Published on Let's Talk Development

Proactive, crosscutting adaptation measures are needed to reduce climate change impacts on the poor

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Ferry point at river in southern Bangladesh Ferry point at river in southern Bangladesh

Climatic changes are occurring at unprecedented scales and rates over time scales from centuries to millennia.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR5 report confirmed that since the 1950s, climatic changes are occurring at unprecedented scales and rates over time. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed.  The IPCC projects that all these impacts will continue or worsen over time. Consequently, climate vulnerable countries will confront threats to economic welfare through a variety of channels.  These include elevated health risks, reduced land and labor productivity, degradation of natural ecosystems, greater exposure to extreme events (droughts, storms, floods), and higher infrastructure investment costs.

Scientific and economic research over the past decade has provided increased understanding of the threats that climate change poses for economic progress and poverty reduction.

Research has underscored that climate change threats fall disproportionately on low-income people because where and how they live imply greater risk exposure, while poverty and policy neglect tend to reduce the capacity to adjust to climate change risks.  This challenge is starkly illustrated by the findings of a multi-year, multi-disciplinary program of research assessing those threats in southwest coastal Bangladesh, where the incidence of poverty is very high. In this region, residents already have experienced widespread storm surge inundation and salinization of soil and water resources. These problems will intensify as climate change induces changes in sea level, temperature, rainfall, and in river flows from the Himalayas. The multiplicity of climate change challenges faced by the region is summarized in the Figure below.  

River Southeast coast Bangladesh
  • A changed climate over the next three decades will significantly increase river salinity in the southwest coastal region during the dry season. Growing concern about salinity of groundwater was also reported. This will result in a serious shortage of drinking water from river sources. With this shortage, adverse health effects from drinking more saline water, including dehydration, hypertension, pre-natal complications and increase in infant mortality, will rise. 
  • Increased river salinity also will limit availability of water suitable for dry-season agriculture irrigation. Soil salinity will rise, given more saline irrigation water and water inundating coastal areas during storms. The result will be significant negative impacts on coastal agriculture, especially reduction in the yield of winter rice crop. Livelihoods of rice farmers in coastal areas will suffer. 
  • A substantial reduction in fresh-water (capture) fishery in coastal areas will result. Serious health implications for the poor, women and children are inevitable consequences. Small freshwater wild fish are the major source of dietary protein and essential micronutrients in poor families. A decline in diversity of freshwater wild fish species from increased river salinity will lead to malnutrition in poor families, with greater incidence of maternal anemia, and stunting/ wasting of children.  In addition, the decline of the capture fishery will have adverse impacts on tens of thousands of poor families whose livelihoods currently depend on the fishery. 
  • Adverse impacts from significant changes in the overall balance of flora and fauna in coastal ecosystems are expected.  Increased salinity will adversely affect the food chain of the critically endangered Bengal Tiger and will reduce freshwater-dependent fauna in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, a UNESCO World Heritage location. The tourism potential of Sundarbans may drop, and the risk of wildlife-human conflict for residents will increase. Salinity-induced changes in the mix of mangrove species will reduce the economic benefits of timber harvest, since more salt-tolerant species will predominate at the expense of high-value freshwater timber species.  
  • A major increase in road maintenance expenditure in coastal areas is anticipated. Saline penetration of a road surface leads to progressive blistering, cracking and pulverization. As a result, increasing soil salinity has a large and significant impact on municipal expenditures for road maintenance. The implied welfare impact may be substantial, particularly for poor households, if diversion of local budgets to road maintenance reduces support for community sanitation, health and other programs.

Geographic overlays of poverty maps and zones of rising water and soil salinity indicate that poor and extremely poor people will disproportionately face the threats described above. In addition, outmigration from the coastal region that results from these adverse impacts may well increase the incidence of poverty in the remaining population. IPCC findings also indicate that without strong counter-measures, climate-change impacts will prolong existing poverty in most developing countries, exacerbate inequalities, and create new poverty traps in both developed and developing countries. 

Proactive effort to reduce vulnerability to climate change must be a central pillar in national policies and international support for sustainable development.

Left unattended, climate change-induced degradation will undermine future productivity and jeopardize the prospects for increasing earnings in many vulnerable areas, not just southwest coastal Bangladesh. Therefore, for sustainable poverty alleviation, national policymakers need to develop proactive adaptation plans to alleviate adverse impacts and cope with the potential poverty traps that climate change may create in more vulnerable areas. Growing understanding of the threats to economic progress posed by climate change highlights the need for substantial coordination of actions across sectors.

Proactive climate change adaptation plans must be a central pillar in national planning for sustainable development, as well as in assistance from international development partners.  

Strengthening policies to restrict land use in vulnerable areas, upgrading infrastructure design, maintaining protected areas, and promoting better public health all can provide high returns in their own right while also reducing vulnerability to climate change risks.  For example, investment in mangrove restoration and rehabilitation in coastal areas of Bangladesh would protect vulnerable population, assets and economic activities from cyclone-induced storm surges and provide co-benefits to neighboring population.  In addition, isolated settlements in coastal areas of Bangladesh have limited access to other economic opportunities, since travel times to market centers can be as much as nine hours. Improving market access through upgraded road infrastructure would significantly improve the economic welfare of the population. These investments are beneficial even without considering the threat of climate change, so they are attractive low-regret options.



Susmita Dasgupta

Lead Environmental Economist, Development Research Goup, World Bank

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