Since independence almost fifty years ago, Bangladesh has taken strides in lifting people out of poverty, economically empowering women, and improving health and education. The economy has grown steadily and is set to advance from being the world’s 31st largest economy, to being the 23rd largest by 2050.
What threats does climate change pose to Bangladesh’s development now and in the future? And how is the highly vulnerable nation responding?
A Q&A with Kurshid Alam, Head of Resilience & Inclusive Growth and Assistant Country Director at the UN Development Programme in Bangladesh, on the impacts, risks, and action underway to prepare and protect.
Kurshid, in 2016, under the historic Paris Agreement now ratified by 178 nations, the world sought to limit global warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (in fact, to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees). With the world’s targets looking increasing aspirational, what risks does Bangladesh face now and in a world which is 2-3 degrees warmer?
Well, I think we need to start by first acknowledging what Bangladesh has to lose. It is through this lens that we best understand the risks.
Over the past decades, Bangladesh has made great progress in human development. For example, poverty has fallen from around 50 per cent of the population in 2000, to just over 30 per cent in 2010. Between 1990 and 2010, infant mortality has fallen by over 60%.
Our achievements are reflected in our recent graduation from ‘Least Developed Country’ status to that of being a middle-income country.
The key question is whether – with Bangladesh being a disaster-prone country, with clear trends towards more extreme weather in-line with climate change – we will continue to make progress at the same pace.
Last year, 2017, was a very unfortunate year – we faced five major disasters. Although at a national economic level they did not have huge impact, at the local level the shocks were very significant.
Climate change-driven disasters, such as recurring floods and cyclones, are setting communities back, destroying their assets and livelihoods.
Despite already dedicating significant resources, we are going to have to invest much more to safeguard against climate change-driven risks.
At UNDP our major focus is working with the Government to make sure that in a warming world, Bangladesh’s human development remains strong and that there’s an in-built ability to recover from disasters of all forms, including environmental/ecological emergencies.
What impacts are communities already experiencing?
There are four critical impacts, each with flow-on effects.
First, sea level rise. A UNDP and Department of Environment study in 2015 found the sea level is increasing at the sea-shore level from 6-20 mm a year. In relation to this, there are three major challenges:
- Crop loss – in some areas people are seeing reduced production or loss of their crops due to salinity intrusion, and finding that with the changed soil conditions, their land is no longer fertile;
- Impact on safe drinking water – the contamination of fresh water sources is exacerbating drinking water shortages;
- Health – the salinity increase is affecting people’s health, in particular pregnant women. Many women and girls travel 2-3 kilometres a day to collect water.
Second, shifting rainfall patterns. On one hand, in the dry zone, particularly in north Bangladesh, the dry season and dry spells are getting longer. Here, farmers, especially indigenous communities, – the lifeline of Bangladesh – are not getting enough water. On the other hand, distribution is changing. In some areas, intense rainfall in a short period of time is causing immense damage.
Third, more frequent and devastating tropical cyclones, being driven by warmer and higher seas.
Data collected by the Department of Disaster Management shows on average, 300,000 houses in Bangladesh are completely damaged/lost each year due to disasters. If cyclones intensify, more people will lose their homes and more people will slide back into poverty.
Fourth, migration. Faced with more frequent floods and storms and saltwater intrusion people are leaving their homes to move to the cities (where they must find alternative livelihoods). This is having flow-on effects. The flow of migrants to Dhaka and other urban centres is driving conflict over resources. Poverty is also increasing in urban areas.
Are any groups particularly vulnerable when it comes to the impacts of climate change?
The impacts of climate change do not discriminate between rich and poor – disasters can affect anyone. Yet without a doubt it is the poorest who are hit hardest, particularly those dependent on ecosystem-based livelihoods: farmers and fisherman. For a variety of reasons, ethnic minorities, women, and people with a disability have different vulnerabilities, and as such, very different needs for adaptation.
You mentioned that climate change has flow-on effects, for example increased conflict over resources? Could you give an example in which you have witnessed this?
One example is from the district of Khulna, where UNDP has supported coastal communities to build cyclone-proof housing.
Last year we visited communities to check on the project. We were pleased that during consultations, people told us that they were happy with their new resilient homes - however, in those discussions a new problem became apparent.
It emerged that, while resilient houses are a pressing concern, so too is the growing tension between local rice and shrimp farmers, over the use of scarce fresh water (due to increasing contamination by salinity). Unfortunately, the huge investment that the government is making to embank the area cannot always cope with mega and frequent cyclones.
People were asking us how they could better conserve fresh water from the rainy season, when canals which can preserve fresh water are being occupied by shrimp farmers.
Here you have an example of a conflict which is being exacerbated by climate change. You have one group who wants to conserve fresh water for rice farming and another group who need brackish water for shrimp farming.
To help find solutions to that conflict, we’re working with the Government to pilot and scale-up community-driven conflict resolution.
