Building a climate-resilient Bangladesh

Addressing the impact on environment and living conditions

Tareq Ahmed Robin | Friday, 26 May 2023

Climate change has been one of the most pressing global challenges of the last few decades. According to a report by Oxfam, the top ten countries at the highest risk from climate change impacts are all located in Africa or Asia, including Bangladesh, Haiti, and the Philippines. These countries are exposed to extreme weather events and have limited resources and adaptive capacities to cope with the consequences.
This phenomenon has severely affected Bangladesh, causing devastating impacts on its agriculture, environment, and living conditions. The country has experienced an increase in the frequency of natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, and droughts.
BANGLADESH'S CLIMATE VULNERABILITY: Globally, Bangladesh is the 41st largest economy and one of the fastest-growing countries, having an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of 6.40 per cent in 2022. However, this rapid growth in Bangladesh has also presented an immense environmental burden for the country. Despite contributing only 0.51 per cent of the world's total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Bangladesh ranks 7th and 9th in the global climate risk index and number of deaths due to climate change-influenced disasters, respectively. Along with that, low elevation from sea level, one of the highest population densities in the world, and the still-existing precarious poverty levels also contribute to the country's vulnerability to climate change and hindrance to development. Without sophisticated and well-organised public-private interventions, the fast-changing climate might trigger expected losses of 1.1 per cent of GDP annually in normal cases and up to 2 per cent annual losses in extreme climate conditions.
IMPACTS WE CAN'T OVERLOOK: To discuss the effects of climate change and the necessary initiatives for climate resilience, the effects of climate change on land, air, and water need to be assessed. Regarding the impact on land, the recent IPCC report for 2022 emphasises the urgent need to limit global warming to avoid a major planetary emergency. Located on the Tropic of Cancer, Bangladesh faces a tropical climate with high temperatures and frequent floods, cyclones, and erosion. Its low-lying lands make it highly susceptible to rising sea levels, deforestation, soil degradation, and erosion.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Environmental Justice Foundation estimate that a significant portion of the country, particularly the low-lying coastal regions, will be submerged by 2050, and one in every seven people will be displaced. Chittagong and Khulna districts are likely to witness the highest within-district migration, estimated to be between 15,000 and 30,000 migrants per year. The Sundarbans, a vital ecosystem, face the risk of 70per cent submersion with just a 1-meter rise in sea levels. Additionally, river erosion and salinisation further contribute to land loss and water scarcity, affecting districts across the country. These environmental changes have severe economic impacts, including increased maintenance costs, reduced agricultural yields, and employment losses in sectors like agriculture and fisheries. The most vulnerable groups, whose livelihoods rely heavily on the climate, are disproportionately affected, leading to climate migration and limited opportunities for training.
CLEAN WATER BECOMING SCARCE: Global warming has negative effects on water as well. The increase in moisture content in the air due to global warming intensifies precipitation, leading to devastating floods and landslides worldwide. The Arctic region is particularly affected by rapid sea ice loss and permafrost thawing, which releases large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Opening new shipping routes in the Arctic increases the risk of shipwrecks and oil spills. Sea-level rise caused by melting ice poses a significant threat globally, with sectors such as agriculture, health, fisheries, biodiversity, and infrastructure in Bangladesh being particularly vulnerable. Bangladesh is currently bearing and will continue to bear the brunt of these effects because it is a riverine country. The intrusion of saline water into surface and groundwater, changes in river bed shape, and exacerbated frequencies of cyclones and storm surge further complicate the situation.
Water scarcity is projected to affect 25per cent of the population by 2050, and freshwater river area is expected to decrease in the southwest coastal zone. Water scarcity leads to various health issues, including diarrheal diseases, dengue, hypertension, and skin diseases. Climate change exacerbates these conditions by affecting water supply, sanitation, and food production. Drought is also predicted to become prevalent in some regions of Bangladesh.
The government is taking steps to adapt to climate change impacts, focusing on nature-based solutions, clean water sources, improving accessibility, and mobilising resources for water security. Efforts are being made to improve water governance and allocate funds for coastal developments. However, challenges remain in ensuring clean water access for all and addressing the risks associated with contaminated water sources.
AIR POLLUTION: Climate change affects air pollution through changes in atmospheric conditions and chemical reactions. Bangladesh has been ranked first in average PM 2.5 concentration, indicating poor air quality. Generally, areas with a PM 2.5 concentration >50 (?g/m³) exceed WHO PM 2.5 guidelines by over ten times. The capital, Dhaka, specifically has high levels of particulate matter. The transboundary movement of air pollutants from neighbouring countries like India and Nepal contributes to air pollution in Bangladesh, particularly during the monsoon and winter seasons.
The country loses US$14 billion annually due to air pollution, more than 5 per cent of its GDP. Air pollution-related illnesses result in approximately 1.8 billion days of work absences worldwide, leading to an annual economic loss of US$101 billion globally. In Bangladesh, exposure to PM 2.5 caused the deaths of around 96,000 children in 2018, reducing the average life expectancy by nearly 2.91 years. The impacts of climate change, including heat stress and decreased working hours, are projected to worsen in major cities due to rapid urbanisation. Both the government and individuals must prioritise climate-conscious actions to address these challenges.
GOVERNMENT ACTIONS: To tackle the consequences of climate change, the government of Bangladesh has undertaken numerous projects over the last few years, such as the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP, 2009), Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan, National Adaptation Plan 2023-2050, and so on. But like all other climate change-vulnerable countries, climate resilience is the key to sustaining against these adverse conditions.
TAKING INSPIRATION FROM AROUND THE WORLD: Climate resilience is the capacity of a system to withstand the effects of climate change while minimising vulnerabilities and preserving essential functions. Achieving this requires building adaptable capabilities, implementing sustainable practices, and promoting resilience at all levels of society, communities, nations, and ecosystems.
