Reality check: climate change and the poor

Hannah Reid reports on a field trip to a site in Manikganj District, about three hours from Dhaka city in Bangladesh, to see how vulnerable people are coping with climate-change related impacts.

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Insight by 
Hannah Reid
28 March 2011

The annual international conferences on community-based adaptation are unique in that they include field trips where participants can see for themselves how vulnerable people are coping with climate-change related impacts. I went on my field visit on Saturday (26 March) — to a site in Manikganj District, about three hours from Dhaka city in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh: a living laboratory

People often describe Bangladesh as a ‘living laboratory’ for adaptation. What does this mean? I think in practice it means that communities throughout Bangladesh are at the frontline of climate change impacts and for years having been finding ways to cope with changes in the weather and climate.

For the people we met in Manikganj District, these changes include longer-lasting floods, higher floodwater levels, and river bank erosion. While it is difficult to blame climate change directly for specific events, climate modellers tell us that these are exactly the type of changes we can expect from climate change. So it is reasonable to examine how local people are dealing with these changes and call this ‘community-based adaptation’.

What do the locals know?

I was struck by the local community’s scientific knowledge about climate change. I’d often heard that such communities know a tremendous amount about changing weather patterns — and can easily tell a good year from a bad one in terms of droughts or floods — but that they don’t know much about ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ or ‘climate change’.

Not so in Manikganj District. The community performed a drama for us and it was clear that they knew exactly what these relatively western scientific terms mean both in theory and in practice.

I was also struck by how the community — supported by the local nongovernmental organisation, GSK — has developed a range of strategies and activities to cope with longer floods, higher floodwater levels and the erosion that each year washes away more and more of their crop and homestead land into the nearby Padma River. There was no drama here. And I was deeply affected by the industrious positive way the people of Manikganj District meet these challenges and carry on with daily life.

So what are people doing to adapt?

Many families are moving their homesteads and fodder stores onto raised platforms to keep out of the rising floodwater. They have built small hills with corals and feed stations on top to keep their cattle dry. Similarly, they use chicken houses and portable ovens that can be picked up and moved to dry land during floods.

The ovens even work on the small banana tree rafts that the poorest have built and use during the three or so weeks when the floods force them out of their homes. Families pile goats and all their worldly possessions onto these rafts, and even sleep on them, until the water recedes. Other families have protected their possessions by piling firewood on their roof, or building platforms in their ceilings.

The community is also adapting their use of natural resources. They have built a raised well to stop the floods from polluting fresh groundwater, and we met the woman who manages it and ensures this water is distributed fairly in times of need. New drought- and flood-resistant crops have been planted in the floodplain, and the community also have a resources centre with posters on the walls and a meeting space to encourage learning about sound management of fisheries, forests and agricultural land.

Beyond isolated community initiatives

The field trip provided a strong reality check on climate change and the poor and a good example of how communities are adapting.

The challenge for me and other conference participants now is to try and work out how these isolated case studies can become more than the sum of their parts. How can we modify government policymaking and planning to ensure that the support given to communities like those in Manikganj District is ‘business as usual’ rather than isolated examples? And how can we channel international resources and support towards this type of community initiative rather than the large projects so often preferred by those controlling the purse strings.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘upscaling’ and it is now with a strong reminder of what communities are up against that I look forward to the next few hotel-based days of the conference to see what we can learn in this context.