Hot on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bopha lashed the shores of the Philippines earlier this month, leaving 900 dead and 80,000 homeless. Extreme weather is becoming the norm. The World Bank-commissioned report, “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided” found that scientists are unanimously predicting warming of 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The social, economic, and environmental consequences will be devastating. Over the past 20 years, over half of South Asians – more than 750 million people – have been affected by natural disasters, with the loss of life estimated at more than 60,000, and damages above $45 billion.
For a number of years, a majority of South Asians have been painfully aware that climate change is real and, if left unfettered, has the potential to reverse the significant gains the region has made on poverty reduction and other Millennium Development Goals.
In 2009, the government of the Maldives held a Cabinet meeting underwater to remind the world that the country – which is on average 2.7 meters above sea level – will be completely wiped out if oceans rise.
Nepal’s government held a Cabinet meeting at the base of Mount Everest – at an altitude of 5,242 meters above sea level – to stress that 1.3 billion Asians depend on the seven major rivers with headwaters originating from the vulnerable Himalayan glaciers for their livelihoods.
Farmers in Bangladesh adapting to increased soil salinity and climate change.
Barguna is at the very southern end of Bangladesh and looks nothing like the rest of the country.
Bangladesh is very green – driving through you can see the luxuriant green rice fields stretching out endlessly, the spread interrupted only by clusters of dark trees surrounding a small village, and sometimes by the yellow patches of mustard fields. But Barguna is not green and vibrant - it has now become drab brown.
Stepping onto the soil of Barguna, one is reminded of a parched desert. The ground is rock-hard, cracked and mostly barren. I was careful, threading lightly - afraid of stepping too hard in case the ground suddenly gave away.
The district wasn’t always this desolate. But devastated by repeated cyclones, erratic weather patterns and saline intrusion along the coast, farmers in these coastal communities have seen their lands yield less and less with the passing years.
“I still remember Cyclone Sidr in 2007,” said Hasina Begum, Headmistress of Paschim Napitkhali Primary School in Barguna, Bangladesh.
She fell silent, her face slowly crumpling up - the shadows in her dark eyes gathering into deep pools of sadness.
“There were warnings, but nothing could really prepare us for what happened. Cyclone Sidr hit my hometown, Barguna with ferocious intensity. Powerful gusts of winds and heavy rainfalls frightened the helpless people, many of whom had left their homes and processions to seek the protection of cyclone-shelters, like my school.”
The Paschim Napitkhali Primary School, a non-descript two storied building had played a life-saving role in 2007, when Barguna and other coastal regions were hit hard by the storm surge of over 5 meters (16 ft). Initially established by Hasina’s father, the school was later rebuilt and converted into a school-cum-cyclone-shelter. During the year, the primary school bustles with children – but during cyclones and other natural disasters, the building doubles up as a shelter. In 2007, this cyclone-shelter alone had helped save more than 800 people.
Bangladesh can be described as “ground zero” at the intersection of climate change and food security.
The country is widely recognized as one of the places most vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate, which strains food systems alongside rapidly growing and urbanizing populations. Yet, despite these dual challenges, the World Bank expects Bangladesh will meet its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.
Given the impact of the global food crisis and numerous natural disasters, how is Bangladesh managing this feat? And can we map the country’s progress?
This season in Bangladesh marks the 40th anniversary of the 1970 cyclone which ravaged the southern coast and killed over half a million people, decimated the homes of countless families, destroyed millions of livestock, key infrastructure, and damaged productive land. The recent cyclones Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2008 also claimed the lives of over 3000 people each, leaving millions of poor more vulnerable to climate change than ever before. In the wake of all these cyclones, questions were raised about how to build resilience to climate change impacts without compromising national development goals. Is Bangladesh developing differently? What lessons can be learned from experience of Bangladesh to reframe development and climate action as mutually supportive objectives?
If you were in Bangladesh in June, you would have found teachers in schools, preachers in mosques, and ads in newspapers, television, loudspeakers and pamphlets, encouraging people to bring in their incandescent bulbs to exchange with new Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) – and encouraged they were! On Saturday, June 19th 2010, at over 1,400 rural and urban distribution centers spread across 27 districts, manned by teachers, utility workers and other volunteers, Bangladeshis collectively took home about five million high quality CFL bulbs, in the first round of distribution.
They broke a record set by the British in January of 2008, for the most number of CFL bulbs distributed in a single day―some 4.5 million. In June, the Government and people of Bangladesh were inspired to do even better … and they did!
It is not often that you find forest officers sitting face to face with mining officials to discuss environmental sustainability—especially in a state which is rich in both minerals and forest resources. Nor do you often see fishermen walking toe to toe with farmers in sweltering 48° C heat to be heard alongside tribal chiefs and industrialists. And it is not often that a state, dubbed as the disaster capital of India, and which lags behind on every conceivable development indicator, comes out on top by being the first to consult with its people on how to tackle the onslaught of climate change.
Well, this happened last week in India’s coastal state of Orissa, one of the poorest states in the country. While the richer states - Maharashtra and Gujarat - were busy building fancy climate models to predict temperature and rainfall changes fifty years from now, Orissa focused on what it can do today.
The theme for this year’s World Bank Civil Society Fund grant competition is, “Development and Climate Change – Building Community Resilience in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka” While specifying guidelines for the Fund, we encourage applicants to develop proposals based on their creativity. CSF supports activities that empower and enable citizens to take initiatives to influence development outcomes.
Feizal Samath’s recent article,“Children in the Coastal Town of Kalmunai.” gives a snapshot of Gender issues and Climate Change in the dry zone of Sri Lanka. The article captures the burden on women caused by water shortages, health issues due to lack of clean water, and also the need to include women in policy planning.
In a speech made by World Bank Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Naoko Ishii on International Women’s Day 2010, the issue of Gender Equity in the Sri Lankan context was highlighted “Sri Lanka is the best performer in South Asia, when we look at indicators such as by how long women live, how educated they are and if they have a decent standard of living. However, when we measure if women in Sri Lanka have exercised those capacities in economic and political life, the picture looks very different.”
In the course of my daily life here in Washington, climate change is discussed in small conversations, seen and heard on the news, and is an occasional contentious political issue. But truth be told, it feels like a remote subject. Rush hour traffic is as thick as ever, thermostats continue to be turned up, and the recent snow piled as high as I’ve ever seen.
It wasn’t until on a recent trip to Nepal and Sri Lanka for work that I could truly perceive some tangible effects and possible negative impacts of climate change. While driving through dimly lit Kathmandu, which was plagued by 9 hours of blackouts a day, I wondered what was affecting water tables so that less than optimal amounts of hydro power were being generated.