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Disasters drive mass migration to Dhaka

When describing why they came, migrants tell stories of flood and famine.

GUNARGATI, Bangladesh — For three generations, the farmer’s family cultivated the rich silt alongside the mighty Brahmaputra River. It took only one monsoon flood to carry his fields away.

“My land just broke and went into the water,” said Abdur Rahim, 32, recalling the day in 2007 when his home washed downstream.

“I lost everything.” Rahim’s gaunt face scanned the broad river bend where he once grew rice. “I want to stay here but it’s impossible.”

Nearly every year, such disasters trigger mass migrations into the teeming streets of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. When describing why they came, migrants tell stories of flood and famine in quiet rural towns where options dwindle by the day. These villagers pour into Dhaka at a rate of about 400,000 each year. While many are pulled by the promise of jobs, Mother Nature is also giving them an unyielding push.

Bangladesh sits on one of the largest river deltas on earth, a fragile landscape of braided streams and muddy lowlands where cyclones and rising sea levels drive people from coastal hamlets every year. Pressures to migrate exist inland, too. Each monsoon season, there are floods from snowmelt off the distant Himalayas that shift the course of rivers, consuming whole villages and farms.

As global temperatures inch upward, researchers say the frequency of cyclones, the intensity of seasonal flooding and the salinity of Bangladesh’s coastal river mouths are all on the rise.

“Has this been caused uniquely by climate change? Is that the only reason? Difficult to say, but definitely it is a major contribution,” said Atiq Rahman, a climate and migration specialist with the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, a Dhaka think tank.

The changes are likely to push still more villagers towards the Bangladeshi capital each year. Standing on a recent afternoon by the river that took his farm, Abdur Rahim told a visitor, “within a week, I want to move my family to Dhaka.”

He’d tried his luck in the city once before, in 2005. Rahim spent a year pulling a rickshaw for about $2.50 per day, passing his nights in a vast slum. He came back here, he said, to farm and live again on ground that was his own. Rahim’s surplus crop made him only between $10 and $15 per month — but there were no grocery bills, no rent to pay.

This is Part 3 of our five-part series looking at Dhaka, Bangladesh and the rise of the megacity. Read (and watch) on:

Part One: Dhaka: the fastest growing megacity in the world

Part Two: The dreams of Dhaka's garment girls

Part Four: Looking on the bright side of Earth's growing slums

Part Five: Who can solve a problem like Dhaka?

Ask Rahim whether he prefers the city to the countryside and there’s a pause. Questions like these come from a standpoint of luxury. “If I can earn enough, I like Dhaka,” he said, tersely. “If I can’t earn enough, I don’t like it.”

After the river swept their land away, the family moved to the opposite bank of the river and rented a shack of bamboo and corrugated metal. For about $10 per month, they get a single room that can be crossed in two strides.

Rahim shares the windowless, mud-floored home with his wife Shapla, 28, their son, Shahadat, 4, and their 5-month-old daughter, Ashanroni.

He pays for the place by driving a rented rickshaw, making about a dollar a day whenever villagers are willing to pay for rides. “I can’t save a penny,” he said.

Visitors to their household could catalogue the contents of the place in a glance: One sleeping palate; two blankets; three flattened pillows; a tiny oil lamp. Spare clothes hung on twine.

Shapla showed a visitor the burlap rice bags that will serve as luggage when it comes time to pack for Dhaka. “It will be a matter of a day,” she said. The move — including bus tickets and the initial cost of setting up a slum household — will run them about $45 dollars, borrowed from relatives and paid back over half a year.

Migrants in Dhaka often say better wages are luring them to town. Shapla said she has something more basic in mind — food.

Facing dwindling options in a rural village, Abdur Rahim, 32, said his family will soon move to Dhaka. (Erik German/GlobalPost)

She tended a dung fire under a spindly mango tree on a recent afternoon, preparing one of the two meals the family eats each day — chopped snow peas, eggplant and garlic, cooked with a splash of oil. Buying fish or meat is unthinkable, Shapla said. Her first question upon greeting strangers was whether they could spare anything to eat for her thin-armed, large-eyed son.

“When he tells me he’s hungry, I try to bring him food after work,” Rahim said. “But if I can’t buy any food, he has to live with the hunger.”

Shapla said she’s apprehensive about leaving the neighbors she’s known her whole life, but friendship can’t feed her children.

“I feel terrible, but we have to leave everyone we know, all our relatives and neighbors, and take our kids to an alien place,” she said. “We’ve got no choice.”

Editor's note: Join us on Sept. 24 at Noon (ET) for a live conference call with reporter Erik German. The third world's sprawling megacities are typically viewed as hopelessly blighted. But could they actually be good for the environment? What German found is surprising. To join the call, become a GlobalPost Member today by clicking here.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/asia/100831/bangladesh-megacities-part-three-migrant