“Soon 20 percent of the land of Southern Bangladesh may be gone forever” – An interview with ANM Safiqul Alam, MD of Geomark

Bangladeshi cities do not only have to face difficult climate conditions, but also increasing waves of urban migration and the problems associated with that. URBANET spoke to ANM Safiqul Alam, managing director of the software and planning company Geomark, about how Bangladesh is facing these challenges and why he is hopeful for the future of the country. 

URBANET: Could you describe the situation in Bangladeshi cities at the moment, what are the challenges that they are facing?

Urbanisation in Bangladesh is moving very fast. It currently lies at 28 per cent and we are expecting to reach 40 per cent within 20 years. So it is a huge challenge for us. But while urbanisation is on the rise, we have very few urban centres in Bangladesh. We have the mega city of Dhaka, but the rest are towns and smaller cities. In total we have about 570 small urban growth centres, but they do not all attract a large amount of migration. Migration especially happens due to flooding and erosion, so this is actually a really extreme case. Nowadays, we are affected by climate migration, due to the rising sea level. Soon 20 per cent of the land of Southern Bangladesh may be gone forever.

So cities are preparing themselves for large-scale urban migration: about three quarters of the urban population in the South is prospected to migrate to the North. This is a huge exodus, and there are many related problems, such as the provision of housing, water, infrastructure and management; it will be a mess to some extent. But the good thing is that the people do not actually rely on the government supply side. They come up with their own solutions all the time on how to deal with these situations and adapt quickly to new circumstances. If you go to Dhaka, you will find that there are lots of people roaming around, working, so, to some extent this kind of massive urban growth is very good for migrants to earn their everyday life. So this is a positive aspect of the urbanisation process.

URBANET: And what is your development goal for Bangladesh in the next five years?

In the next five years we mainly have fiscal development goals; our government has fixed a target to become a middle income country by 2021. We currently have an average per capita income of 1500 US Dollars and we are trying to increase it to up to 5000 US Dollars. As you know, the garment industry makes up a large part of our economy, and this industry is based on young girls – not men – from the rural areas, and they are the actual driving force right now. The government is trying to provide them with shelter, as well as food and to some extent help for their physical fitness. So, women are actually the driving force for the next wave of urbanisation. If we can address the women, the working force in a good way, train them in a good way, then I think the urban future will be bright enough.

URBANET: You mentioned that Bangladesh is very much affected by climate change What’s being done to make cities more resilient, and how are the people involved in that process?

We have a different kind of scenario. Pretty much all cities are suffering from the floods. The roads in Bangladesh are on embankments, so what happens during flooding is that people migrate temporarily from the lower areas to the roads and wait there for a week or two before going back to their homes. This is actually happening, but it’s not how it should be. The government is taking extensive measures for example by building so called polders which is not very expensive, however maintaining them is very expensive. So after each and every flood, we need to have a very large incentive to maintain the roads and everything because we only have hard roads, hard mountain roads, that are not good enough to prevent a flood. That is the problem.

URBANET: And what’s being done specifically to protect the urban poor, in Bangladesh, specifically the homeless?

Within our fiscal seven-years-plan we are actually focusing on the urban poor. One of the measures taken by the government is to provide them with housing; families have been allocated in units of forty to fifty square metres for which they can take up a loan over 20 years with very low interest rates. If, for example, two parties in a family work and have an income, they deposit 1200 Taka – about 2.5 US Dollars – to the bank every day. After 20 years, they will own that unit. So this is the actual pilot project run by the national housing authority. Earlier this year, the government approved a new housing policy focusing on the working poor, so that is another scheme in the pipelines.

For the rural area, there is a separate project that is called One House One Farm. We are not only providing houses, we are providing economic activity at the same time. So for each house, one farm house is being built, which means that people can live on the farm but at the same time make a living there. These are only two schemes that address the poor, particularly in areas of land erosion and flooding.

URBANET: And do you think local governments have enough means like financial resources, and enough capacities to respond quickly and efficiently to the needs of the citizens? Or should they be given more responsibility, more money by the national government?

This is a crucial question, because urbanisation is proceeding very fast, but in terms of administration we are only just starting out. So local governments do not have the resources to fund all those scenarios. They heavily depend on the national government. So for now, it is a top-down approach, but hopefully within five years local governments will be well equipped and have their own financial means.

Safiqul Alam

Safiqul Alam

Managing director at Geomark
Safiqul Alam is the managing director and CEO at the software and planning company Geomark Limited. He holds an M.Phil in Urban Geography from Dhaka University.
Safiqul Alam