Various countries vulnerable to climate change have been attempting to become climate resilient for a long time. Dominica has made significant progress in becoming a climate-resilient country after Hurricane Maria in 2017. It has become the first climate-resilient country in the world to develop a Climate Resilience and Recovery Plan (CRRP) focused on renewable energy, nature-based solutions, resilient infrastructure, community engagement, and international partnerships. Dominica aims to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy. The country invests in resilient infrastructure, conserves natural ecosystems, engages local communities, and receives support from international organisations.
The Netherlands has implemented various initiatives to become a climate-resilient nation, including a Delta Programme, focusing on adaptive delta management, flood risk management, and water management to protect the country from rising sea levels and increased rainfall. The Netherlands has also embraced innovative approaches such as building floating houses, constructing water storage areas, and creating urban green spaces to enhance resilience against climate-related risks.
As a small island city-state, Singapore proactively addresses climate change with Singapore Green Plan 2030. The plan includes enhancing energy efficiency, expanding green spaces, promoting sustainable transportation, implementing climate-resilient infrastructure, and fostering a circular economy. North American country Costa Rica derives more than 98 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, primarily hydropower, wind, and geothermal energy. The country's government has also implemented reforestation programmes and protected significant portions of its forests to preserve biodiversity. Denmark's climate adaptation measures, such as improving coastal protection, enhancing water management systems, and promoting sustainable urban planning, are appreciated worldwide.
These examples demonstrate the diverse approaches countries are taking to become climate-resilient. Bangladesh has implemented climate change policies and plans at the policy level, but addressing climate change requires collaborative efforts from both the public and private sectors. As Bangladesh prepares for LDC graduation, it will lose access to development financing, making it crucial for the ecosystem to unite and build resilience against climate change. Here are four key initiatives that can support these efforts:
CLIMATE-SMART PRODUCTS AND CIRCULAR APPROACH: Developing products and services that consider the needs and well-being of people while minimising their environmental impact is necessary. To encourage private sector's involvement in this endeavour, incentives should be provided. As cities experience a continuous influx of people, building sustainable infrastructure to accommodate this growth is crucial. Infrastructures should be designed with climate resilience in mind, considering energy efficiency, renewable energy integration, and waste management systems. Decentralisation plays a significant role in spreading economic opportunities beyond important cities. Establishing important commercial hubs in other regions can reduce the burden on overcrowded urban centres, leading to more balanced development.
A circular economy approach, where resources are used efficiently and waste is minimised, is instrumental in creating a sustainable future. Encouraging citizen participation in circular economy initiatives can promote a recycling culture. This can be achieved through awareness campaigns, incentivising recycling practices, and implementing waste management systems prioritising recycling and reusing materials. Involving citizens and the private sector in the process can foster a sense of ownership and responsibility towards environmental sustainability, leading to long-term behavioural changes.
CARBON EMISSION REDUCTION: Encouraging the advantages of reducing carbon emissions can help decrease pollution from industries, energy production, agriculture, and transportation. This has environmental benefits and improves public health and air quality in cities.
Considering the current high levels of air pollution, both children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable, and implementing decarbonisation measures could potentially save up to 1 million lives by 2030. While sectors like RMG and textile have already begun adopting green technologies, further promoting their uptake can enhance industry competitiveness. For example, a textile factory that adopts eco-friendly practices can improve its export branding, save costs through resource optimisation, and access lower-cost funding. In addition, incentivising and scaling up innovative low-carbon agriculture practices can contribute to sustainability efforts. Given Bangladesh's limited land mass, there is a need to prioritise renewable energy solutions. Innovations such as rooftop or street solar systems can help expand renewable energy capacity while exploring alternative options like wind and tidal waves can also contribute to the country's energy transition.
RESOURCE OPTIMISATION: To ensure efficient use of resources, it is important to promote sustainable practices like circularity. Adopting a circular economy approach can enhance climate resilience by minimising the extraction of natural resources, preventing waste, and optimising the environmental, social, material, and economic values of materials, components, and products throughout their entire lifecycle. This is particularly crucial in Bangladesh's readymade garments (RMG) and textile sectors, which contribute 15.4 per cent and 12.4 per cent of the country's total industrial CO2 emissions, respectively. Efforts to embrace sustainability and transition to 'green' practices are already underway with the support of development partners, philanthropic organisations, private sector entities, and key stakeholders.
ENABLING ENVIRONMENT FOR INVESTMENT AND INNOVATION: Improving the enabling environment is crucial not only for successful implementation of national plans and policies but also for attracting domestic and international investments. To achieve this, it is essential to empower local government agencies in the public sector, enabling them to implement and plan through a decentralised approach. Sectors such as renewable energy, water and waste management, and agriculture require strategic investment and collaboration with international players to access capital and technical expertise.
However, enhancing the business environment and streamlining domestic capital and profit repatriation processes are necessary to facilitate this collaboration. Greening the financial sector is essential to encourage more investments in environment-friendly projects and support the growth of green businesses. Strong policies related to impact investing, including robust impact measurement and management practices and suitable incentives for investors, will help facilitate the flow of capital towards sustainable initiatives.
Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which are felt in almost every sector. To tackle that, Bangladesh has shown a strong commitment to addressing climate change and building climate resilience by implementing various policies and strategies and engaging in international collaborations and partnerships to access funds and technical expertise for climate resilience projects.
Continued efforts to strengthen adaptive capacity, enhance infrastructure resilience, and promote sustainable practices will contribute to a more climate-resilient nation, ensuring a better future for its citizens and the environment.
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