In Dhaka, Bangladesh, the Bhola Slum is a consequence of the many factors that have prompted people to migrate from traditional rural livelihoods to urban centers in the precarious hope that they will find safe haven and a brighter future.
Millions of people have migrated from rural communities to urban centers in recent years, a trend that is only accelerating.
Some migrations are voluntary and center around migrants’ strategies to decrease levels of financial instability, escape poverty, and secure greater economic opportunity. Yet, other migrants are often forced from their homes by conflict, prolonged political instability, persecution, natural disasters and climate change, and other conditions of insecurity.
The decision to migrate requires members of any household to make a tough calculation and weigh multiple factors. In the case of the Bhola Slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, history provides an example of the many reasons that cause people to leave rural lifestyles behind and make the move to urban centers.
Initial migration to the Bhola Slum can be traced back to a set of historic events in the early 1970s that coincided with the founding of Bangladesh. Named after Bhola Island, about 180 miles south of Dhaka, Bhola Slum is host to a stream of migrants who have been moving from their rural island home to the urban center of Dhaka for almost five decades.
Bhola Island sits in the delta of the Bay of Bengal where it has been buffeted by extreme events, both natural and man-made. On Nov. 12, 1970, a category five cyclone struck the island, killing an estimated 200,000 residents alone – almost one-fifth the total population. Considered one of the worst natural disasters of the last century, the official death toll across the greater Ganges Delta was between 500,000 and one million. Beyond the human losses, the devastation of the means to secure local livelihoods was absolute: 75 percent of rice crops, more than a million head of cattle and countless fishing boats were lost in the disaster. The response was tragically slow and ineffective.
Four months later, the Liberation War with East Pakistan broke out, in March 1971. This battle, which resulted in Bangladesh’s independence, was so brutal that it forced 10 million people to seek refuge in neighboring India. Nine months later, the war was won, but at terrific costs. Agricultural production suffered and 1974 brought terrible famine to the young nation.
All these events taken together contributed to the systemic tide of human migration that slowly created the Bhola Slum.
Since then, Bhola Island has succumbed to continued assaults on its territorial integrity and the flow of rural migrants to the capital continues. The low-lying area is fed by three of Asia’s most powerful rivers, which are experiencing increased glacial melt from the Himalayas as a result of rising temperatures, and in turn are leading to rising sea levels along the coast. Annual monsoon flooding, subsidence, cyclones, and riverbank erosion have resulted in the island losing half its actual land mass in the 40-year period between 1965 and 2005. The prognosis for the next three to four decades is one of continued land loss, such that this island may soon vanish.
Another issue impacting residents is a lack of economic opportunities as agricultural livelihoods are subjected to natural hazard events that wipe out crops and leave farmers heavily indebted.
The Bhola Slum provides insight into what the future might look like if rates of rural-to-urban migration across the globe continue to increase. The rapid pace of urbanization in cities has reduced the amount of available land and raised real estate prices – forcing those who come in search of better livelihood options to take refuge in overcrowded, hazardous urban slums. For the migrants who have come to this urban enclave, the choice of where to live is driven by practical considerations, such as the affordability of housing, proximity to employment, social networks and kinship ties. Affordability for the poor means a trade-off, as many are forced to accept great risks to be near an urban center where they hope to earn a stable income.
This dynamic of continuing expansion into risk zones is a challenge for governments, urban planners and development organizations. These informal settlements lack municipal services and infrastructure and feature unsafe construction practices. Coupled with conditions of extreme poverty, these settlements are highly susceptible to destruction from natural and man-made disasters. Lack of potable water, non-existent drainage systems, flood waters that mix with sewage flowing in the streets, and density that makes the threat of home fires a serious reality are all vulnerabilities that face settlements such as the Bhola Slum.
And so the question remains: Are the risks that migrants face shrinking or growing? We must do more by investing in resilient forms of basic infrastructure that meet the needs of growing populations, ensuring safe and affordable transport and access to better future livelihoods. We must provide the needed resources and hope for future waves of migrants that will continue to flow into our cities.