Life between Hope and Despair: Climate Change Impacts in Coastal Bangladesh
Traveling across southwest coastal Bangladesh is not easy. With limited transport infrastructure and facilities, people might end up spending an entire day or night just to travel small distances. In the last week of May (2016), when I arrived coastal city Kuakata in Patuakhali district, literally I spent the whole night to travel ca. 150 miles from Khulna (a regional big city, which is 170 miles southwest of the capital Dhaka). It was a rainy early morning in Kuakata. However, it didn’t took much time to realize local vulnerability to climate impacts. I went to the Kuakata sea beach, and saw how local people are living with the risks of rising tides and coastal erosion. I clearly understood why for local people climate change is not an issue of scientific or political discourse; for them, it is the reality.
After spending few days and talking with local people, I realized local livelihoods are affected by various climate related risks, which can be broadly categorized into two major groups: (1) slow onset climate events such as sea level rise and salinity intrusion in land and groundwater and (2) extreme climate events such as tropical cyclones, coastal floods. Locally more information is available on extreme climate events than slow onset climate impacts, even though those can have long-term impacts on local livelihoods. It is not rare that people from the region are forced to migrate to some other regions, because locally lands are not any more arable due to increasing saltwater intrusion in local lands and ground water. In some areas, people have restricted access to drinking water because of the same reason. Sea level rise, water logging, coastal floods, tropical cyclones are among the long list of disasters that local people experience in their daily life.
A local NGO, ADAMS (Association Development Activity Manifold Social Work) which is working in ten districts across southern Bangladesh, provided me invaluable logistics supports in the field. They helped me to travel into the remotest corners in the region and created opportunities for numerous interactive discussions with the local people. I interacted not only with local farmers or fishermen, I got the opportunity to talk with local government representatives, community activists, and many other village people. I was trying to link my text book references with local climate contexts. It was clearly apparent to me that even though climate change is often presented as a long-term macro-scale process, the reality is manifested and experienced as real-time local level alterations in climate variability.
However, it seemed to me that the future of humanity is now present in the coastal Bangladesh. If the people in this region can sustain, than many other parts of the world that are facing similar challenges can also sustain or thrive under shifting pattern of weather/climate. The future of human race largely depends on how we – social systems in general – will react to the changing patterns of climate. Human responses to climate variability and change can be identified as adaptation. Unfortunately, in coastal Bangladesh not all people have the similar capacities to respond to climate stresses. Some communities or people will do better than others.
Usually, in low-income developing countries these differential capacities to climate adaptation are largely shaped by the deep-rooted structural challenges, such as social marginalization, religious and ethnic exclusion, unequal land ownership, social relationship. In addition to climate risks, these context-specific structural challenges also contribute in determining individual/household capacity to respond to climate stresses.
We need to understand this complexity of human responses to climate change in the local level, and can employ the concepts of vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience, to better identify how responses to climate pressures vary among different households and communities and how we can provide appropriate adaptation solutions. We need to critically analyze what factors improve adaptation decisions, or, specifically enhance and increase adaptive capacity of the local people who are exposed to climate risks. Adaptive capacity is measured in terms of access to assets and resources such as information, social capital, power, diversifications, etc. For my doctoral research, I will explore the role of user-inspired climate services in promoting local adaptation decision-making.
I put “people” at the center of my months long pre-doctoral exploratory field research in coastal Bangladesh, since they are at the frontline of climate change impacts. They live with climate extremes, and realize changing patterns of climate much earlier than we, the researchers, can find. I incorporated local insights on building my climate knowledge on vulnerability and adaptive responses. I found local innovations on farming and livelihood adjustment under climate stresses, such as farming in elevated lands.
When I return to Tucson, AZ, which is quite a different environment with different climatic challenge, I came with new insights, questions, and curiosities. Thanks to CLIMAS’ Climate & Society Graduate Fellow Program for conducting this important work. I often asked myself, did my field visit in Bangladesh made me a more optimistic or a more pessimistic person than I was before. Maybe I was puzzled with the complex nature of climate-society interactions in the region. However, I am fairly confident with concerted efforts among science, society, industry and policy, and as human society, we will thrive and we can survive even in face of largest human challenge that we have ever confronted.