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Governance the key to climate resilience in Bangladesh?

Thursday, 9 May 2013 10:33 GMT

Yusuf Ali Khan, a Bangladeshi wood-cutter, narrates how he survived a fight with a Royal Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans mangrove forest on August 8, 2003. REUTERS/Rafiqur Rahman

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Building resilience takes action in a wide range of areas - not least how a country is governed

Resilience, as a concept, has re-emerged after a few decades of hibernation as the development term du jour.  While not without its challenges, the approach certainly has merits.

The primary one is that it promotes holistic responses to development challenges normally looked at by sector. Resilience by its very nature cannot be seen as responding to a single issue.

People are not resilient to environmental risks in isolation from unemployment or hunger or conflict. The root causes of resilience (or lack thereof) and these linked risks are often one and the same.

And more often than not, they are not so much to do with climate change or the environment, but down to matters of governance.

International Alert and the South Asia Network on Security and Climate Change (SANSaC) undertook research in nine locations across Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan to analyse the root causes of vulnerability and low levels of resilience to climate-related risks, and to identify the opportunities for strengthening resilience. The research findings from Bangladesh illustrate the central role that governance plays in strengthening community resilience in the face of climate change and variability.

Coastal communities in Satkhira district, in the south-western coast of Bangladesh, are directly exposed to environmental risks such as cyclones, sea-level rise and saline water intrusion. The district was severely affected by Cyclone Sidr in 2007 and Cyclone Aila in 2009. Cyclone Aila brought with it tidal surges of about 6.5 metres (21 feet) and exacerbated the problem of salinity in these areas.

For these climate-affected coastal communities, targeting climate change as a discrete risk and addressing it through stand-alone strategies is flawed. People’s vulnerabilities extend beyond the direct environmental and climate impacts.

Climate change impacts also interact with pre-existing social, economic and political stresses, leaving communities to deal with compounded risks. Building resilience is therefore as much about addressing failures of governance, ensuring security provision and safeguarding livelihoods and income security as it is about climate change adaptation.  

One key feature of resilience for the coastal communities in Satkhira is livelihood security and its ability to offer a range of options and opportunities. Communities often are unable to cultivate land as a result of salinity. Salinity has also decreased the numbers of renu (shrimp spawn), fish and crabs in the rivers.

With the river catch falling, communities’ dependence on the Sunderban forests is increasing. Situated in the vast delta in the Bay of Bengal, the Sunderban mangrove forests remain an indispensable source of work and income for coastal communities in Satkhira.

‘Sunderban means river, river means Sunderban’, said one fisherman, who counts the mangrove forests as his economic lifeline.

However, accessing the Sunderbans is increasingly risky as a result of attacks by tigers and dacoit bandits. In recognition of the danger of tiger attacks, the local government has a scheme that provides an allowance to widows of women whose husbands have been killed by tigers. In the case of the bandits, however, there are no government compensation schemes or protective measures in place.

The dacoits are runaway criminals who target fishermen, crab and goalpata (tree leaves used for thatch) collectors entering the forests, abducting them and holding them for ransom. The practice is so much a part of the culture that local fishermen, in advance of their fishing trips to the Sunderbans, purchase ‘yellow payment slips’ (as part of a formalised criminal protection racket) at crippling costs to insure themselves against abduction by the dacoits.

Communities see a clear difference between the safety risks posed by tigers and the dacoits. Referring to the tiger attacks, one person said, “It is Allah’s wish, there is nothing to be done.” In the case of the dacoits however, people expect the government to guarantee their safety and protect them from such criminality.

Local government however, is ill-equipped to deal with the problem and officials are unanimous in admitting to their lack of capacity to guarantee people’s security. They believe that dealing with the dacoits and the security risks they pose requires the full support of the national government and help from the army, border or coast guard to boost security patrols in the forests.

In this context, strengthening local government’s ability to provide security is another key element of building communities’ resilience to climate and security risks.

Risks linked to climate and environmental changes are a significant driver of rural-urban migration, largely within the same country. Seasonal migration to cities such as Dhaka is increasing as livelihoods and incomes are threatened by climate and environmental impacts in the coastal areas.

These migratory flows to Dhaka are exacerbating the strains on an already congested city. However, despite the increase, positive responses to and management of migration are not currently considered in climate change policy responses in Bangladesh. With migration increasingly becoming a significant adaptive strategy, these migration flows need to be managed peacefully and given due consideration within climate change and development plans.

The case of Bangladesh demonstrates that building resilience to climate change is not just about responding to physical climate hazards. Equally important are an effective local government, climate-sensitive alternative livelihoods and peaceful and safe management of migration.

This refutes the current policy and practice of channelling adaptation money only to adaptation activities and protecting development aid from climate-related demands. This separated funding risks failing to promote any real sustainable resilience at the local level.

Janani Vivekananda is a senior climate change and security adviser in International Alert’s Security and Peacebuilding Programme.

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