Fleeing Catastrophe, Stuck in the Slums of Bangladesh

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Fleeing natural disasters that destroyed their villages, many Bangladeshis have moved to Dhaka's slums, where disease is on the rise.

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William Wheeler: Like many Bangladeshis, 25-year-old Hassi Bagem moved to the city because of environmental catastrophe.

One cyclone damaged her home, then a year later a second cyclone destroyed it. And in the flooding from the second storm, she says they lost everything. Along with her husband Fiross, Hassi moved to the slums of Dahka. Here, Fiross serves earns less than $2 a day as a rickshaw driver. Until she became pregnant, Hassi worked in a garment factory.

Each year, half a million people move to Dhaka looking for work. Like 40% of the city's population Fiross and Hassi live in the slums, where many of their neighbors share experiences of similar calamities.

Atik Rhaman, director of Bangladesh Institute for Advanced Studies, says that for villagers like Hassi, moving to the city is a last resort.

Atik Rhaman: People who feel threatened by the onslaught of depicted natural disasters, human induced natural disasters, absolute basic point, nobody. We have done research over a long period of time, nobody wants to leave their home.

Now, when they come here, they don't have a place to live; Dhaka is a highly populated, highly congested [city]. So these people live in areas which are called slum areas, areas where there is no running water, almost.

William Wheeler: Life in the slums hasn't been easy for Fiross; there are more bills to pay; little privacy, and sicknesses like dysentery and cholera.

Last year, Hassi joined the committee that took out a microloan for a water pump and latrine. The new facilities have made life easier, she says, and decreased the waterborne illnesses in the community. But she still plans to stay with family outside the city when it comes time to have her baby.

Climate change may already be playing a role in some of the disasters driving Bangladeshis from their homes. But its impact will likely be greater in the decades ahead. The Bangladesh Prime Minister recently told the world Climate Conference in Geneva, that 20 million Bangladeshis could need to be relocated by the year 2050.

Fiross' own hopes for the future are modest; a better job for himself, maybe as a store clerk and an education for their child. The possibility that more trouble could be coming his country's way makes him angry. Sometimes, he says, it seems that god is only troubling the poor people.