Bangladesh is a world leader in climate change adaptation. This is how it did it

Bangladesh is more vulnerable to climate change than almost any other place on earth. But it has a plan to fight back against the increasingly unpredictable forces of Mother Nature.

T hey say that necessity is the mother of innovation. No country better demonstrates that principle in action than Bangladesh. The South Asian nation is more vulnerable to climate change than almost any other place on earth. In the most recent World Risk Index, which evaluates how susceptible 172 countries are to natural disasters like earthquakes, cyclones and floods, Bangladesh came in at number nine.

Which is why, while the rest of the world debates climate change, Bangladesh is already having to learn how to adapt to it. “What Bangladesh has achieved in the practice of adaptation is nothing short of miraculous,” former United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said recently. Here’s how — and why — one of the poorest and most densely populated countries has become arguably the global leader in climate change adaptation.

A unique geography

If Bangladesh is so vulnerable to the forces of Mother Nature, it is in large part due to its unique geography. “Bangladesh sits at the bottom of a Delta plane where three main rivers converge. It’s straddled by the melting Himalayan glaciers in the north and the Bay of Bengal in the south,” explains The Economist. This, combined with the fact that two-thirds of the country is less than five metres above sea level, makes it acutely susceptible to flooding. Just this month, for example, more than 200,000 people were displaced after heavy rain caused the Jamuna river to swell and break through an embankment, triggering some of the worst floods the country has seen in years.

While large swathes of Bangladesh are flooded annually, it also suffers from country-wide droughts approximately every five years, and more isolated local droughts on a much more regular basis. These have a devastating impact on agriculture, Bangladesh’s largest economic sector, causing what the Food and Agricultural Organization describes as “major deterioration in household health.”

Finally, according to Helena Wright, a climate change expert and contributory author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bangladesh is subject to the rarest and most severe tropical storm categories in the world. “It’s estimated that Bangladesh lost 5.9% of its GDP to storms from 1998 to 2009,” she writes.

But while Bangladesh’s geography naturally makes it vulnerable to extreme weather events, climate change is exacerbating the problem — and it could get a lot worse. Researchers believe that in just a few decades, rising sea levels could claim 10% of the country’s land, and the World Bank predicts that by 2050, there could be as many as 13.3 million climate migrants in Bangladesh.

Building resilience to climate change

Whereas in some countries, climate change remains an abstract and even contested concept, Bangladeshis have seen first-hand the devastating impact it can have. It’s this reality that has been the driving force behind the country’s attempts to adapt.

“Bangladesh is learning to adapt to the effects of climate change faster than any other country in the world because the impacts are here and we’re having to deal with them out of necessity,” says Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, and one of Bangladesh’s most prominent climate scientists.

In 2009, Bangladesh was the first country in the world to create a national programme to determine how it would adapt to a changing climate. “Climate change is no longer something to happen in the future, it is here and now,” the government report noted, before outlining the various adaptation measures it planned to put in place over the following decade. These ranged from the development of climate-resilient crops to the construction of cyclone shelters.

Importantly, the government put its money where its mouth is, and has established a dedicated fund to support the plans. “Over the last decade, we’ve spent on average $1 billion annually for climate change projects,” the country’s president, Abdul Hamid, said recently.

And it’s not just the government that is putting in place policies to help the country adapt to climate change — Bangladeshis are doing their part, too. In the Haors, a wetland ecosystem in north eastern Bangladesh, farmers used to grow rice and raise chickens, but increased flooding rendered that impossible. Instead, with the help of a local nongovernmental organization, some locals have switched to farming ducks, which are not only better suited to the new climate but are also more profitable. “A whole economic shift is taking place — all because of ducks,” a staffer from the NGO that oversees the program told The Atlantic.

Reaping the benefits of adaptation

Have the efforts paid off? For Ban Ki-moon, addressing an audience at the inaugural meeting of the Global Commission on Adaptation in Dhaka, the figures speak for themselves. “The results can be measured not just in terms of the property and livelihoods protected, but in the number of lives that have been saved,” he said.

In 1970, when the Bhola cyclone tore through the region, half a million lives were lost. This year, when Cyclone Fani struck the same area, 17 people were killed in Bangladesh, and a further 72 in India. “Any death is hugely regrettable,” Ban noted in his speech. “But we must also be grateful that, thanks to more accurate weather forecasting, community-based warning systems and stronger shelters, 1.6 million people were moved to safety before they were touched.”

While Bangladesh has had to learn the hard way how to adapt to a more unpredictable and extreme climate, Ban hopes that the lessons will be invaluable for others. “There are many countries that are just as vulnerable to climate change, but that don’t have the knowledge or ability to build resilience on their own,” he said in Dhaka. “Bangladesh is our best teacher.”

The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.

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