Climate change: Bangladesh is where it is at. Rohini Kamal shows the way. 

Debates on climate change are often dominated by heated commentary from the West on its impending peril calling it the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. But here in Bangladesh, climate change is not a threat – it is an ongoing reality.  In our reality, it is a slow compounding of already familiar struggles.

The worst impacts from climate change, in the form of heat stress, increased salinity, and erratic rainfall, play out within familiar struggles. They include calls for fair wages and working conditions. Improvements needed in the working environment  include a heightened need for water breaks and cooling – especially for those working outside or in enclosed cooking areas. These needs have now intensified in a hotter climate. 

Elsewhere in the workforce, heat stress, salinity, and rainfall compound farmers’ struggles against falling agricultural returns and land impacts from construction and development initiatives. The familiarity of these ongoing struggles exacerbates the risk of a continuance in our usual inadequate response to demands for better working and living conditions. 

So Bangladesh is facing climate change impacts full on. Not only are there physical changes, but socioeconomic fault lines are also being opened up. Economically marginalised communities continue to suffer from strains including unstable agricultural income, volatile pricing of their produce or the option of taking up urban job prospects.

Rising sea levels have left their agricultural grounds with high salinity making them less fertile. Moreover, hasty and unplanned urbanisation has left areas with inadequate drainage systems and further saltwater intrusion from export-based aquaculture have made their problems worse. So they are often pressured to sell land for less than market value and are routinely threatened with fake cases that take years and large sums of money to resolve.

Salinity in southwest Bangladesh

Increased salinity has been one of the greatest impacts of climate change in Bangladesh. While rising sea levels are a major cause of it, aquaculture has been another significant contributor.

Shrimp and crab farming for export has been hugely profitable and dubbed “white gold”. Large swathes of land have been bought, sometimes forcibly occupied, for this industry. In more recent years, saltwater aquaculture has been packaged as a climate change adaptation.

But affected coastal populations often cite aquaculture enclosures as being the main cause of increased salinity and have organised protests against them. They have resulted in the murder of protestors by shrimp farm owners.

Meanwhile, increased salinity from rising sea levels is often seen to bring the most negative impacts. The resulting loss of arable land and drinking water has had far reaching consequences for the lives and livelihoods of coastal populations. In truth, the impacts from increased salinity remain regardless of its source.

And successful pushbacks against shrimp aquaculture have resulted in reduced salinity and increased agricultural production, increased access to drinking water, reducing the overall vulnerability of the most vulnerable communities.

We may all be in the same storm, as the saying goes, but we are not in the same boat.

Access to land and natural resources are age-old issues, but with the added risks of climate change, they have become more complex. And the stakes are higher – we may all be in the same storm, as the saying goes, but we are not in the same boat. Those worst affected by climate change will also be those who are most vulnerable in Bangladesh’s socioeconomic hierarchy. 

Climate vulnerable women from ultra poor households

One of the groups most vulnerable to climate change impacts are women from ultra poor households in southwestern Bangladesh. The vulnerability of these women arises not only from repeated disasters leading to massive health and housing damage costs, but also from limited work and limited social connections faced by women in these communities.

Women have few livelihood options, bringing limited access to resources to deploy in response to disasters. Women who do manage to find work in these regions have to deal with harassment and social stigma. Moreover, in these remote areas, the wage for women can be as low as half that of men’s.

Another gender-related obstacle for women is in the limited ownership of, and access to, cell phones. Disaster warnings in remote areas are often given through cell phones. This has vastly reduced some of the worst impacts of disasters in hard-to-reach areas. However, added to their poor access to cell phones, women are mostly in their homes while men are more likely to be in more connected areas due to their work. This means that women often miss early warnings.

Meanwhile global conversations often focus on solutions using cutting-edge technologies like carbon sequestration or turning to Mars. But they often fail to address the question of access. Those high-tech measures are unlikely to have any relevance to the most vulnerable and the question of strengthening social-safety nets, such as food assistance and disaster relief,  or ensuring rights and the ability to organise get left out.

Those poorest members of society who are most impacted by climate change are not only unable to access solutions, but also to identify and solve their challenges. So without strengthened communities, even our best, highest-tech defences against climate change will fail.

