Notes from the Field

International Environment Experts Take Lessons from Coastal Bangladesh

April 20, 2011

On March 26, Bangladesh celebrated its 40th year as an independent nation. That same weekend, over 350 participants from over 60 countries gathered in Bangladesh for the 5th “International Conference on Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change” to discuss opportunities for new, community-based approaches to adapt to climate change. In order to gain perspective on the way that communities in coastal Bangladesh are experiencing climate change and their initiatives to adapt, 24 climate change and development experts from international NGOs, multilateral organizations, and universities, with the support of local NGO Rapuntar, drove seven hours from Dhaka along a narrow, busy road to visit the coastal village of Chila Bazar.

Bangladesh river

Small houses made of mud and wood atop eroded banks along the Ganges in Bangladesh. Photo by Srabani Roy.

Bangladesh is a country situated at the confluence of three of the largest rivers in the world: the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna – and their tributaries. These rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal’s 580km coastline, which is exposed to cyclones, and where some of Bangladesh’s poorest communities live. The country experiences significant variability in water availability, with flooding during the monsoon season from June to October and droughts and salt water intrusion during the long, dry season from November to May. Bangladesh is a country that has been grappling with these issues throughout its short history as a nation. Now, with the worsening impacts from climate change, these challenges are becoming increasingly magnified as temperatures rise and water variability increases.

The road from Dhaka to Chila Bazar passed by bustling markets filled with masses of people, rice paddies outlined by channels of water, rows of recently felled timber, brick factories, fields of shrimp farms, and women carrying water. After a ferry across the Ganges, we arrived at Chila, where women were pulling fishing nets along the river’s shallow waters, and small houses made of mud and wood sat atop eroded riverbanks. On the other side of the river, a dense mass of green mangroves outlined the perimeter of the Sunderbans, the world’s largest protected mangrove forest, home to the legendary Bengal tigers. This mangrove forest serves as a crucial protective barrier against extreme coastal storms. In 2007, this area was hit by Cyclone Sidr, which claimed over 3,600 lives, damaged livelihoods, infrastructure, homes, and agricultural production, and caused an estimated $1.6 billion in damage. Two years later, Cyclone Aila claimed 190 lives in the region, breaching coastal embankments and causing significant water logging. The associated recovery cost for damage to crops and livestock was an estimated $1.5 billion.

Chila is a resilient, but vulnerable and poor community. On our trip, we visited several communities to learn about initiatives they are taking to adapt to the increases in cyclone severity and accompanying flooding, saline water intrusion, and drought. In one place, we saw houses that had been raised on plinths made out of packed soil, rising roughly four feet from the ground to avoid flooding during water logged periods. A rainwater collection and storage system directed water from a rooftop into storage containers for use by the household and greater community. A two-story cement building served as a school and cyclone shelter, and as we walked along the road, a bicycle rode by with a large megaphone attached to it, used to announce cyclone warnings. We rested with a drink of fresh coconut in a community center served as a meeting place for the Community Disaster group that educates and prepares Chila’s residents for the next impending storm.

Bicycle carries megaphone

Above, a megaphone serves as a cyclone warning system in Chila. Photo by Lisa Hook.

While this group was well organized in their efforts to address the most pressing concerns of the community, what was not apparent was the support from and linkages to local government bodies. With limited resources, access to information, and opportunities for alternative livelihoods, these community groups need as much institutional support as they can get. While the Government of Bangladesh has taken significant steps to address climate change and disasters, such as recently committing approximately $100 million from its national budget to the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund, and the establishment of Disaster Management Committees throughout all levels of government, it has yet to connect directly with its local communities. At the most local levels of elected government, competing interests for political influence and re-election place a long-term issue such as climate change at the bottom of a long list of priorities. Further, there is lack of understanding of the roles and responsibilities of those appointed to disaster management committees, and higher levels of government do not have the capacity to ensure implementation of disaster planning activities.

As the bus rumbled along the narrow road back to Dhaka, we stopped at a town crowded with dozens of men whose faces were filled with energy, excitement, nervousness, and anticipation. Banners of white fliers were strung through the air, each paper in support of one of the candidates running for local election. To distinguish themselves from the many candidates, they identified themselves with recognizable objects such as a chair or a fish. Likewise, crowd supporters held these objects to show solidarity with their candidates as they cast their vote, including our bus driver who prioritized this short stop because it was the first local election to take place in the town in 12 years. This outpouring of support for the election process points to the need for connecting local government with community groups to more effectively address the pressing issues of disasters, climate change, and livelihoods.

Lisa Hook is The Asia Foundation’s Environment program officer in San Francisco. She travels frequently throughout Asia and can be reached at lhook@asiafound.org.

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