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Putting Mongla on the Map: The Curious Case of a Coastal Secondary City’s Transformation

22 Apr 2021

  • Authors: Feisal Rahman, Laura Kuhl

Putting Mongla on the Map: The Curious Case of a Coastal Secondary City’s Transformation
The UNRISD project Transformative Adaptation to Climate Change in Coastal Cities seeks to increase understanding of transformative adaptation and improve adaptation decision making in the context of two Southeast Asian coastal cities, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta. This contribution is meant to extend the inquiry beyond these two cities, illustrating the relevance of questions of justice, transformation and adaptation in other (coastal) places, too.

Transformations—social, political and economic—are occurring around the world for many reasons. While mega-cities are often sites of dramatic transformation, fascinating transformations are occurring in smaller coastal cities around the world as well. Although the term is contested, transformation is often characterized in terms of three dimensions: (i) the intensity or quality of the change (depth of change); (ii) the distribution of change (breadth of change); and (iii) the timeframe through which a change occurs (speed of change). Secondary cities play a particularly important role in regional economies and shape the lived experience of millions of urban residents, but rarely receive the same attention as larger cities. Yet the smaller scale of these cities creates unique opportunities to pilot novel approaches and ensure inclusivity in processes of transformation. At the same time, secondary cities face additional constraints, particularly financial, that are not as readily apparent in larger cities. In this post, we will explore these opportunities and constraints by looking at the secondary city of Mongla, a coastal city in Bangladesh.

Transformations can be driven by deliberate decisions and planning, or can be the unintended results of economic, social and ecological change. Due to the complexity of urban contexts, a transformation process is usually characterized by both intentional and unintentional transformations. Sometimes these transformations are positive, leading to more prosperous, vibrant, sustainable cities, but there is no guarantee that this will be the case; too often transformation processes leave the most vulnerable behind and fail to address the full range of social needs.

Transformation on the ground—What has happened in Mongla

Mongla, a port town in southwestern coastal Bangladesh,
located 62 km north of the Bay of Bengal and 18 km upstream on the river Poshur, has undergone significant transformations in the past 10 years. The “gateway” to the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, Mongla is now a booming city, home to the second largest seaport in Bangladesh and an export processing zone (EPZ). The processes of transformation in Mongla, their dynamics and dramatic nature, are informative for urban transformation in other coastal contexts, small and secondary cities in particular. Mongla’s experience demonstrates how investments in infrastructure, particularly protective infrastructure that addresses climatic vulnerabilities, can enable significant economic growth and transform the urban experience. Lessons from Mongla point to the potential for positive transformation of secondary cities, but also the challenges of ensuring inclusive and just transformations.

The speed and breadth of Mongla’s transformation are impressive. Visitors from even 10-15 years ago would hardly recognize the city today. Once a muddy, messy and highly flood-vulnerable city, today Mongla has graduated to the highest category “Class-A Municipality” in the three-tiered ranking system for urban areas outside of the large city corporations in Bangladesh. The town, whose residents previously left in search of greater opportunities, now attracts significant numbers of migrant workers, and the population has increased nearly three-fold in the past decade to about 110,000. Reasonable living costs, low crime rates, and clean fresh air make Mongla an attractive place to live.

How did this transformation occur? While many factors have coalesced to contribute to Mongla’s transformation, several key investments paved the way for this dramatic transformation. Mongla’s geography plays a key role. The city has capitalized on its strategic coastal location to become an economic hub, as the seaport and EPZ are central to economic growth and job opportunities. These are the same geographic characteristics that once held Mongla back from its potential: due to its proximity to the coast, Mongla used to get flooded by tidal water twice daily.

Authorities in Mongla have invested in flood-control embankments and two flood-control gates, 11 kilometers of pedestrian-friendly riverside brick pathways, an improved road network, a drainage system, and a freshwater treatment and distribution system. These infrastructural improvements, along with factories and blue-collar job opportunities, and public services such as affordable housing (although with rising land prices, housing may become unaffordable in the future), schools and hospitals, have transformed the city. Other innovations, such as closed-circuit cameras and a public address system which can be used by the municipality and community organizations to communicate inclement weather and other important information, have also increased safety and well-being. Indications of economic growth as well as gentrification can be observed, including the construction of new apartment towers and a touristic watchtower overlooking the Sundarban mangroves.

