Easing the pressure on Dhaka

The second Annual National Conference on Urban Resilience was just held in Dhaka and in three days it brought together several hundred people from different sectors including the central government, local government, mayors and town planners, as well as researchers, academics, NGOs and private sector actors to discuss the future pathways to build urban resilience in Bangladesh.

While the first annual conference, held a year ago, focused mostly on the problems of life in cities as well as urbanisation, this year the discussions moved toward solutions to those problems.

I will not go into the many issues discussed and recommendations made, but will highlight the major overarching issues and propose one possible solution.

The first of the three main overarching problematic issues for Bangladesh is the population of the country, which, despite major gains in reducing the growth rate, is still headed towards well-over the 200 million mark within the next two decades. Most of these people will be young and in need of education and skills. A problem closely associated with this is the rapid rural to urban migration that is already taking place, which means that the country will have a 50 percent urban population in less than two decades.

The second overarching issue is that in Bangladesh, most of this rural-to-urban migration ends up in Dhaka, which is already the fastest growing mega-city in the world and will find it almost impossible to absorb more and more migrants.

The third and final overarching issue is climate change and its impacts, mainly in low-lying coastal areas. This will inevitably cause millions of people to eventually lose their livelihoods of farming and fishing due to climate change-induced sea level rise and force them to migrate to Dhaka.

Given this three-pronged set of overarching issues, one possible approach worth exploring is presented below.

We should consider investing in at least a dozen secondary cities to enable them to become climate resilient as well as migrant-friendly at the same time. If each of these dozen cities can welcome and provide productive citizenship to a million people, then the pressure on Dhaka will be relieved and future climate-induced migrants can migrate with dignity rather than under duress.

The concrete proposal to consider is to allow for a bottom-up, participatory approach from the secondary cities themselves rather than taking a top-down planning approach. This could be done through initiating a competition for all secondary towns to submit proposals for developing resilient city plans as well as an initial pilot project at the same time.

The towns could be given some initial funding to develop their proposals with some guidance on topics to be included and also to make it as participatory as possible. These proposals could then be evaluated by an expert committee which would then award each town with further funding to develop their resilience plan and pilot project proposal. The criteria for judgement would require both climate resilience and migrant friendliness to be addressed in each proposal.

The evaluation committee would then select the 10 or 12 best proposals and award each chosen town with funding to implement their pilot action proposal. If 40 towns participate in the competition and each town is awarded Tk 5 lakh to prepare their initial proposal, this would cost around Tk 2 crore.

Then, Tk 5 crore might be awarded per town to the cities for implementing their pilot action. If 10 or 12 towns are selected, this would require Tk 50 crore or Tk 60 crore respectively.

Hence this idea may require an allocation of around Tk 50–60 crore in total. This could quite easily be funded by the Bangladesh government’s own Climate Change Trust Fund for 2018/19.

Such a bottom-up competition would help unleash the talents and ideas of mayors and citizens of different towns around the country and enable the citizens of those towns to determine their own futures.

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