Understanding complex challenges of disaster displacement

Mohammad Zaman | Published: March 13, 2019 21:52:10 | Updated: March 17, 2019 20:18:45

Chars in Jamuna river at Khas Rajbari Union of Sirajganj (Video, 2014 via YouTube)

In Bangladesh, displacement and suffering experienced from natural disasters such as flooding and riverbank erosion are not new.  These catastrophic events force people to leave their homes and communities rendering annually a large number people homeless and destitute. In recent years, climate change has brought about new concerns and dimensions to the impending disaster with chronic displacement risk in the coastal belts. Apart from these, there are issues of displacement caused by ethnic conflicts and those by development projects without proper resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced people.

Over the last decades, perhaps millions have been displaced in the country, who are often lumped together as internally displaced persons (IDPs) despite varying causes and sources of displacement. Today, a wide array of people displaced by tropical cyclones, droughts, floods or river erosions are referred to as climate or environmental refugees in many popular discourses. Despite differences among academic and policy-makers, IDPs and refugees are in essence two sides of the same coin. Whether they are called IDPs or climate refugees, millions of them who live on the margin of society have already faced forced displacement in Bangladesh. They lack basic protection and access to fundamentals like food, shelter, and healthcare. In all probability, the scale and impacts of disaster displacement are likely to increase in the near future.

The disaster displacement issues were addressed at an international meeting of the Platform for Disaster Displacement (PDD) held in Dhaka on February 24-25. The theme of the two-day meeting - "Working Together for Addressing Displacement Due to Slow and Sudden-Onset Disasters" - considered disaster displacement, taking both a local and global perspectives. The PDD was launched by the governments of Bangladesh and Germany as a successor to the Nansen Initiative at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit held in Istanbul, Turkey. It has a steering group composed of 17 states and the European Union, and an advisory committee with over 100 organisations and experts from around the world.

The main objective of this multi-stakeholders' platform is to strengthen the protection of displaced people across borders in the context of disasters, including those associated with the adverse effects of climate change. The meeting focused on understanding human mobility and the ways and means of further enhancing preventive, adaptive and mitigation policies for better protection of displaced persons or those at risk of displacement. The Draft Concept Note for the PDD meeting outlined displacement largely within the context of climate change impacts in Asia and Pacific Islands countries exploring slow-onset events and processes like sea level rise, river erosion, salinity, flood, drought, many of which are inter-related and are results of environmental degradation due to climate change.

For Bangladesh, besides the slow onset of climate impacts, river erosion as a long wave disaster, combined with increasing climatic impacts, demands closer and urgent attention than it received at the PDD meeting. An estimated one million people are displaced every year in Bangladesh by river erosion. In contrast to severe flooding, which occurs usually once in every few years, river erosions and displacement are daily phenomenon in the Teesta and Brahmaputra-Jamuna flood plains and in the southern delta. Areas such as Chilmari, Kurigram, Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Sariakandi, Kazipur, Sirajganj, Lauhajang, Chandpur, and Bhola are prone to endemic erosion every year. Thus, millions more live in situations of protracted displacement by river erosions in the country.

The complexity of the causes and the dynamics of river erosion are not well addressed in the current approaches to disaster management in Bangladesh. For instance, while there is a standard operating procedure (SOP) for flood responses in the country, there is no such SOP to respond to and assist the river erosion displacement. River erosion disaster should be addressed as a national priority due to its wide ranging impacts. The loss of land and displacement contributes to poverty and marginalisation of a large segment of the rural population. Flood losses are often high, but the people ultimately return home and receive assistance to recover from effects of flood. Erosion victims rarely receive any assistance from local administration or support from Disaster Management Bureau.

There is no accurate data nationally on the extent of river erosion displacement, migration and resettlement. Thirty years ago, a joint study by University of Manitoba and Jahangirnagar University reported displacement of an estimated one million people annually by river erosion. This includes those displaced from char (mid-channel island) villages and migrate from one char to another due to erosion and displacement. The char villagers literally dance with the rivers for their adjustments and survival. The Department of Disaster Management and the Disaster Management Bureau should collect and compile data as a starting point to account for the extent of river erosion displacement by locations, and assess the protection and assistance needs for the displaced population.

To date, there is no policy framework or plan of action for the erosion displacement except that age-old legal framework known as the alluvial and diluvial laws to regulate accretion land for survey and records, ownership rights of the newly emerged lands and revenue collection. In practice, however, the ownership and use of newly accretioned lands are defined by local power and patronage systems. Thus, in most instances, people who lose lands due to erosion may not have access to their newly emerged lands. The Land Record and Survey Department typically does not undertake surveys of newly emerged lands until they are stable and above the annual flood level. By the time they do, those who use and/or control the newly emerged lands by force become owners. There is a need to update and improve the policy framework to regulate erosion and accretioned lands in the country.

Finally, an estimated 15 to 20 million people live in chars in Bangladesh. They are the poorest of the poor in the country with limited or no development assistance and support. People living in chars are largely deprived of many of the development benefits and institutional support and assistance. There should be a national policy on char development in Bangladesh. In this regard, the experience of the Chars Livelihood Programme (CLP), which improved livelihood of one million extreme poor households on island chars in Gaibandha, Jamalpur and Sirajganj areas, should be instructive. A new national policy and a dedicated new institutional focal point such as a Char Development Authority may be established with a mandate for managing river erosion disasters and to provide the means for displaced persons to secure durable solutions and a better life.

Mohammad Zaman is a social safeguard/resettlement specialist and advisory professor, National Research Center for Resettlement, Hohai University, Nanjing, China. He carried out extensive ethnographic research on disaster and displacement in the Brahmaputra-Jamuna floodplain.


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