Magazine article New Internationalist

The Great Climate Exodus

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Great Climate Exodus

Article excerpt

When the sea washed away his house for the third time, Abdul Motlab and his family left for Dhaka. Ten years later, their home is a lean-to tacked on to the end of their eldest son's shack.

The makeshift homestead lies in the shadow of a building site, which spews out bricks and rubble - they have strung a net over the tin roof to catch the debris. Abdul and his wife Anoura are in their late fifties; they live here with five of their seven children and a four-month-old granddaughter.

Dirty, dangerous and prone to flooding in monsoon, this precarious squat on an unused lot in the Mohamedpur district is one of the better places they have lived in during the last 10 years.

'The settlers in the slums would not let us set up house,' says Anoura. 'They were very violent.' After months living by the roadside, they managed to erect a small hut with a jute roof in a temporary settlement, where they lived in constant fear of eviction. When expulsion duly came, it was fast and brutal. 'The police didn't let us finish our lunch.'

The entire Motlab clan subsists on the eldest son's daily income of $2.50. It's not enough for three meals a day. 'We didn't expect it be as hard as this,' says Abdul. His face is lined with worry - the relative peace they enjoyed here will soon be over. The owner of the lot plans to build an apartment block and has given them marching orders. Resigned, Abdul says that Allah will find them a new place.

Space is at a premium in Dhaka, now the world's tastest growing megacity. It doubled in size - from 6 to 12 million - between 1990 and 2005, hit 16 million not long ago and has 400,000 people arrive every year.

'Where will they all go?' wonders Bilkis Uddin, who lives round the corner from the Motlabs. 'They'll have to stack them one on top of the other - there'll be nowhere to put your feet.' And then, looking more worried: 'The rent will be tripled!'

Bilkis is a pragmatic, dynamic woman who is overseeing her recently arrived sister-in-law Monowara's insertion into urban life.

Monowara, her husband and four children pay $27 a month to rent a three-by-three metre corrugated iron box. In this claustrophobic space, relationships suffer and quarrels are frequent. The shacks are roasting in the summer, plagued by mosquitoes and regularly invaded by rats. In this settlement 60 people share one latrine and one water tap. Someone is always sick, around half the children are not in school.

Monowara is not managing the transition well. 'Only money matters here,' she says in a low monotone. 'Before, I had ducks, chickens and goats. Life was easy in comparison. Now we have to work very hard just to eat.'

The river evicted Monowara's family from their village near Bhola island in stages. First they lost their land, so her husband went to work as a rickshaw driver in a nearby town. But when the river took the house, they had no choice but to migrate. Ever-enterprising, Bilkis has got her brother a job as a security guard and Monowara earns $19 per month doing domestic work. But even though both parents work, they cannot afford to keep their seven-year-old daughter Onu in school.

'Bhola was calm and peaceful. If I could just get something to live off, I'd go back,' says Monowara. If she manages it, she'll be swimming against the tide: glacier melt and heavier monsoons will see rivers eroding 20 per cent more land by 2050. Oxfam estimates that coastal and river erosion, on average, destroys the livelihoods of between 50,000 to 200,000 people and forces 60,000 out of their homes every year.

The urban slums or bustees that had no space for the Motlabs can be seen all over Dhaka. Some still have the trappings of the countryside. Around the edge of one not far from Shyamoli district, cows pick through the rubbish and ducks swim in ponds of fetid water. A boy rubs the bare injured foot of a wailing toddler and lands a kiss on it. Close by, groups of people sort through stinking piles of rubbish. …

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