The following country-level analysis examines the prevalence and impact of environmental change on four countries in the sub-region, namely Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. It highlights in particular the efforts of local communities working on small-scale and effective initiatives to address the consequences of environmental change. These activities are often carried out in parallel to national-level programmes to ameliorate the impacts climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters.
Situated between the Himalayan mountains and the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to the affects of climate change. An IOM report issued in 2010 on climate change, the environment and migration in Bangladesh noted that “more than 50 million people still live in poverty in Bangladesh and many of these occupy remote and ecologically fragile parts of the country, such as flood plains and river islands (chars), or the coastal zones where cyclones are a major threat” (IOM 2010). In addition to the more slow-onset erosion of river banks leading to displacement, Bangladesh also suffers from other factors that affect the loss of livelihood and consequent displacement, such as soil erosion and drought in the north of the country and increasing levels of salinity in the south (Fatima and Sirajee 2009). Increasing population means that, while disaster preparedness may have improved in many ways, an ever growing number of people are exposed to these environmental threats (Walsham 2010).
In one Climate Change Vulnerability Index report issued in October 2010, Bangladesh was highlighted as the country that faced the greatest climate-associated risks to its people, ecosystems and business interests. Bangladesh was also determined to have a high risk of drought and the highest risk for flooding. To illustrate the country’s vulnerability, the report cited floods that occurred in October 2010 which displaced more than 500,000 people (Bittner 2010). Reports from the World Bank have examined the course of climate change, taking into account escalating greenhouse gas emissions and rapid urbanization in Bangladesh since the 1990s. A report published in 2000 reported that the sea level was rising three millimetre per year along the coasts of Bangladesh and that by 2100 it would have risen between 15 and 95 centimetres (Chowdhury 2000).
The worst case scenario (approximately one metre rise in sea level) would flood 18 per cent of the country, increasing cyclone duration, changing farmland and fresh water sources to salt marsh, reducing rice crop production by 30 per cent, and intensifying coastal flooding. A significant portion of the population in the coastal regions (45 million people, or 28 per cent of the total population) would be affected or displaced (Chowdhury 2000). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 Climate Change Assessment elaborated on earlier forecasts by predicting large decreases in rice (8 per cent) and wheat (32 per cent) production levels by 2050 due to rising temperatures and fluctuating rainfall during the monsoon season (Cruz and others 2007).
Impact on migration
A significant number of people annually migrate into the capital Dhaka from the Buriganga River Valley. Though precise statistics are not available to track how much internal migration to cities is attributable to environmental effects, anecdotal evidence from migrants and research by migration experts in Dhaka suggest that climate change is a significant factor behind this migratory trend. Many people living in the informal settlements of Dhaka cite the environment as having had a negative impact on their lives, although definitive evidence which connects rural to urban migration to environmental change is lacking. The number of people living in informal settlements continues to grow in the city, more than doubling from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.4 million in 2005, according to surveys taken by the Centre for Urban Studies (Akter 2009). Meanwhile, the metropolitan population as a whole has experienced accelerated growth, rising to 35 million in 2006, from 23.1 million in 2001, an increase of 52 per cent.
Under any circumstances, a rapid increase in the population density of urban centres places pressure on resources and consequently contributes to multiple forms of insecurity. Environmental degradation from population congestion eventually results in further relocation and displacement. This, in turn, contributes to environmental degradation in the new location, and this creates a vicious cycle, one phenomenon contributing to the other.
Over the past decade alone, India’s population has suffered through numerous climate-induced and weather-driven disaster events. Two separate drought incidents in July 2002 affected 300 million people by wiping out harvests in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgargh and Madhya Pradesh.
Through 2009, some 94 significant floods (including storm surges and flash floods) killed 11,921 people and affected 15,892,847 others, with major losses occurring in 2002 and 2004. Extreme temperature changes (cold waves and heat waves) accounted for 4,994 deaths in 16 events (most deaths occurred in 2002). Storms (including tropical cyclones) killed 1,206 people and affected or displaced another 6,401,639. Avalanches and landslides, possibly a result of ongoing glacier melt, resulted in 491 deaths and affected 5,000 people in ten events. Flooding and temperature variations also contributed to 16 localized bacterial (including parasitic) and viral infection outbreaks that killed 1,214 people and affected 223,561 people (CRED no date a).
