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?
Data indicate that Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in disaster preparedness, especially with early warning systems, active disaster management committees at central and local levels and cyclone shelters to protect local populations. In 1970, there were no cyclone shelters and over half a million people got killed. In 2007, the cyclone Sidr had the same intensity, but death toll was around 3500. However, many of these shelters are ill-equipped to accommodate women and girls. Separate toilet facilities and privacy for women are often lacking.
World Bank is assisting Bangladesh government to conduct a study on Gender and Climate Change Adaptation. This examines the gender dimensions of climate change, so that it can provide valuable inputs for designing development interventions that could build effective and equitable resilience for all.
I attended a Participatory Adaptation of Capacity Assessment (PACA) workshop was recently organized in Borguna, a coastal area in south-east of Bangladesh. The day long discussions reveal that realities on the ground are quite different from myths and traditional perceptions about women in Bangladesh. Some examples are:
Myth 1: More women than men die in cyclones as women cannot swim. Bangladesh is a conservative society, so women are not allowed to swim. (In 1991, 90% of the victims of the Bangladesh cyclone were reported to be women and children, and in 2007 cyclone, the ratio of male and female death was 1: 5).
Reality 1: rural women, especially those living in coastal and flood prone areas can swim very well. However, as they are responsible for household and children, and as the house is perhaps women’s only asset, they usually do not go to shelters on time. Also women were sarees, these can get entangled easily during disasters, and as they are usually carrying 2-3 children, they drown. Furthermore, most of the cyclones shelters are not women friendly as do not have separate space/rooms or toilets. Laila Begum, one survivor of cyclone Sidr said “I had nothing else except my home, it is my only safe shelter. But when the storm started, and roof fell on my head, I had no choice but to go to the shelter. Later I found that my home was washed away by the tidal wave. If I had not gone to the shelter, I would have perished with my children. However, living in the shelter with other men in the same room was very difficult, as my husband is in the city. It would have been better if there are separate rooms for men and women in the shelter”
Myth 2: Women have less social capital as they are secluded within household, and most of them are not members of community organizations.
Reality 2: Women have much higher social capital than men, through family and social networks. Women also bond well, and help each other in need.
Myth 3: Women usually have less adaptation options, will stay at home and not migrate.
Reality 3: Migration rate is higher among rich and poor women and men. Poor women are migrating to the capital Dhaka or other large cities where jobs are available. Men usually move to nearby areas as agriculture laborers or transport workers.
The PACA workshop also confirmed that gender-based inequalities in socio-economic, political and cultural norms are heightening the sensitivity of particular groups of women in Bangladesh to the impacts of climate change. Saleha Begum stressed her specific vulnerability “my husband died in Cyclone Sidr. As I did not any children, my in-laws banished me from my husband’s home, telling me that I have no claim on my husband’s property. As I am poor, I could not seek justice from the legal system.” Women also informed that as salinity level is rising, trees are dying, and they now need to walk longer distances to collect water and fuel, risking their health and safety in the process.
The workshop was an eye opener for most of the climate experts living in the urban areas, who perhaps never experienced a massive natural disaster personally. I again felt that there is a major difference between academic research on climate change and living through the changes, while it reduces one by one livelihood and survival options. It was apparent that these most vulnerable communities, even their local governments did not know much or have “voice” about the climate preparedness program of the government. There seems a major gap between the national program that is trying to develop resilience of the communities and local needs of women and men. Designing development interventions that address the ways in which climate change impacts men and women differently, and listening to their needs, constraints and priorities, building on their knowledge become all the more important.