Policy Research Institute - PRI Bangladesh

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Climate change as an environmental as well as development issue

Published: Tuesday, Aug 07, 2012

Climate change as an environmental as well as development issue

Mehrin Karim in the first of a two-part article on 'Climate Change and its impact on economic development of Bangladesh' 

The Third Assessment Report of the inter-governmental panel on Climate Change concluded that climate change is definitely taking place and that low-lying, poor countries like Bangladesh are likely to be the most adversely affected. Being the largest delta in the world located at the downstream of the second largest river system, Bangladesh is subject to a series of climatic events. The probable impacts of global climate change (GCC), particularly sea-level rise and the associated impact on ecosystems and economic loss, adds to the already daunting array of environmental issues. Climate change will alter the physiography and demography of Bangladesh. By 2050, seventy million people could be affected annually by floods; 8.0 million by drought; up to 8.0 per cent of the low-lying lands may become permanently inundated. In addition to direct inundation of a large segment of population, the sea level rise will certainly result in increased frequency and severity of flooding along the major estuarine rivers. Salt water intrusion problems will also be exacerbated in coastal aquifers. Some impacts manifesting in erratic weather patterns and unexpected extreme climatic events have already been evident. The devastating cyclones - Sidr hit Bangladesh on November 15, 2007, and Aila on May 25, 2009 with enormous blow.

Climate change has become a serious concern because once the country is affected, it will cause many economic and social problems with multiple affects. Climate change is expected to hit the developing counties the most. Degradation of natural capital and biodiversity has a serious and direct impact on the food security, nutrition and income of the poor. By studying the problem we shall be in a position to better address it and can in fact take up initiatives to combat the life-threatening menace that is jeopardising the lives and the future of our human resources. 

The widespread flood in 1988 which submerged about two-thirds of the country, and the storm surge of April 1991 which resulted in the deaths of nearly 140,000 coastal inhabitants, are recent reminders of the degree to which the people of Bangladesh are subject to present-day variations in climate. The possibility of changes in climate and sea-level rise must be considered seriously in the context of development.

Agriculture is a key economic driver in Bangladesh, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of the GDP (gross domestic product) and 65 per cent of the labour force. The performance of this sector has considerable influence on overall growth, the trade balance, and the level and structure of poverty and malnutrition.

Moreover, much of the rural population, especially the poor, is reliant on the agriculture as a critical source of livelihoods and employment. The rural poor are traditionally the most dependent on natural resource and lives of the landless communities are totally dependent on natural capital. Traditionally, in Bangladesh, climatic variations have provided opportunities (resources) and imposed costs (hazards), depending on how society adapted to the environment. The effects of these impacts will threaten food security for the most vulnerable people of Bangladesh. The country's agriculture sector is already under stress from lack of cultivable land and population growth. High population densities, a large concentration of poverty, and climate variability have all combined to make Bangladesh highly sensitive to the consequences of climate change. Since 1965 the population of Bangladesh has more than doubled to about 152.52 million. This has put severe pressure on the limited land resource leading in some areas to its degradation.

There are a few distinctive impacts of climate change on the overall economic development of Bangladesh.

Migration: The population of Bangladesh is overwhelmingly rural. Because there is a degradation of land and there is an increased salinity of sea water, fisheries is also affected. We know from econometric analysis, that the poorest suffers the most in Bangladesh. Climate change brings a variation in the occupation of the rural living people. They shift from the agro-based occupation to more informal sectors making a rural-urban migration. The urban centres will absorb over 80 per cent of the population which will put an increased pressure on the urban job market. Exposure to natural disasters depreciates marginal land holdings and triggers many people to relocate. Limited opportunities mean many migrants relocate not only in areas at risk from climate extremes (drought-prone western districts, cyclone-prone coasts, and active floodplains), but also from adverse social and environmental conditions. In general, migrants are particularly susceptible to environmental disruptions, because they lack supportive infrastructure and employment. However industrial workers tend to receive increased social attention and services in contrast to those who come to urban centres or the vicinities, almost forcibly. Forced out-migration therefore has been seen as a curse in the least developing country. Forced displacements as a consequence of failed livelihood have never drawn social sympathy; rather it has created revulsion instead.

A continuation of high migration rates is likely to aggravate the potential socio-economic situation. This increasing concentration of people in large urban areas could increase the risk of catastrophe from rare climatic events and is likely to create additional risks of climate impacts such as heat stress, urban flooding, and urban drought. Overall, the trend of high population growth in Bangladesh should increase vulnerability to climate and sea level change.

Negative impact on investment: Consecutive natural disasters create an atmosphere of uncertainty that discourages potential investors. Increased spending can lead to higher fiscal deficits and cause inflation. Reallocation of expenditures may draw funds from planned investment. Even when repair or recovery is funded by aid, this aid may not be entirely additional. Donors tend to advance commitments within existing multi-year country programmes and budget envelopes. As a result, the amount of aid provided following the natural disaster is diverted from development flows. Bangladesh is still trying to move to an industrial-based sector and when it will be affected by the negative impacts of climate change, then it will lag behind.

Loss of stock of capital: The stock of capital and human resources can be damaged (through migration and death) or their productivity reduced by disruption of infrastructure and markets.

Disasters reduce the stock of capital, which leads to immediate losses in annual production. This short-term reduction in GDP can also be direct, for example, when a drought reduces agricultural production. Investment as a proportion of GDP declined during the1990's from 15.9 to 11.7 per cent. This has eroded the economic base for future growth, which together with low domestic savings, uncertain foreign remittances, and dependence on foreign aid for which prospects are no longer that bright, suggests that the task ahead in moving the economy forward is alarming. Climate change will thus result in a loss of both human and investment capital. 

Food security and water supply: There is a wide consensus that climate change will worsen food security in Bangladesh through continuous climatic shifts, as well as increasing extreme events. Hunger is not a sporadic episode in Bangladesh: a large number of its population is undernourished, and 33 per cent of children are stunted, underweight, or wasted. A combination of factors explains the reduction and uncertainty of crop, livestock, and fishery yields. As an additional threat to development, access to water is likely to be the source of an increasing number of conflicts in the future global warming. This will result in a reduction in soil moisture in sub-humid regions and a reduction in runoff, because high temperatures enhance evaporation. With a low income it is difficult for individuals to acquire adequate lavels of food and nutrition and as there will be limited access to food and water it will affect both the adult and the children. It will result in severe muscle wastage, increased susceptible to diseases, and all of this will contribute to do less productive work thus perpetuating the state of poverty in which they find themselves. All these indicate that Bangladesh is in dire straits. Climate change has serious consequences on the economy as well as the environment. Thus Bangladesh is caught up in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment. Massive health hazards will result in unproductive labour force which in turn would be unable to contribute potentially to the national income and development. Hence, the woes of commoners would further exacerbate and push our country to further danger. 

(The writer is Senior Research Associate, Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI).