Climate change threatens all nations and our environment through rising temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and rising sea levels. Evidence suggests that natural disasters will become significantly more frequent and more severe in the coming years as the effects of climate change increasingly worsen. However, due to geographic location, hydro-ecological and socioeconomic factors, and political landscape, different countries and communities face particular risks and hazards differently.
Bangladesh, located in South Asia within the major Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta and having added socio-economic challenges, is considered the seventh most vulnerable country in the world. The nation’s low-lying southwestern region is especially prone to natural disasters, both of the rapid-onset variety (heavy rainfall, coastal cyclones, tidal surges, coastal and river flooding) and slow-onset variety (rising salinity, drought). These climate disasters are exacerbated by high population density and poverty.
These impacts also will have a significant bearing on the country’s major natural ecosystems, such as wetlands, terrestrial ecosystems, forests, mangroves etc. A study by the Asian Development Bank predicts that overall rice production likely will decline by 17% by the year 2050 due to increased temperature and CO2 levels, which would put a lot of pressure on the highly valuable agricultural sector. Rising temperatures due to climate change, together with changes in rainfall patterns and salinization, also will lead to scarcity of freshwater, further affecting lives and livelihoods. Furthermore, heavy rainfall and flooding will pollute drinking water, giving rise to the spread of water-borne diseases like cholera and diarrhea, resulting in major health consequences. These trends create great concern for the lives and livelihoods of the communities who are particularly dependent on natural resources.
Communities, Practitioners, and Governments Adapt
However, people at the grassroots level have been adapting to climate change over the years by using their knowledge and available technology. Adaptation has always been a priority for countries like Bangladesh. Sometimes communities anticipate disasters through early warning systems and preparations—we call this incremental adaptation. This can happen through adjustments to cropping systems via new varieties, changing planting times, or using more efficient irrigation.
Another notion is transformational adaptation, which is vital to building the overall resilience of climate-vulnerable communities. This involves more forward-looking aspects of adaptation and long-term planning to improve communities’ conditions and minimize damage. This can happen, for example, by changing livelihoods from cropping to livestock, by migrating to nearby towns and cities for alternative livelihoods, or by taking innovative nature-based solutions.
National and local governments, NGOs, communities and individuals are implementing various adaptation measures, both small-scale and large-scale. Communities are undertaking adaptation activities to increase their resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change. The Community Climate Change Project (CCCP) is an example of a successful adaptation project implemented by the Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), financed by the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund, and engaging around 41 NGOs. The project undertook many adaptation and development activities in the areas of Bangladesh that are prone to flood, drought, and salinity. Access to water resources for the communities was guaranteed through effective rainwater harvesting, pond sand filtration, and building desalination plants. Flooding was mitigated by re-excavating canals and ponds and lifting the foundations of homes. Additionally, desperately needed road and healthcare facilities were constructed.
To diversify households’ livelihood in a changing climate, the CCCP project provided vermicompost (composting using worms) to improve the soil quality and resilient fodder cultivation (Napier grass) in drought-prone areas; cage culture in flood-prone areas; crab fattening and home gardening using gunny sacks; saline-tolerant seeds and cropping practices in saline-prone areas; and poultry and livestock supports. The adaptation practices in the project were fully internalized by the communities, and thus the project reached more than a half-million direct and indirect beneficiaries. After the project period, the communities were tagged to microfinance institutions for continuous financing of their livelihood activities. Results-based monitoring evaluated the effectiveness of the adaptation actions.
Many local grassroots organizations are raising awareness and extending essential services to communities to tackle the compounding effects of climatic disasters and COVID-19. Satkhira, a coastal district in southwestern Bangladesh, frequently is affected by medium- to high-intensity cyclones and salinity intrusion. As most of the inhabitants are engaged in fish-farming and agriculture, due to their close proximity to rivers and to the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, their livelihoods are greatly affected. Jannatul Mawa, a 28-year-old woman from Kaliganj Upazila in Satkhira, is leading a local organization called Bindu—which has been working on community outreach programs for almost a decade. The organization advocates in that region for gender equity, women’s empowerment and right to education, and climate justice. In addition to providing relief and other emergency services, her organization focuses on building capacity and leadership within vulnerable communities. Bindu supports women farmers by providing seeds and organic fertilizers to begin their harvests after cyclone hits to promote women-friendly agricultural practices.
