 census but a decade later Three times as many peopleThere are believed to be around 200,000 people living there. Huq’s mission to actively encourage migration to the town is likely to swell that figure by tens, possibly hundreds of thousands more.

A boat carrying workers docks on the river in the port city of Mongla.
Every morning workers from nearby towns and villages make the journey to Mongla’s export processing zone.Photograph by Kaamil Ahmed/The Guardian

Mongla is the first town to adopt ICCCAD’s recommendations, but others will follow. “This is a 10-year action programme and we are taking it town by town, mayor by mayor,” says Huq.

Over time, outposts will be established in coastal areas and villages that are home to the majority of climate migrants. Huq sees these outposts being mini embassies, which will serve as information hubs for migrants and steer them away from Dhaka to host towns that are better equipped and more capable of handling an expanding population.

It is early days of a long-term process, which has been hampered in part by Covid’s and the UK government’s cutting of aid. However, Huq is confident that Mongla, along with its sister towns, will become models for disaster management and adaptation.

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