Safety nets and solutions, then, are only part of the equation. Another part is the need to strengthen the methods by which the most vulnerable can gain access to them and participate in them. Achieving that requires that we seek guidance from the people who have borne the brunt of climate change impacts to date. They are the most likely sources for practical solutions so policymakers must look to amplify their voices and provide them with risk response tools. 

Those tools might include giving vulnerable communities greater mobilisation; providing greater social safety nets; and more effective mechanisms for us to learn from lived experiences of climate impacts. 

Embankment maintenance in Polder 22

A system of embankments in the south west region of Bangladesh provide great protection against storms, flood, and saltwater intrusion. But recent impacts from these disaster events were greatly exacerbated by a breach in these embankments following poor maintenance.

Part of this issue is that response systems in place for addressing maintenance are not adequate, and bureaucracy adds delay. Furthermore, there have been allegations of corrupt misuse of funds and of the government agency responsible being constrained in terms of human resources.

Despite these challenges, grassroots mobilisation following the 2020 Hurricane Amphan provided a remarkable example of how local ownership and response mechanisms can work. One of the areas badly affected by the cyclone was Polder 22 in Paikgacha, Khulna. The cyclone breached the embankment in the polder, which was poorly maintained, causing it to cave in. Under the leadership of landless groups, locals rallied together to repair the breached embankments and plan for the aftermath of the storm. This , significantly reduced, losses in crops, housing repair, and health impacts compared with nearby regions where the breach was left unattended.

Doers have to be the academics’ teachers.

Ultimately the iteration between learning and doing could hold the solutions to the real-world problems brought by climate change. And the onus of enhancing that lies with academics through research and action. But doers have to be the academics’ teachers.

People whose lives and livelihoods are most tied to the elements, to the soil and water and the climate, can offer the best lessons on what will work on the ground. We need to acknowledge that technologies do not hold the complete answer; we need to consider also, how vulnerable people will access any given technology and the underlying restrictions to that access. But that would run counter to the current direction of flow in advice and learning.

In global forums like the annual Conference of Parties (COPs), wealthy countries who derive their high-income levels from carbon-emitting activities hold talks with low-emitting, poor nations like Bangladesh… But the most vulnerable people remain largely ignored in these dialogues.

In global forums like the annual Conference of Parties (COPs), wealthy countries who derive their high-income levels from carbon-emitting activities hold talks with low-emitting, poor nations like Bangladesh. The dialogues include setting targets to mitigate emissions, or exploring the possibilities of wealthy nations paying compensation for their historic contribution to climate change. Some progressive politicians push for state ownership of the energy and power sector to mitigate emissions but most fossil-fuel assets are already publicly-owned.

But the most vulnerable people remain largely ignored in these dialogues. 

Communities see red over green ventures
Conservation efforts and environmental projects can exclude marginalised communities and lower income groups, the very people most vulnerable to environmental degradation and climate change. Corporations are now using environmentally-sustainable projects to exclude these communities from access to natural resources and their livelihoods. Recent instances of exclusion include: ongoing tensions between the Garo indigenous communities and local authorities over building a lake in Madhupur, Tangail and between the Mro community over the building of a eco resort in Bandarban. In neighbouring India, small and marginal farmers in Assam protested forceful land acquisition to build a solar plant.

Providing climate-vulnerable nations with more resources to reduce climate risks is a step in the right direction. But without strengthening the systems that meet the needs of the most vulnerable, it is not sufficient. Often, we see that the interests of national governments do not always align with the needs of the most vulnerable. Local populations have taken to the streets in protest when their way of life and resources have been threatened, whether it is the coal power initiative in Dinajpur, Bangladesh, or the large-scale solar project in Rajasthan, India. Meanwhile discussions about climate change often fall short of addressing their rights and interests.

Therefore, taking a holistic approach to combating climate change is key. The approach should not only address the issue of power dynamics, but also the interests of communities, citizen participation, and grassroots mobilisation. 

Rohini Kamal

Rohini joined BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Brac University as Research Fellow, and is leading Environment and Climate Change research. She is also an Assistant Professor for the …

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