Background and Context

Geographical location at the approach of the Bay of Bengal, land structure involving low-lying terrains, great rivers, and the socioeconomic dynamics of coastal, riverine, and remote communities, have all combined to make Bangladesh the 7th most climate-vulnerable country in the world. The impacts are being manifested in various forms. Frequent changes in climate parameters have meant that the days are becoming increasingly hotter in summer compared to the historical average. Also, the number of warmer days is on the rise. The late onset of a shortened rainy season is, at present, a common phenomenon. Frequency of storm surges and wind pressure have also increased. Such erratic variations of climatological parameters are causing more frequent and more intense natural disasters, i.e., flash floods, regular floods and riverbank erosion in the northern districts; flash floods and thunderstorms in the north-eastern Haor districts; drought in the north-western districts; waterlogging in the south-west coast; cyclones and storms in the south-east coast; and salinity intrusion in the southern belt of Bangladesh.

While the abovementioned rapid-onset (flood, riverbank erosion, cyclones, etc.) and slow-onset (sea level rise, salinity intrusion) climate change events are adversely affecting local communities in a variety of ways, in all such cases, it is the marginalised groups within the affected population who tend to be impacted the most. More particularly, this includes the women, children, young people, river-dependent communities and coastal farmers. Among these left-behind people, persons with disabilities and transgender identities, ethnic minorities, Dalits and Harijans suffer relatively more because of their specific difficulties and low coping capacities. The adverse consequences are exacerbated because of insufficient resources, weak support measures and limited funds available to address adaptation challenges for mitigation of negative impacts.

The persistence of slow-onset events such as sea level rise and salinity intrusion is forcing farmers in southern districts of Bangladesh to change cropping patterns from more profitable but somewhat risky cropping practices to subsistence ones. Indeed, this is causing significant changes in agricultural practices in these regions that involve hard choices and difficult trade-offs. For instance, farmers could go for adopting crop varieties that are more saline-tolerant, but these tend to have lower yields. A number of marginal farmers in the coastal belt in the south have been compelled to sell their croplands to commercial farmers, with themselves ending up as workers in shrimp farms. People living in southern districts, close to the Sundarbans and its surroundings, lack access to saline-free, safe drinking water. The rights and sexual and reproductive health of women, girls and young women are adversely impacted because of high salinity.

Over the past two decades, communities near Bangladesh’s south-east and south-west coastlines have experienced an increase in the frequency of powerful cyclones and storms. People inhabiting south-east and south-west coastal areas have experienced the loss of family members and relatives, as well as homes and farmlands, due to natural calamities such as Aila, Sidr and Amphan. Among these people, many still live in hardship and stuck in a long-term debt trap. Having lost homes and homesteads, these people had to take refuge in various chars and surrounding forest lands. This made these communities even more susceptible and exposed to subsequent climate calamities and natural disasters. Communities in the interior coastal districts of south-west Bangladesh have been suffering because of considerable damage to infrastructure and other structures, including homesteads. Other manifestations of climate impact can be seen in decreased plant growth, production losses during crop harvesting and chronic health (skin-related) diseases as a result of the rising waterlogging and salinity.

In a similar vein, people living in Haor areas of the north-eastern districts of Bangladesh have, in recent times, experienced the onslaught of more frequent and intense flash floods. These have caused them to not only lose harvest, income and business earnings but have also compelled many of them to go for distress selling of their livestock and other assets to cope with income erosion. Safe drinking water sources in coastal areas is largely contaminated, often leading to outbreaks of water-borne diseases, particularly among children and women. In these regions, students suffer from loss of educational hours. The river-dependent communities in Bangladesh’s northern regions have suffered similar consequences due to flooding. People in northern Bangladesh incur significant economic losses in the form of shrinkage of croplands, damage to, and loss of, dwellings, and loss incurred to businesses, shops and properties as the direct result of river erosion. This commonly happens following monsoon floods. Communities dependent on transboundary rivers for agricultural practices and navigational purposes, for example, living in the catchment areas of Teesta and its tributaries, suffer significantly as a result of the irregular flow of water. In summer, these communities are faced with a shortage of water, while during the monsoon, an abundance of water frequently causes flash floods.

In contrast, farming communities in Bangladesh’s northwestern districts of Barind region often experience severe drought. They face significantly high costs for purposes of irrigation and in dealing with pest attacks. Inadequate access to safe drinking water is another issue for those living in at-risk neighbourhoods in north-west Bangladesh. Intense heat in summer leads to dehydration; indeed, heat-related deaths have been on the rise in recent times. Overall, the strain of losing access to water, watching crops die, losing livelihood opportunities and seeing family members suffer from diseases results in stress within households and communities and sometimes causes violence and conflicts. The relatively disadvantaged people suffer the most, as they don’t have the means to mitigate adverse consequences, are not able to migrate to cities or other places and have to live and deal with the attendant challenges on an ongoing basis.

Persistence of slow-onset events such as the sea level rise and salinity intrusion is threatening the lives and livelihoods of over 13 million coastal people in Bangladesh. Many are being compelled to migrate to cities and peri-urban areas or encroach on nearby forest lands. This results in congestion in cities and leads to growth of unplanned urbanisation. The rate of urban poverty and malnutrition rises.

The above could potentially trigger disruptions in social cohesion and lead to conflicts involving marginalised communities in urban slums and the newly-migrated climate refugees. Studies show that climate migrants also frequently experience widespread human trafficking.

On the other hand, rising instances of encroachment on forest lands for human settlement is further exacerbating the ecological balance. This is more of a problem for Bangladesh where only 10.7 per cent of the country’s area is at present under forest. Although Bangladesh only contributes to less than 0.48 per cent of global emissions, it is one of the most impacted by climate change. For instance, over the 2015-2020 period, Bangladesh’s annual economic loss and damage due to natural disasters was equivalent to 1.32 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Despite being a minor source of global emissions, Bangladesh has made commitments unconditionally reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6.73 per cent below the business-as-usual level in the energy, industrial, agriculture, forestry, and waste sectors, and conditionally by 15.12 per cent below business-as-usual levels by 2030 under the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). In view of these, investment in renewable energy has emerged as a critically important issue in the Bangladesh context, in terms of meeting its NDC commitments as also from the perspective of attaining a number of targets under the SDGs.

To meet the NDC commitments, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) needs to pursue a bottom-up approach. This is particularly so as there is a significant lack of indepth knowledge about the attendant local level vulnerabilities and needs of concerned communities, and more so, the needs of the marginalised communities. Indeed, weak integration of policies and programmes has been identified as a key challenge in view of both climate change adaptation and mitigation in the Bangladesh context. On the other hand, as may be recalled, in view of addressing climate change-induced vulnerabilities, the locally led adaptation (LLA) approach, based on eight principles, has gained traction in relevant global discourse. Localised climate governance, aligned with LLA, offers a new opportunity to identify and deal with the localised vulnerabilities of climate change in a collaborative and participatory manner. On a welcome note, the government of Bangladesh has recognised the importance of LLA; indeed, this gets mentioned throughout the ‘National Adaptation Plan (NAP) 2023-50’, in connection with the various interventions from the perspective of ensuring meaningful social inclusion.

In view of the aforesaid emergent challenges and the urgency of addressing those, the objective of the present Policy Brief is to put forward a set of recommendations to effectively deal with the manifestations of localised climate change vulnerabilities impacting Bangladesh, keeping the concerns of disadvantaged groups at the centre of attention.

Published: May 2024