When you have a community process, when communities have the resources to resolve conflict, they can really do it.
What are the main challenges in addressing climate change in Bangladesh?
I think the main challenge today is achieving full implementation of the Paris Agreement, particularly with regards to mitigation.
Yes we agree that we need to keep the global temperature well below under 2 degrees Celsius – the problem is, we need far more contribution and commitment from all nations to keep that promise.
Even the two degrees target is a problematic one… Reducing emissions at the global scale, then, is the most important priority.
We also need to step-up global cooperation on technology transfer and the financing of mitigation, especially for the new groups of middle income countries where industrialisation and urbanisation are taking place at a faster pace.
We also need to focus on preparing and adapting our economies and communities. For a country like Bangladesh, the major priority here is the additional resources required.
What action is the Government taking to address climate change?
The commitment from the Government of Bangladesh to tackle climate change is there.
As reflected in domestic climate expenditure, the Government of Bangladesh is already investing a lot. In fact, of the money being spent by the Government of Bangladesh on climate change, over 70% is domestic climate finance (the remainder considered international climate finance).
UNDP is working with a number of Ministries (including the Ministry of Planning; the Ministry of Finance; the Ministry of Disaster Management; and the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives) to support the effective mobilisation of climate finance at the local and national levels; and to ensure climate change considerations are ‘mainstreamed’ into development. Also, when the Government is making an investment, they are also considering the risks related to climate change.
But it is not enough. In line with projections of increasing risk, we need to increase our investment – and this is where international climate finance needs to come in.
Of course, it’s not just financial resources we need to access, but also the transfer of new technology and knowledge (such as in salinity management systems, pollution control technology or cyclone-resistant housing). We need to have CO2 safe technology produced and shared as global public goods. Private sector-led research and development is key.
In addition to financial investment, the Government has developed a set of policies and processes to meet challenges, including the very ambitious ‘Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan’ (2009).
Bangladesh has created a domestic fund called the ‘Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund’ with about $400 million to help implement the action plan. The Government is formulating a ‘National Adaptation Plan’ which UNDP is going to support.
Last but not least, in submitting our ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC)’ to the UNFCCC in 2015, the Government has formalised an unconditional commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% from ‘Business as Usual’ levels by 2030 in the power, transport and industry sectors (and a conditional 15% reduction in emissions, subject to appropriate international support). The Government has made very specific commitments of how they are going to reduce Bangladesh’s carbon footprint.
Bangladesh has made huge investment in solar home systems with approximately four million systems distributed to homes across the country.
Recently the Green Climate Fund approved almost US$25 million in grant funding for a project seeking to enhance the capacities of coastal communities to cope with climate change induced salinity? What’s special about this project?
Well, in a nutshell, it’s about women.
In fact, the project is the single largest project worldwide focused on gender and climate change.
It is a project designed by women, to empower women. Led by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with support from UNDP, its activities will largely be implemented by women.
The project represents a paradigm shift in that, beyond leading its implementation, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs will be ensuring all development projects better integrate climate change considerations and pay attention to gender.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Department of Public Health and Engineering will be supported to innovate and find newer solutions that work for women, particularly in the areas of livelihoods and drinking water, ecosystem management, and capacity-building.
We’re very proud to be involved in this very timely and much-needed project.
What are some of the other initiatives UNDP is supporting in Bangladesh?
Through the ‘Inclusive Budgeting and Financing for Climate Resilience’ project, we’re helping the Ministry of Finance to mobilise more domestic resources; to enhance support for stakeholders through investing in both climate change adaptation and mitigation; and to better monitor how much they are spending on climate change.
Meanwhile, with the support of the EU and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) we’re also working with the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives to support local government institutions in responding climate change, including helping institutions and vulnerable households to access the knowledge, technology and financing needed to adapt.
We are also about to implement another project the National Resilience Programme with four ministries – including the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives – to look at infrastructure resilience. We’re working with the Ministry of Planning to include climate change and disaster risk in major investment plans; and also with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to bring in a gender dimension.
In another important project ‘Integrating Community-based Adaptation into Afforestation and Reforestation Programmes in Bangladesh’, we’re scaling up coastal resilience through forest management and adaptation activities.
The project, 2016 - 2020, focuses on three things – (1) expanding the quality and the coverage of the coastal afforestation programme (already supported by the Government); (2) providing the community with climate-resilient livelihoods and an incentive to become protectors of the forest (under the project people are given a piece of land and support to grow food, while also being required to look after the forest); and (3) expanding cyclone early warning systems.
Finally, we notice you tweet quite a bit. Why and how do you use Twitter in your work?
I’m a great believer in global citizenship. I tweet pieces of knowledge or information that I think are helpful for people who are trying to solve similar kind of problems. But my tweets also have a policy objective – reaching policymakers who are among my followers with the lessons and experiences of our everyday work.