Onlookers watch as smoke bellows from a massive fire that broke out a day before in a beverage and food factory in Rupganj in the district Narayanganj on July 9, 2021 that claimed dozens of lives. (Photo by MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
WHEN 15-year-old Tarek Zia left his home on Bangladesh’s coast in June and travelled 150 km to work at a food-processing factory in Dhaka, he was filled with hope.
The extra money felt like a godsend after the loss of his father’s precious farmland over the years to river erosion and an ever-encroaching shoreline.
But a month later, a massive fire raged through the six-storey building where Zia worked, killing him along with more than 50 others.
Officials said the factory had been built without permission and lacked adequate safety measures, such as emergency fire exits.
Zia’s charred body was handed over to his family last week, after a DNA test confirmed his identity.
“My son went to work because school was closed due to the pandemic and he wanted to support us … but fate had other plans,” said Zia’s father Abul Bashar, who lives on an island in Hatia in southeast Bangladesh.
“Four years ago we had land where we could grow vegetables and daal (lentils). But we lost that to river erosion and now we are back to zero … We moved our house away from the river a few years ago but today the river is right next to us once again.”
Zia was not the only victim of the July 8 tragedy to have been driven out of his rural home by the worsening impacts of the climate crisis to search for work in the capital.
Family members of four of the 10 victims of the factory fire said their livelihoods had also been hit by river erosion and floods.
As a low-lying country crisscrossed with rivers, Bangladesh has always been susceptible to rising seas.
The country of 160 million people is one of the nations most at risk from the impacts of rising global temperatures, with melting glaciers in the Himalayas to the north posing a particular risk to the crops, fields and homes downstream.
Migration to escape rising sea waters in Bangladesh’s coastal regions is set to accelerate in coming years, and according to the American Geophysical Union, an international scientific group, could affect 1.3 million Bangladeshis by 2050.
“Migration takes place because of many reasons and climate change-induced extreme events is one of them,” said Atiq Rahman, a climate researcher who heads the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS).
“Thousands of people move from rural areas to cities after floods, increase in salinity or when their land goes underwater because that’s their main source of earning. But when they go to a new place, they lack the skills to get decent jobs,” he added.
Dhaka, with the highest number of jobs, is the most popular destination. Yet it is also the fourth least liveable city in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Global Liveability Index.
Management of future migration flows will require creating job opportunities away from overcrowded cities like Dhaka and Chattogram, with their poor sanitation and inadequate housing, and equipping other towns to receive climate refugees.
“We are working on promoting this … and have identified about 20 towns that can absorb climate migrants of the future, so that they don’t end up in the slums of Dhaka,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.
Rahman stressed the need for a system to identify climate migrants, track their movements and problems, and form strategies to assist them.
“For instance, if an area gets inundated, we need to know where the residents are most likely to go with their family and their cows. Once a system is established we can provide them with food and other support,” Rahman said.
Currently, migrants mostly end up in slums in cities and receive support informally from their relatives, he said.
In January, the Bangladesh government published a strategy to support internally displaced people as part of its National Plan for Disaster Management over the next five years.
It includes creating jobs outside urban areas, ensuring the rights of the displaced and working on their integration into local communities.
More details on how the plan will be implemented are due to be released later this year, according to an official from Bangladesh’s ministry of disaster management and relief.
In the short term, more can be done to prevent disasters like the fire which killed Zia.
Labour experts say the government must ensure stringent safety standards are met by factories, which draw countless climate migrants from across Bangladesh every year and manpower to properly monitor the factories must be boosted.
“When it comes to regulating these industries, the government’s strength needs to improve,” said Tasnim Siddiqui, who heads the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit.
For Hasanuzzaman Sarkar, 65, whose daughter died in the factory fire, the pain is unbearable. He lost almost all his land in the flood-prone region of Gaibandha in northern Bangladesh due to river erosion in the last decade. Despite struggling to provide for his family, he managed to ensure that his daughter finished school.
The 20-year-old had joined the factory temporarily in March to support her father.
“She was my youngest and I had a lot of hope. She could have done something big,” said Sarkar over the phone, bursting into tears. “But God didn’t listen to us.”