Heads above water: how Bangladeshis are confronting climate change

Joseph Hanlon

Low-lying Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, but its people are not helpless victims. Via traditional wisdom and pragmatic innovation, they are literally holding back the sea, writes Joseph Hanlon

Sometimes I think that the media and aid agencies want Bangladeshis to be victims who we can rush in and ‘save’. The reality is just the opposite. As a vice chancellor of a Bangladeshi university told me, “Bangladesh is God’s laboratory on natural disaster, so we know how to deal with most of this.”

It is the most densely populated country in the world, lying as it does on a rich delta that allows it to feed its people. That valuable location comes at a price. Huge floods are caused by heavy monsoon rains and water pouring down rivers from the Himalayas and destructive cyclones come up the Bay of Bengal. Climate change will make the floods and cyclones worse.

But Bangladeshi scientists and government officials moved quickly when they saw what climate change might do, and have played a major role in annual climate change negotiations as well as building on their experience to adapt. Cyclone shelters and early warning systems have cut the death rate from cyclones by 99 per cent in recent years. The shelters are two or three-story concrete buildings that stand out on the flat coastal zone. More are being built and being designed to withstand even stronger winds.

Adaptations such as building rural houses to be above the normal flood level and raising the level of water pumps are common. Already, newer houses are being built on higher plinths. In urban areas, land is filled to raise the level, and housing built on top. In low income areas of cities such as Dhaka, lower floors are sometimes flooded, so people build platforms inside their rooms. Toilets and pumps are increasingly being raised to be above flood level. Ladders provide access to upper storeys.

Local people cut the dykes, let in the sediment, and raised the land to allow farming to resume

But the most dramatic response has come from coastal areas. Each year, the floods bring a billion tonnes of sediment down from the Himalayas. Local communities reworked centuries-old techniques to spread this sediment across fields and raise the level of the land. They worked with government engineers to develop systems which will now be used to raise the land to match rising sea levels.

One of the biggest problems is the refusal of aid agencies and foreign journalists to recognise Bengali expertise and knowledge. Agencies continue to impose inappropriate projects, and assume Bangladesh’s relative poverty means its people are stupid. The use of sediment to raise the land was first developed by local communities to clean up a mess created by billions of pounds of aid, which was used to build thousands of kilometres of dykes to create Dutch-style polders. This ignored the massive monsoon rains, of several metres a year, which flooded the polders behind the dykes, making them unusable. Local people cut the dykes, let in the sediment, and raised the land to allow farming to resume.

When visiting, I was impressed by the quality and clarity of Bangladeshi intellectuals, university academics, scientists and engineers. But I was equally impressed by their willingness to work with local communities – to use and develop local knowledge through a real partnership. Regular redesigns of cyclone shelters and warning systems means improvements to cyclone protection, a combination of local experience with sensible technical solutions.

We could tell the story differently. We need to learn to talk to local communities without the filter of global NGOs and aid agencies. Bangladesh refuses to drown. Its experts are fighting in the global arena to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, while at home, people are already making the changes to keep their heads above water.

Joseph Hanlon is visiting senior fellow at the Department of International Development of the London School of Economics and visiting senior research fellow at the Development Policy and Practice centre of the Open University.

Bangladesh confronts climate change: Keeping our heads above water, by Manoj Roy, Joseph Hanlon and David Hulme, is published by Anthem Press.

Image: Md. Minhaz Ul Islam Nizami


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  • Minhaz Nizami

    nicely written and great to see you using my picture.
    Dr.Minhaz

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