Impact on migration
Like other countries in South Asia and throughout the world, India is also facing growing rural to urban migration. This flow is expected to significantly increase based upon current climate change modelling, which shows a negative impact on agricultural production. This, combined with the modernization of the agricultural sector, is reducing the labour force required to work on farms. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) recently stated that climate change could result in a significant reduction in both rice and wheat production, making the country a potential net importer of these products on a significant scale. The impact of this reduction would devastate certain rural economies and create great impetus for accelerated migration from rural areas. It is worthwhile to note that while the current primary reason for rural to urban migration remains socio-economic, “anecdotal evidence suggests the contribution of increasing frequency of floods and loss of agricultural lands to migration-related decisions” (ADB 2012).
Nepal is very vulnerable to natural disasters, with floods and landslides regularly affecting its citizens. In the last decade, 10 significant floods have occurred in the eastern and western regions of the country, accounting for 912 deaths and affecting or displacing 1,956,605 people (CRED no date b). The most recent flood, which occurred in October 2009, killed 78 people, while floods that occurred between July and September 2008 affected more than 250,000 (70,000 in the Koshi River valley) people and killed 65 persons (IOM 2009).
At the other end of the spectrum, north-western Nepal suffered through the effects of drought from late 2005 to the spring of 2006. In tandem with an April hailstorm, this severe winter weather destroyed the majority of winter and summer crops in the region, leading to food shortages that affected about 200,000 people across ten districts (Action by Churches Together International 2006). Most recent among climate-related events, a combination of winter drought, depleted water sources and heavy rainfall, leading to increased contamination of drinking water, contributed to a diarrheal epidemic in the Jajarkot district, which began in May 2009 and was responsible for killing about 200 people (Red Cross/Red Crescent 2009).
Impact on migration
In comparison with other countries in South Asia, Nepal has been the subject of less research in relation to climate change and migration. Although comparatively small in size with a total population of approximately thirty million people, Nepal does have the unfortunate distinction of having the greatest increase, by percentage of population, of people facing multiple risks from climate change living within the countries reviewed in this paper for the period 2000–2050. For Nepal, the percentage increase in risk is 124.2 per cent, whereas India has a much lower rate at 64.3 per cent over the same period (ADB 2011). Nepal is also ranked 11th in the world for disaster-related displacement (Kollmair and Bannerjee 2011). More research is required to elucidate the definitive causative links between climate change, environmental degradation, and migration patterns (Massey and others 2007).
Studies conducted in recent years have linked labour migration to perceived environmental insecurity in terms of access to forest resources, which are affected by increased rainfall, flooding, and landslides. As an adaptation mechanism, earning opportunities have increasingly been diversified through seasonal or permanent labour migration, both internally and internationally, to cope with this insecurity (Bardsley and Hugo 2010).
Pakistan has historically been very vulnerable to natural disasters, climate-related and otherwise. Since 2001, the country has experienced six major earthquakes, including the 2005 Kashmir earthquake (7.6 magnitude), resulting in 73,576 deaths and the displacement of 6,286,607 people. Flooding has been equally significant for its adverse impact, with 35 documented floods, including the 2010 floods (responsible for displacing 20 million people, an eighth of the total population). In the last ten years, 4,286 people have died, with another 29,780,477 affected or displaced as a result of floods.
Additional disasters that are more directly climate-influenced include six storms or tropical cyclones (392 killed, 1,657,069 affected or displaced); 10 landslides and avalanches (287 killed, 16,727 affected or displaced); and four episodes of epidemic illness (54 killed, 236 affected) (CRED no date).
Impact on migration
Pakistan is a country of both origin and destination of migrants with strong outward flows to the United States of America, Europe and Western Asia and a growing internal rural to urban migration pattern. Large diasporas reside within certain European countries, particularly the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as in the United States of America. There are also long-standing flows of temporary labour migrants from Pakistan to many countries in Western Asia.
A high level of internal migration is also occurring within Pakistan. Much of the flood protection infrastructure along the Indus River is severely degraded and, to the extent that climate change will initially result in higher river levels, this will lead to depopulation of rural areas solely focused on agricultural production. The vast majority of farm workers in the flood plains of Pakistan are not landowners, resulting in less incentive for them to remain if the situation proves untenable. The combination of insecure land tenure and the impact from flooding and drought creates a push factor for rural inhabitants at the same time that access to services and livelihood opportunities pull people toward urban areas. Additionally, the modernization of the agricultural sector is also accelerating migration from rural areas.
Rural to urban migration is significant. Many internal migrants use family and extended family networks and links to help them make the transition to becoming an urban or peri-urban resident (ADB 2012). As in most major cities in the world, there are few formal structures in Karachi with the explicit mission to facilitate the orderly integration of rural migrants. Instead, the responsibility often falls on the extended family and ethnic and religious networks.