Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Benjamin Etzold

Benjamin Etzold

Benjamin Etzold is a senior researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion GmbH. From 2007 to 2016, he worked in the Geography Department of the University of Bonn, where he also obtained his PhD in 2012 with his research on the livelihoods of street vendors and political contestations in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since then, he has led a case study on rainfall variability, food security and human mobility in Bangladesh in the research project “Where the Rain falls” by the UN University and CARE. His expertise is in refugee and migration studies, social geography, livelihoods of vulnerable populations, labor relations, and food security.

2018-09-26 08:10:43 by Benjamin Etzold

Environmental Change, Migration, and Adaptation in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, migration patterns are affected by climatic changes such as natural hazards, sea-level rise, and changing rainfall regimes. The environmental drivers of migration should, however, not be rated higher than normal seasonal cycles, changes in the political economy, or societal transformations. Living mobile and translocal lives has become a normality for Million of Bangladeshi families. People's mobility is not a natural phenomen, but a multi-causal social process.

Bangladesh is one of those countries in the Global South that is often referred to as being particularly vulnerable to climate change. Forced displacement and 'environmentally-induced migration' are said to be a logical consequence of climate change impacts. And indeed, the contributions in a recently published book called "Environment, Migration and Adaptation. Evidence and Politics of Climate Change in Bangladesh" (edited by Bishawjit Mallick and myself, published with AHDPH) show that natural hazards, changing rainfall regimes, sea-level rise, and land degradation in Bangladesh are intrinsically related to people's livelihoods and their food security, and do influence the patterns of migration inside the nation. People's mobility and their translocal lives are, however, multi-causal social processes. Environmental drivers of migration should then not be rated higher than 'normal' cycles in rural livelihoods and seasonal patterns of food insecurity, fundamental transformations in the local, national and global political economy, basic social changes and demographic trends, or technological innovations. Together, these different drivers contribute to the decision of more and more Bangladeshis to migrate. If mobility takes place at all, how migration works and in which direction people move, often depends on the existing networks between migrants and non-migrants, on the organization of migration through middlemen and 'migration entrepreneurs', and, in particular, on the labor demand at the destinations.

Two brief examples from the book help to reiterate the multi-dimensionality, and perhaps the normality, of migration in Bangladesh.

Temporary migration is normal in hazard-prone Southern coastal areas

First, for many inhabitants of Bangladesh's hazard-prone coastal area, migration has become an integral part of life. Over the past decades, a significant proportion of the men in coastal areas have become migrant workers in order to sustain their families who continue to live in hazard-prone areas. However, despite the ability of individuals to migrate for work, very few choose to move permanently to distant locations. Unless there is no other option, people often prefer to remain close to their places of origin and avoid a drastic rupture with their social network. Permanent migration is therefore rarely the first option considered.

A translocal life helps people from Northern Bangladesh to diversify their livelihoods

Second, many people in Northwestern Bangladesh face both chronic poverty and seasonal food insecurity, even despite two harvests per year. This so called Monga phenomenon is caused by a lack of employment, and thus income, before the rice harvest starts. In this context, labor migration is an important coping strategy. At the same time, migration has become a normal livelihood strategy for many households. While some migrants move around and work independently, the trips of others are well organized by intermediaries. A translocal life with rhythmically changing periods of work in other rural and urban areas and 'at home' helps many small-scale farmers and landless laborers to increase their income, diversify their livelihood, handle risks, and enhance their life chances.

The conditions of migration matter, not the patterns of mobility as such

Many more detailed case studies in the book show that people's mobility is always embedded in a specific social, political, economic, and environmental context. The life chances that open up at other places, the everyday insecurities like poverty and indebtedness, food insecurity or seasonal unemployment, the environmental hazards like cyclones or floods that suddenly hit an area, or a stroke of fate like the death of a household member due to ill-health, can all lead to the decision to migrate. In turn, through migration and 'translocal networks' that thereby emerge, many people are able to cope with such shocks, adapt to structural transformations, and improve their lives in the longer run. Yet, too many Bangladeshi people have migrated and now work as agricultural laborers in rural areas or day-laborers in cities under conditions which do not allow them to diversify and translocalize their livelihoods. Instead, they might be drawn in a cycle of poverty and indebtedness, as labor migration is often costly in itself. Nonetheless, those families who cannot use migration at all as an option to improve their lives might be worse off. These people may be 'trapped' in a deteriorating environment, in poverty, and a disadvantageous social position.

Image Credits: Benjamin Etzold

About “Environment, Migration and Adaptation. Evidence and Politics of Climate Change in Bangladesh”

This new edited book that has been published in February 2015 by AHDPH, Dhaka now brings together national and international scholars who discuss environmental changes, people’s ways of adaptation, and migration patterns in Bangladesh. It aims at reaching policymakers, scientists, and the public. It presents empirical evidence of climatic changes and natural hazards and how they relate to people’s livelihoods, social vulnerability, food security, and human mobility. The contributions in this book thereby provide a concise overview in the field of ‘environmentally-induced migration’ in Bangladesh. Decision makers, students, teachers, and researchers working in this field can learn from the conceptual approaches, methodological explanations, empirical finding,s and the critical discussions that are presented in each chapter. The contributions also derive policy recommendations from their data and key arguments. For the Bangladeshi audience, the chapters’ summaries are also provided in Bangla.

 The publication was supported by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh.