Adaptation to climate change -- moving from local to national, and planning for the long term
Ian Burton

By 2050, climate change impact could make an additional 14% of the country extremely vulnerable to flooding and dislocate more than 35 million people

  • Coastal embankment in Joursing village of Uttar Betkhasi Union in southern Bangladesh. This embankment is located next to a market with access to paved roads and is a central hub for transportation by boat to nearby villages 
    Photo- Stephanie Alice Andrei

Adaptation means taking the necessary steps to adjust policies and practices in order to reduce as much as possible the adverse impacts of climate change. Adaptation to climate change must be national and strategic in a global context as well as effective at the local and district level. Much of the effort to do this, including international support have focussed on the community, district and regional levels. This can be highly successful in the short term, but there are dangers if longer term climatic changes are not taken into account. To think and act long term usually requires national level strategic planning.

The Coastal Climate-Resilient Infrastructure Project

An example that illustrates this point is the Coastal Climate-Resilient Infrastructure Project in southwest Bangladesh which includes 12 rural coastal districts vulnerable toclimate variability. The region is increasingly exposed to coastal storms, tropical cyclones enhanced monsoon floods, and increasing salinity, all made worse by rising sea level. The project aims to improve the economy and livelihoods in the 12 districts particularly by upgrading the infrastructure to reduce damage and flooding and improve accessibility. The project will upgrade 130 kilometres of upazilla roads, 174 kilometres of union roads, and 233 kilometres of village roads and 780 metres of bridges and culverts, this involves improving existing roads to climate-resilient standards - widening and raising  embankments, with suitable protection against erosion and wave action. The road level will be 800 mm above the normal annual flood level. Other steps include strengthening the sustainability of upgraded roads and preparing road maintenance plans.

Women belonging to labour contracting societies will be engaged to clean out drainage canals, plant trees on roadsides, vegetation on embankments, and undertake road maintenance work.  In addition, the project will invest in improved markets services, upgrade 88 growth centres and large markets, with 15% space allocated to women. Each market will be connected to an existing paved or improved road.

Infrastructure improvements include paved trading areas, sheds, water supply systems, drainage facilities, sanitation facilities and market offices. Many other improvements are planned including mini-water supply, hand-operated tube wells, and in some localities, toilets and street lighting supplied with electricity using solar energy. Those benefitting from these improvements will be trained in their use, maintenance and management.  Other components of the project include upgraded cyclone shelters and five new killas (animal shelters). The total project cost over six years is estimated at USD 150 million.

Funding structure

The project is funded by Asian Development Bank which has provided loans of $40m  with co-financing of $68m from the International Fund for Agriculture and Development and the German KfW.  External funds total approximately $100m in loans, and $20m in grants. The Government of Bangladesh is contributing $31.2m, bringing the total to $150m.

The big question

Is this a wise investment and a worthwhile project? If well implemented, the project will bring substantial benefits to the 12 districts in the short to medium term (next 20 to 30 years). The improved infrastructure will provide greater safety, easier and more reliable access to markets. The regional economy, food security  and climate resilience is likely to improve while  poverty and disaster risk will be reduced.

The big unanswered question lies in the longer term. The Asian Development Bank points out that: “By 2050, climate change impact could make an additional 14% of the country extremely vulnerable to flooding and dislocate more than 35 million people.” Many of these migrants will come from these 12 rural coastal districts of the southwest.

In the short to medium term, livelihoods will be better and fewer people will be inclined to migrate elsewhere. However, does it make sense to invest $150m in a region today when large parts of it will be essentially uninhabitable 50 years from now?

In my view as a well-disposed external observer, familiar with Bangladesh, this project makes very good sense, but by itself it is not sufficient. The project needs to be thought of in a longer term context incorporating long term measures with a steady process of implementation.

Planning around migration

Essentially this means moving the exposed population to safer places. It has been the common experience of humanity to migrate forcibly out by extreme poverty, violence, and climatic disasters. Waves of migration in the modern era are occurring in Syria and parts of drought- stricken Africa. These have often been international migrations as well as within countries. An overcrowded city like Dhaka receives 400,000 migrants from rural areas annually and unless long term plans are made now, mass migration will occur and increase as sea levels, river bank erosion and floods increase.

To avoid a future migration disaster, a few proposals are outlined here that merit careful consideration. There is a need to prepare places for migrants to move to. This means the creation of new towns, or planned expansion of existing towns, by economic development and job creation. In any case Bangladesh needs to diversify its economy. So facilitate the development of new economic activities in industry, trade, commerce, services and communications in places designated to receive migrants. This might be done by making concessions and creating incentives to attract both foreign and Bangladeshi investment. There are many ways to do this with tax and trade regulations and practices. Hong Kong or Singapore serve as models. The people of Bangladesh have strong  entrepreneurial skills that could be put to more effective use with the right support and encouragement. At the same time as job creation, investment is needed in infrastructure, and housing.  The new towns should be attractive places to live as well as be safer.

Enhancing education

Migration should be voluntary and enhancing education in regions like south-west Bangladesh and the area of the Coastal Climate-Resilient Infrastructure Project will pull people to these new destinations. This education would be focussed on the new generation of young people and the training would be directed to the sorts of economic growth and job opportunities that are planned for the new towns. Slowly, a process of voluntary migration would take hold, because from now to 2050, there would be places for the 35 million people to find new livelihoods and better opportunities. The younger and more educated would be among the leaders in finding employment opportunities in these new locations and others would follow.

Sharing the responsibility

Such a plan would be costly, but the costs would not come all at once. It is better to begin now than to wait and watch the sea level rise. Neither neighbouring states nor the rest of the world wants to have to cope with a sudden flux of millions of migrants from Bangladesh. As events in Europe and the Mediterranean are now showing, once massive dislocations start they are difficult to manage.

So the rest of the world should help Bangladesh to bear the cost. This is where adaptation to climate change becomes a genuinely global responsibility. If it makes sense to the Asian Development Bank and partners to invest USD 100 million in long-term and low interest loans and USD 20 million in grants for coastal infrastructure now, then the same rationale can be applied to a longer term strategy. The funds created to support adaptation in connection with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the World Bank’s Pilot Programme in Climate Resilience and other international funds should be made available for strategic long term adaptation that contribute to local infrastructure projects. 

A story of two low-lying regions

There is hope and expectation in some quarters that the Netherlands provides an example for Bangladesh to follow. It is argued that there is no need to retreat from rising sea levels. Why not build high dykes, construct polders and pump the flood waters out? In the short term this might be effective in some localities, but it would certainly be an expensive project to sustain for a country presently as poor as Bangladesh. In addition, there are other major obstacles -- the river and coastal hydrology are not the same in Bangladesh as in the Netherlands  and there are no tropical cyclones. The flows of the River Rhine and its distributaries are more stable and less extreme and there are no monsoon rains to cause floods and channel instability. On top of cyclones and floods, there is now the longer term issue of sea level rise and salinity that Bangladesh faces.

Towards sustained adaptation and economic growth

Bangladesh is a world leader in its policies for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. It is now time to provide more leadership by showing the way to implement a more strategic and long term adaptation whose investments today will have longer returns in the future and lead the country to sustained economic growth. 

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Ian Burton

Ian Burton is an independent scholar and consultant based in Toronto, Canada.