The young age of the low-lying island on the left, combined with the rainy and stormy seasonal conditions of the bay make it uninhabitable in the eyes of many. Much of the island is much wetter than islands that are typically habitable.

Thengar Char is barely above sea level and offers little to no protection from flooding and storms.
Thengar Char is barely above sea level and offers little to no protection from flooding and storms.
Image: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Compare the Bangladeshi island with Ye Insel, an island in Myanmar, using a measure known as the Modified Normalized Difference Water Index. Thengar Char, with index values near zero, reveals how wet the area is. Ye Insel, with index values less than zero, is solidly land.

Image for article titled The island Bangladesh is thinking of putting refugees on is hardly an island at all

Bangladesh’s ministries of foreign affairs, disaster management, and home affairs didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from Quartz. In April, Sajeeb Wazed, the country’s information technology adviser (and also the prime minister’s son), wrote a defense (paywall) of the Thengar Char plan in The Diplomat, vowing conditions would be much better than those that refugees presently experience:

Some news reports have falsely claimed that Thengar Char is completely submerged for part of the year, a baseless allegation that subjected the government to unwarranted criticism. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina dispatched a team of researchers to Thengar Char to closely examine its condition. The truth is that, as in any tidal region, waters rise and fall daily. As a result, a small percentage of Thengar Char—the coastline—is under water half of each day, at high tide, then exposed again at low tide. The vast majority of Thengar Char is never submerged.

The Bangladesh government will not build Rohingya settlement facilities in those areas of Thengar Char that are subject to tidal fluctuations. It is also doing its best to handle the influx of Rohingya people in the most humanitarian way.

The country could certainly take measures to re-enforce the island’s extent—currently around 20 square kilometres (8 square miles)—and build flood mitigation efforts. The Bangladesh Navy is supposed to be in charge of that, with a brief to build temporary housing for up to 70,000 Rohingya in the next two years, according to a report in the Dhaka Tribune. The Bangladesh Navy referred Quartz to Bangladesh media reports on navy responsibilities in the area. The decision to transfer refugees there or not ultimately rests with the government.

The plans for Thengar Char aren’t so different from measures Bangladesh has been taking on behalf of its own citizens. (A Reuters report quoted a village leader on a nearby island who said locals who have lost land to erosion should be given consideration for moving to Thengar Char ahead of the Rohingya.)

The country is currently in a seven-year joint project that began in 2011 with the Netherlands and the International Fund for Agricultural Development to improve life for people settling on five new char in the same district that Thengar Char is located in. The plan involves, among other components, building something called “polder embankments”—polder being the Dutch equivalent of char—to protect from storm surges. Bangladesh has been building these since the 1960s and 1970s, but recent research suggests that these earthen dikes may be making matters worse in the long-term by causing elevation loss since new silt can’t be deposited.

In the short-term, a report this year on the char development project noted that shifting tidal flows caused erosion (pdf, p8) that destroyed 8 km of newly built embankments in 2016, and that future shifts and erosion will be hard to predict or prevent.

As climate change threatens many parts of the country, Bangladesh has to make the most of the land it can recover from the water, whether on behalf of its own citizens, or those rejected by its neighbor. But making char suitable for anything beyond bare subsistence is easier said than done.

“No island is stable in the Meghna estuary,” said Sarker, the geomorphologist. “Erosion and accretion are very common phenomena.”

Read next: Where is Thengar Char?

More coverage: The Rohingya refugee crisis

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