First United Nations Resilience Academy Held in Bangladesh

December 10, 2013

By Elizabeth Tellman

Densely populated, and with 80% of its area located on a floodplain within 8 meters of sea-level1, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most flood-prone nations.  As such it’s an appropriate setting for a series of two United Nations University Resilience Academies that convene experts in research, policy and practical applications to help developing nations deal with the effects of climate change.

The first resilience academy, including 30 scientists, practitioners, and policy makers from 20 countries, convened in September to frame the effort and clarify the language that will be the basis for the next meetings in Dhaka and Munich over the next 5 years.  Initial discussions reviewed traditional definitions of livelihood and resilience and reframed them in the context of climate change.

The growing realization that climate change will introduce an increased frequency of shocks (like hurricanes) and slow onset change (like sea level rise) presents the potential for new “tipping” points that will stretch our ability to return our livelihoods systems to their original structure.  Challenges for the existing poor and creation of millions of new poor as existing systems adjust to new undesirable weather regimes make resilience critical.

Academy discussions used the lens of livelihood resilience to connote not just “bouncing back” to a previous system after a shock, but creating new regimes and livelihood systems that increase flexibility and function. “Bouncing forward” implies a transformational change rather than business as usual so the poor aren’t forever trapped in unsustainable livelihood systems.   

Transformational change, focused on the most vulnerable, differs from climate change adaptation, which implies transitioning livelihoods (i.e. farming shrimp instead of rice in coastal areas experiencing salinity), rather than systemic change. Livelihood resilience implies an analysis of how we can make systems more redundant to better support human welfare.  Livelihood resilience requires an analysis of how climate change will affect 5 types of capital (human, physical, financial, social, and natural) across all scales, and identify potential feedback loops and cross scalar connections. For example, a livelihood resilience framework would not simply transition farmers in a community from rice to shrimp, but would diversify the options.  Understanding the connection between urbanization and sea level rise might suggest looking at how emigration affects community cohesion or how an influx of cash allows families to build up savings to increase resilience from floods.

Relocation and loss and damage in the context of physical and social limits to adaptation

Participants in the Academy provided their own experiences of why a new approach is needed.  Dr. Robin Bronon, from the University of Alaska cited Newtok, Alaska as an  example of the daunting challenge of climate change adaptation.  Not all communities can adapt in situ and permanent land loss and inhabitability may result.  Faced with a 3.5 degree temperature increase since 1975, Newtok has voted 3 times to relocate, but the United States has no framework to support permanent community relocation in the context of climate change.  The state of Alaska has spent millions in erosion controls, and building seawalls that have collapsed in similar villages like Kivalina.

Dr. Karen McNamara from University of Queensland reported how island countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are also losing land permanently and require more complex frameworks to accommodate climate change migration.

Bangladesh’s Challenges

Bangladesh is a laboratory to understand livelihood resilience: With over 160 million people and over 1000 people per square kilometer, it is one of the
most densely populated countries in the world.
With a per capita income (GDP PPP for 2012) of $2000 annually, it is also one of the poorest.
 Located on a delta of 3 rivers, Bangladesh is no stranger to extreme climatic
events. In the past 10 years, over 7,000 people have died and 72 million people been affected by major storms, hurricanes, and floods (Em-dat Database). The flooding Bangladesh experiences nearly every year displaces thousands to millions of people.
Accelerating urbanization in the growth of
capital mega-city of Dhaka is astounding and
unregulated. Tragedies like the Rana Plaza Savar garment factory collapse a few months ago killed 1,129 people, nearly all of who migrated to Dhaka from rural areas in the past few years.

While challenges to development are great, the country has had remarkable growth of 5- 6% GDP for the last decade. The country has learned to adapt to environmental change, and these lessons will be crucial. 40% of the country’s arable land is expected to disappear or be rendered useless for agriculture due to salination from sea level rise, further displacing millions of people.

