Eco-systems help cope with climate change
Dr Hannah Reid

It is known that well-managed, stable, diverse ecosystems can make a significant contribution to local efforts to adapt to climate change

  • Natural resources such as wetlands and haor basins are a complex eco-system which, when managed properly, can help communities tackle climate change 
    Photo- Masroora Haque

Good management of natural resources such as forests and wetlands is particularly important for poor, vulnerable communities most at risk from the impacts of climate change such as increasing floods and droughts. They are reliant on the natural resources to earn a living and feed their families.

Many eco-systems embodied in these natural resources and the services they provide are central to many successful adaptation strategies.

Natural resources increase subsistence and livelihood options available to the community and hence a community’s ability to adapt to the impact of climate change, research findings from Chanda Beel wetland, and Balukhali Village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts show.

These two sites were studied as part of a three-year project titled Action Research for Community Adaptation in Bangladesh (ARCAB) which concluded in 2014.

The use of bio-diversity and eco-system services to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change is known as eco-system-based adaptation (EbA). Project experience to date suggests that EbA holds great potential, but is currently poorly addressed in national and international policy processes.

In Bangladesh, for example, just six out of 15 priority projects in the National Adaptation Program of Action have a significant natural resources component.

Government responses to climate change instead tend to focus on hard infrastructural solutions. For example, two-thirds of funding allocated from the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund has been designated for water infrastructure projects in coastal areas.

In some instances, this over-emphasis on infrastructure can do more harm than good, for example, when sea walls affect the migration of mangroves as sea levels rise, and dykes and dams disrupt the annual flooding of floodplains.

Such projects also tend to benefit those at the top of the income ladder while ignoring poor communities most at risk.

In Chanda Beel, road, culvert, bridge, and sluice gate construction has changed the Beel’s physical features, reducing and controlling water flow for irrigation purposes, increasing siltation, and causing the Beel bed to rise.

Waterlogging caused by siltation and decomposing water hyacinth has reduced water flow through the Beel even further. The result is that most Beel wetlands have now been converted to agricultural land. Sluice gates have also inhibited fish migration, and intensive use of agricultural chemicals has degraded water quality.

The gains in agricultural productivity that have emerged from these wetland modifications, however, come at a cost and could be short-lived if climate change is not considered.

Heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers have damaged land fertility, degraded wetland resources, and reduced bio-diversity.

The flooding and water-logging predicted by climate change models for the area could also dramatically affect production.

Local communities are already reporting that the river water tastes salty, particularly in April and May. This can occur when seawater comes up the river due to sea-level increases or reduced water flows from upstream.

Water management for irrigation in places like Chanda Beel has increased irrigated areas, stabilised farmers’ income, and fostered economic development.

However, it has also increased the potential for large-scale disasters, such as crop failure due to drought, and extreme floods when embankments are breached.

Such disasters are likely to increase with climate change. People in Chanda Beel have already reported that cyclones and increasingly erratic rainfall and temperature changes are hampering crop production and other livelihood activities. Poor women and marginalised sectors of society suffer most.

Research at these ARCAB sites and elsewhere suggests that more attention should be paid to EbA as an important response to climate change. This, however, comes with several challenges. Firstly, good decision making requires good evidence of what works and what doesn’t work.

To make better choices about how to design and implement emerging climate change responses such as National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), policy makers and planners need to understand when EbA can be an effective response to climate change.

Scientists therefore need to help policy-makers understand the conditions under which EbA works, and the benefits, costs and limitations EbA entails compared to other adaptation options such as hard infrastructural approaches.

Secondly, the capacity of institutions to implement EbA needs improving. This is as true at the local level as it is for higher levels of management and planning. In Chanda Beel, for example, local policies and institutions are weak, and there is no wetland resource management plan so the Beel faces over-exploitation and loss of important resources.

The system established by the Ministry of Land leaves local communities with little power to manage the resources on which they rely and little ability to earn a living as water-bodies are leased out to powerful and often corrupt intermediaries.

This reinforces the marginalisation and vulnerability of fishers in particular.

Thirdly, good EbA requires multi-sectoral approaches involving ministries and local government agencies dealing with agriculture, water, coastal zone management, disaster risk reduction, development, and climate change.

Collaboration and co-ordination between the many different sectors and actors required to make EbA a success is difficult for government agencies that are used to operating within their particular area of focus.

Lastly, EbA needs to operate at many levels to be effective. As with its sister, Community-Based Adaptation (CBA), EbA is based on local priorities, needs, and knowledge, and fully integrates local people into planning at all stages in the implementation of any project.

But it also needs to operate at other scales. Working at the level of the watershed is important in Chanda Beel, for example, where water flow may be affected by changes outside the local area.

Likewise, EbA needs to go beyond small project-level initiatives to be mainstreamed into government processes, such as those relating to national adaptation planning.

Working at these higher ecological and political/management scales can be difficult to reconcile with the need for communities to remain central to planning and action.

It is known that well-managed, stable, diverse eco-systems can make a significant contribution to local efforts to adapt to climate change.

EbA can be combined with, or even used as a substitute for engineered infrastructure or other technological approaches. It is now time for governments to recognise this and do more to implement EbA.

In Bangladesh in particular, little attention has historically been given to eco-system-based flood management measures, and in the face of growing climate change challenges in the years ahead, this needs to change. 

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Dr Hannah Reid

Dr Hannah Reid is a Research Associate at the International Institute for Environment and Development.