Creating New Land for Climate Refugees in Bangladesh

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Muhammud Yusuf tends a muddy, two acre farm in southeast Bangladesh. He's been here for six years, but a few decades ago, this land did not exist. It was underwater. This land area was created by silt that floats down rivers from the Himalayan mountains. Journalists William Wheeler and Anna Katarina-Gravgaard investigate this new land, and the impact it is having on climate refugees in the region.

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Anna-Katrinia Gravgaard: Mohammud Yusuf tends a muddy two acre farm in South East Bangladesh. He's been here for six years, but a few decades ago, this land did not exist; it was under water. This land area, in the Bangladeshi state of Norkeli, is created by silk that flowed down rivers of the Himalayan Mountains.

Yusuf and his family had to flee their original home, because of river erosion. They moved to this land, and put down roots.

It was a lot of jungle that had to be cut down first, he says. And life is not easy. Cyclones and floods often hit the area, and even on quiet days, tides often flood his field.

Pieter Terpstra, Water Management, Dutch Embassy: This is an area that came up about fifteen to twenty years ago. These are new islands that, because of the sedimentation, come out of the sea.

Gravgaard: Pieter Terpstra works in water management at the Dutch Embassy. The embassy is a long time collaborator with the local government's efforts to manage new lands created by siltation.

Terpstra: After maybe 15 years, people start settle in these new areas. They're completely unprotected. I mean, it's just a sand flat out of the sea. So, when there's a cyclone, or when there's storms, or, you know, just high water, they become flooded.

Gravgaard: The silt first gathers in large mud flats right above the coastline. Then, the forest department plants trees on it, to hold the fragile soil. It's supposed to stay like that for twenty years. But desperate settlers often move in early, and cut down the trees.

Terpstra: What we do, is we support the government of Bangladesh, to build embankments, and build roads, and cyclone shelters. And one very important aspect, is to give people land titles. So when they move –in fact they're illegal; because all new land is government land.

The Norkeli government is finishing a new dam to speed up the process of creating new land for settlers.

Bangladesh can use all the land it can find. It has one of the world's densest populations. 145 million people live in an area the size of the state of Illinois. But it also has more than its share of natural disasters, which force people to flee their homes.

And making matters worse, are predictions of rising sea levels due to climate change. Bangladesh can lose up to a third of its land.

In Mohammud Faruk's eatery, in [inaudible] two acres, there's a sense of victory with the battle against the elements.

Four months ago, Faruk signed the deed for the land he's been living on for twelve years.

With Dutch funding and know-how, the Bangladeshi government developed the char for Faruk and his wife, Zakia to live. The area now has an embankment, roads, ponds, schools, and cyclone shelters.

Zakia says that they now raise chicken, and farm fish here. They have the eatery, and grow bananas in the yard. Their children go to school.

Bangladesh is just starting to build more new land. Other dam projects in the works could create up to 400 square miles of land for new settlers in coming decades. Critics say it isn't a sustainable solution to Bangaldesh's many environmental catastrophes. But for settlers like Faruk and Zakia, the land has offered some relief.

And it shows that it is possible for the world poorest countries to adapt in the face of climate change.

Alphons Hennekens, The Netherlands' Ambassador to Bangladesh: Our understanding is that the process of siltation, and specifically when you're supporting it through creating, eh, dams, supporting dams, that the process is much faster than the increase in sea level.

Gravgaard: Yusuf says that he plans to divide his two acre parcel between his three sons when they grow up. But the river silt also brings hope that they too might find new lands for themselves. And win a small battle in Bangladesh's war with the elements.