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Social and Environmental Change in Bangladesh

About the ISEE Bangladesh Project

This collaborative research effort brings together social scientists, physical scientists, and engineers to investigate the critical interactions between natural and human systems that motivate the movement of large numbers of people using an Integrated Social, Environmental, and Engineering (ISEE) model. As a heavily populated, low-lying coastal nation, Bangladesh supports a mobile but adaptive population that is susceptible to numerous natural hazards, including widespread seasonal flooding, river erosion and channel avulsions, groundwater salinization, land loss from sea level rise, and recurrent cyclones. Within this context we seek to couple the human-social dimensions of migration behavior with a realistic understanding of the physical environment and its modification by humans, particularly where these facets intersect in profound and unpredictable ways. Particular goals of the project are (1) to understand environmental factors that affect household decisions to migrate permanently; (2) to understand the social, political, economic, and environmental factors that affect household and community resilience and strategies for adaption (including temporary migration); (3) to determine how these factors differ within and across particularly vulnerable social and environmental landscapes of Bangladesh; and (4) to assess how these variables interact and co-evolve to define the continually changing relationship between humans and their environment.


Why Bangladesh?

Bangladesh is a young nation with a long history of human suffering, yet ingenuity and resilience emerge in the face of poverty, environmental change, and natural disaster. Within a small geographic extent – 160 million Bangladeshis live in an area the size of Iowa – the country exhibits diverse human-environmental exposures that are representative of many low-lying coastal areas of South Asia. The poverty rate has been declining and now includes only about one-third of the population, a success due in part to a 5-6% annual economic growth rate for the last decade. These gains have come despite internal political turmoil and devastating natural disasters that occur regularly. Since the 1970 Bhola cyclone and War of Independence and 1971 famine that followed, Bangladesh has been a country of continuous research and policy innovation in the area of sustainable development in a context of environmental instability. Its present environmental and social landscape make Bangladesh embody the ONR-MURI call to consider low-lying economically challenged countries, where social and political instability has manifested in recent conflict and remains a not-too-far-removed threat.

Bangladesh and its deltaic landscape exhibit a broad range of environmental, economic, and social circumstances that are relevant to many nations in South and Southeast Asia. In the southeast, refugees from Burma who migrated because of cyclone Nargis (2008) co-mingle with past generations of Arakan migrants and indigenous Hill Tracts populations in a context of flash floods and coastal exposure to cyclones and storm surges. To the west, near the Indian border, communities with significant Hindu/Muslim diversity have transformed a locally based agricultural economy into a place of industrial shrimp farming resulting in increased salinity of the groundwater. As a result, farmers unsustainably purchase bottled water or develop rain catchment systems. In between, a dynamic population survives on a terrain of changing shorelines, declining fisheries, and tourism. Migrants both enter the region from the east and exit the region to seek work in urban areas, primarily Dhaka. Finally, much of the country’s success at feeding its population and improving its livelihood has been due to environmentally responsive developments in agriculture and growing export fueled by increasing urban production industries. The growing megacity of Dhaka has been leading the economic growth, but urbanization has put unsustainable pressure on the water supply. Therefore, because each of these settings have experienced multiple catastrophes – floods, cyclones, arsenic – that mirror many of those affecting the broader region, the land seems unable to sustain the population at level of security needed to maintain long-term stability.

In sum, Bangladesh is increasingly affected by the longer-term strain of encroaching sea level, land subsidence, and access to safe groundwater and their convergence with an increasingly dense coastal population. It is a place where environmental stresses are growing alongside of society’s capacity to deal with them – which, though, will control the future? On these issues the Bangladesh government and public provide are being proactive in trying to limit the impacts of future environmental change through national programming, exemplified by the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan through the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. This program involves strategies aimed at the coupled human-environment landscape. Under what conditions do people turn to the government and non-government organizations for solutions? Under what conditions do individuals, households, or even whole communities choose to migrate in an effort to secure their livelihood. What effects do social factors (such as communal ties) and environmental events (such as cyclones) have on decisions of whether and where to migrate and for how long?

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