Because women have less access to resources and opportunities, they are less resilient to climate change. To address gender inequality, a program called Participatory Research and Ownership with Technology, Information and Change (PROTIC) is training women farmers from three different climatic hotspots to use mobile technology to access climate information. The project has focused on women’s adaptive capacity by providing them with customized knowledge regarding climate-adaptive farming techniques and strategies. Eventually, it has strengthened women’s leadership roles within the community. Their overall economic conditions have improved, and some have learned to use mobile phone technology to run their small businesses.
Adaptation can focus on an ecosystem- and nature-based approach. Two important examples of coastal afforestation (the establishment of forests) as the basic means to improve community resilience are the Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change through Coastal Afforestation project (2009-2013), funded by the United Nations’ Least Developed Countries Fund; and the Climate Resilient Participatory Afforestation and Reforestation project (2013-2016), funded by the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund. The projects took innovative approaches to seedling raising and plantation techniques, managing land tenure in the plantation sites, tackling social conflict over land use, convincing and managing the local political leadership, ensuring local participation in protecting the plantation, and overcoming the effects of natural calamities in these remote areas by involving local agencies.
Communities Are the Leaders for Effective Adaptation Actions
However, sustainability of good interventions is still a challenge, as they are still donor-driven and government priorities and finance do not always support adaptation actions. Proper monitoring, evaluation and learning of adaptation projects also are not always consistent. In addition, true involvement of communities is another missing dimension.
The International Institute for Environment and Development has reported that less than 10% of climate relief funding makes it to local communities. However, effective and sustainable climate-change action can be achieved at the local level. This is because local people are vulnerable and know the ground realities; they have the indigenous knowledge and coping mechanisms needed for effective adaptation actions; community trust, bonding and networks cannot be controlled and understood by “outsiders”; community-based organizations and local government are closer to the communities for adaptation support and investment; local people know their adaptation and development priorities.
The Shift to Locally Led Adaptation and the Way Forward
Until now, we have been focusing more on community-based adaptation, but there remains a tendency for adaptation to be driven by donors, external experts and resources, which often consider the communities as “beneficiaries.” Thus, the community-based adaptation approach sometimes can limit the scope of local self-empowerment and overall adaptive capacity of the communities. As a result, in recent years there has been a shift to locally led adaptation (LLA) in which “external agencies ‘partner’ with communities and put resources in the community’s control”; thus local communities lead the initiatives happening in their locality. LLAs focus on a wide range of ingenious solutions to climate-related challenges which can offer direct and indirect social, economic, and environmental benefits to the communities.
Global processes such as the Global Commission on Adaptation and the COP26, are showing collective interest in locally led adaptation actions. In addition, Bangladesh formally took over the leadership in the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), which therefore can lead the way in sharing knowledge and implementing LLAs effectively. Country’s national funds and policy-planning documents, such as–The Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund; the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100; an updated Nationally Determined Contributions 2020; an updated Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan; and the National Adaptation Plan (due in 2021)–are creating real opportunities for Bangladesh to prioritize LLA actions and find innovative approaches to implement them. The Gobeshona conference in January 2021 chose LLAs as its theme, and around 90 sessions focused on the effectiveness of developing and implementing solutions that come from the local level. The recently happened 15th Community Based Adaptation (CBA) conference also emphasized on the sharing and learning components of the good adaptation practices which would help in challenging assumptions and collaborating with communities to drive ambition for a climate-resilient future.
Going forward, there is a need to take a nature-based and people-centric approach to enable transformative outcomes through community-driven climate action. There is also a need to have a space for innovation and mobilize national funds to support LLA actions. Most importantly, adaptation actions must be evaluated from the community’s perspective. We need to have a shift in mindset so that communities are considered as agencies or partners rather than as mere beneficiaries–where everyone (practitioners, local representatives, government actors, researchers, donors and private sectors working at all levels and scales) has a role to play.
*Tasfia Tasnim is a researcher in the field of environment and climate change. She is a senior research associate at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). Her research interests lie in nature-based solutions, climate-change adaptation and climate finance. She can be reached at email@example.com.