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OPINION: Local communities are test bed for adapting to climate change

Tuesday, 13 August 2019 13:26 GMT

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

Sharing their knowledge about what works could help others facing similar challenges

Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center for Adaptation (GCA), and Dr Muhammad Musa is the executive director of BRAC International

The woman who rose to speak was nervous – she had never addressed such a big meeting before. She had travelled to Dhaka from Howrah, India, to bear witness to how her community had survived a devastating flood two years ago.

They were no stranger to recurrent floods and had worked on a number of projects to protect their livelihoods. “But after the calamity, nothing exists anymore,” she said. “I have never seen this kind of flooding in my life.” The farmland around her village was under water for eight months.

An NGO distributed hundreds of mobile phones in her area, and the women used these to access tutorials on how to grow vegetables indoors.

When the waters subsided, the community expanded their vegetable gardens outside. Some women branched out into poultry farming and fisheries. They were able to sell some of their produce and save money – for the next flood, which would surely come.

Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to the impact of climate change. It is also one of the countries that is doing most to find solutions that will allow its population of 165 million not only to adapt but to thrive in a changing environment.

Consider the challenges. If sea levels were to rise by one metre, 17% of Bangladesh’s landmass – home to the world’s largest delta – would be under water by 2050, according to estimates from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Already, rising sea levels are invading wells and aquifers and increasing the salinity of the soil. Weather patterns have become unpredictable: farmers are as likely to lose their crops to floods as to drought.

Every year, Bangladesh loses 1% of its farmland to climate change, according to BRAC, an international development agency based in the country.

The International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) estimates that 13 million people within Bangladesh are likely to be displaced by 2050, eventually migrating to Dhaka and other cities, where climate migrants are likely to outnumber other internal migrants.

The research group believes secondary cities need to become more “migrant friendly”, providing social housing and more job opportunities to take the pressure off Dhaka. 


At the same time, rural schools need to improve education to give the next generation a better start in life – and the chance to be something other than farmers or fishermen.

While the rest of the world debates climate change, for Bangladesh, adapting to a warmer, more violent, less predictable climate is a matter of survival.

The solutions being adopted at local level in Bangladesh are inspiring, from the introduction of saline-resistant crops to the deployment of technology for adaptation efforts. 

Mobile phones are not only useful for downloading tutorials on horticulture – BRAC has also experimented with mobile payment systems to get money to the victims of climate emergencies quickly.

In areas prone to cyclones or flash floods, communities have built shelters on concrete stilts that are designed to stay above water and resist gale-force winds. In normal times, these buildings often function as schools. When disaster strikes, the shelters provide communities with a food store, safe drinking-water deposits and sanitary latrines.

True to the spirit of “frugal innovation”, BRAC has also introduced pond sand filters, which remove impurities, as an effective, low-cost option to treat saline water in coastal regions where the sea has invaded fresh-water sources. The development agency encourages local communities to form water-management teams to keep the filters in good order.


Less than 10% of funds earmarked for adaptation reach local communities worldwide. There are still too many bottlenecks before the money finds its way to the people it is intended to empower. Clearly, we need to improve processes to ensure local initiatives get the right resources at the right time.

Community leaders also need more support mechanisms – in the form of education, training and technology – to empower local communities to make better decisions. Mobile payment apps are of little use to those who cannot read or do not understand how the technology works.

Local communities also need a way to share their experiences in adapting to climate change. It is the only way of testing whether solutions developed in one place will work elsewhere, and of scaling up those that work well across the global South.

Adapting to a changing climate is a global problem that requires local solutions. Local problems matter. Local voices matter. Local action matters.

That is why the GCA, BRAC and others have agreed to work together to promote locally-led climate adaptation. We are committed to ensuring more funding reaches local adaptation efforts and that  communities have the support they need to decide how these resources are best deployed.

From the seeds of local adaptation initiatives, big ideas will surely flourish.