Figure 1. Map of Mongla Port Municipality (map created by ICCCAD-CIM project funded by PROKAS-British Council; used with permission from ICCCAD)

Drivers of Mongla’s transformation

Mongla’s transformation appears to be primarily due to investments in essential infrastructure. However, in secondary cities where authorities are typically constrained by the availability of funding, such investments rarely happen without the influence of other drivers.
Urban transformations depend on who has the power to act. In the case of Mongla, the commitment of local authorities, particularly the previous Mayor Zulfiqar Ali and his city council, and the local civil society have played a key role. The current mayor who recently assumed the role promises to continue to the efforts of his predecessor.

Mongla’s transformation cannot be understood only by looking at the transformation dynamics within the city itself; broader regional dynamics create enabling conditions and catalyse transformation. The anticipated completion of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge in 2022—the country’s longest bridge over the mighty Ganges—has driven significant investment in Mongla. The bridge, which will connect the southern part of the country with the capital Dhaka, is expected to further enhance already growing business at Mongla’s port. More broadly, the central government’s vision and decision to develop the Mongla port and establish the EPZ were essential for rejuvenating life and livelihoods in the town. Although primarily locally driven, occasional support from donors and other external agencies has also facilitated Mongla’s transformation.

Transformations on the scale and complexity of the changes in Mongla don’t happen automatically; they are better understood as the coalescence of multiple enabling conditions. Power dynamics, particularly across scales, can never be ignored. The critical role played by numerous actors in Mongla’s transformation points to the importance of alignment between local and national actors and their priorities. While the previous mayor has rightly received significant attention for his role, without the central government’s support, his ability to enable transformation would have been significantly constrained. Even when they do occur, transformations are rarely without contestation, and there are always winners and losers in the transformation process. For example, as the city grows, it is also possible that the city will become too expensive for some of the current residents. Also the natural environment around the city will likely be under more duress from industrial activities.

Look ahead to the future: Negotiating the conflict between growth and sustainability

While Mongla has already undergone many changes, more changes are coming, not all of which are desirable. The industrial area is across the river Mongla from the town center, and every day at rush hours the river is jammed with crowded ferries where passengers stand shoulder to shoulder. The town’s reputation is spreading, and land prices have already skyrocketed in anticipation of industrial developments, which could have
negative implications for the affordability of the city. Given the city’s proximity to the Sundarbans there are also plans to build the city as a tourism hotspot. These changes, all indicative of Mongla’s growing economic success and desirability, threaten to undermine the sustainability of the transformation and could lead to unintended negative consequences for residents and the environment.

Figure 2: Mongla residents heading off to their workplaces during morning rush hour (Photo Credit: Hanna Ruszczyk, Durham University)

Despite substantial investments in infrastructure in Mongla there is still considerable room for improvement. Given the elevated salinity around Mongla, access to fresh drinking water remains one of the key challenges. The city’s piped water supply system has increased from one-third to half the city’s households, but the other half—particularly those in the low-income neighbourhoods and informal settlements—still lack access to piped water.

In the urban planning discourse, physical infrastructure receives much more attention for reducing risk associated with flooding or climatic vulnerabilities, whereas equity, inclusion and justice issues—especially those related to the poor and marginal groups—are often overlooked. A recent study observed that low- and middle-income families in Mongla without guaranteed income disproportionately suffered from food insecurity as result of the COVID-19 lockdown-induced loss of income. It remains to be seen how Mongla’s transformation process can incorporate and prioritize questions of vulnerability and social justice.

Another challenge that Mongla faces is that, as the industrial growth around the city continues, existing and future infrastructure may not be viable in the face of climate change-related impacts. Mongla is considered a climate-vulnerable region. Changes in the city should be in line with these projections, or their sustainability will be threatened. The Sundarbans region in Bangladesh is a contradictory terrain where threats from climate change collide with planned economic growth and development; it serves as a bellwether of the tensions between adaptation and development that cities around the world will face. As the gateway to the Sundarbans, the ongoing and future transformation in Mongla will be a preview of how the conflict will be negotiated in practice.

About the Authors
Feisal Rahman is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Living Deltas Research Hub, Department of Geography, Durham University. Laura Kuhl is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the International Affairs Program, Northeastern University.

The map of the Mongla Port Municipality was originally generated by the Climate Induced Migration project, implemented by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The project was funded by the British Council Dhaka and PROKAS. The map is reproduced with permission from ICCCAD, which is gratefully acknowledged.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.