Bangladesh’s Response

Bangla people have decided to confront climate change head on; and are often heralded as one of the countries leading the way in thinking through climate change adaptation.  The International Centre for Climate Change Adaptation and Development (ICCCAD) based in Dhaka, focuses on community-based adaptation and scientific research that includes decentralized solar energy systems, development of new strains of rice that can grow in saline, flood, and drought conditions, innovative early warning evacuation systems, and gender-based adaptation strategies. ICCCAD co-hosted the academy and arranged field visits.  Half the participants visited Bhola Slum, an incredible place where 300,000 people displaced by cyclones live in a 1.6 acre piece of land in Dhaka.  The other half of the group visited rural communities displaced by the active geomorphology on a river delta.  (According to community leaders, river erosion has accelerated in recent years due to increased and unpredictable precipitation.)

Agriculture in Bangladesh
relies on a predictable monsoon
season for rain fed agriculture, and just the right amount of
water to flood rice fields at the
right time. Premature floods wash away seeds and late floods can destroy the harvest. Community members told us how they have recently lost 100 homes to riverbank erosion, and are living in temporary straw structures on land they do not have rights to. In addition to losing their homes, many villagers lost their livelihoods, as
cropland was permanently lost to the
changing river. The loss of livelihood has
cascading effects.

A Home Visit:  Sohel’s View

In one of the displaced communities, a young boy, Sohel, was the
only child who spoke English. He invited me to come see his one
room home, and took my notebook and
began to write essential Bangla words and
their English translations, which I recited
to a crowd of giggling children
who corrected me in unison. He
excitedly thanked me for coming to learn about their problems.  When I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up the conversation shifted tone. He explained that he has not been to school since his family lost his land. In his words, his family used to be “rich” and owned land, but now he cannot continue with school and complete his dreams of becoming a doctor.

Sohel’s family structure was broken.  His father could not farm and now lives and labors in Dhaka. While the family has survived and “adapted” to climate shock, neither they nor their  community are thriving.  Greater resiliency would have allowed them to recover from the flood in a way that would not have disrupted Sohel’s schooling. Unfortunately, the rural poor’s livelihoods often depend on natural capital systems that can be destroyed in any extreme event, and children like Sohel can go from being moderately to extremely poor. The point here is not that “climate change” caused the river erosion that affected Sohel’s community, but to understand that in places with low livelihood resilience, recovering from shock is not possible. Environmental change has cascading effects that can cause regime shifts in communities like Sohel’s; and climate change is predicted to increase these extreme events, accelerating the unpredictability of both river erosion and the dreams of children like Sohel in Bangladesh.

Paths forwards for resilience research, policy, and practice

The first cohort of 30 participants in the Resilience Academy will continue to collaborate and meet again in Munich next year.  Having identified research and policy gaps in livelihood resilience, the group will publish joint articles to synergize research on livelihoods resilience inspired by the experience of the Academy in the context of Bangladesh.  

I will be lead author on an article with a Honduran, Colombian and North American colleague to explore feedback loops of environmental shock, erosion of social capital, and violence as an obstacle to livelihood resilience in Latin America. I will co-author a second article with colleagues working in Haiti, India, and Mozambique about integrated data management for resilience building. Nearly a dozen other commitments and collaboration came out of the Academy to tackle issues including preservation of a ‘sense of place’ in human relocation, exploring ‘pernicious resilience’ and ‘unsustainable livelihoods.’ We hope this new research and
collaboration will begin building transformational change through a lifetime of North-South exchanges between practitioners, policy makers and academics. Thank you to the
people of Bangladesh who showed me an
incredible strength of human spirit that touched
my heart and strengthened by resolve to build a better world.

Thanks to the Munich-Re Foundation for funding this initiative Works cited

Causes of the Flooding in BangladeshEnvironmental IssueFloods In BangladeshGeographyPopulation by Khaled Saifullah on March 27, 2009