Considering Adaptation to Climate Change Towards a Sustainable Development of Bangladesh

Executive Summary - October, 1999

Prepared for: South Asia Region , The World Bank , Washington, DC

Prepared by:

Mr. Rob Koudstaal, MSc
Ms. Saskia E. Werners, MSc
Resource Analysis
P.O. Box 2814
2601 CV  Delft
The Netherlands
Dr. Ahsan Uddin Ahmed
Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad
P.O. Box 5007 (New Market)
Dhaka - 1205
In association with:  With contributions of:
Dr. Atiq Rahman
Dr. Saleemul Huq
Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies
GPO Box 3971
Dahaka-1209, Bangladesh
Stratus Consulting Inc.
Boulder, Colorado, USA

International Global Change Institute
University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

Summary.1 - Introduction

Human induced changes in the global climate and associated sea level rise are widely accepted with policy makers and scientists. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”. The exact magnitude of the changes in the global climate is still uncertain and subject of worldwide scientific studies. It is broadly recognized that Bangladesh is very vulnerable to these changes. Indeed, it has internationally been argued that Bangladesh, as a country, may suffer the most severe impacts from climate change.

Bangladesh is highly vulnerable, because it is low-lying, located on the Bay of Bengal in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna and densely populated. Its national economy strongly depends on agriculture and natural resources that are sensitive to climate change and sea level rise.

This study focuses on the vulnerability to climate change and the possibilities for adaptation in Bangladesh. Vulnerability (the extent to which climate change may damage or harm a system [1] ) considers sensitivity (the degree to which a system will respond to climate change) and adaptability (the degree to which adjustments are possible in practices, processes or structures).

The study first identifies the major climate change related problems: reduced fresh water availability, surface drainage congestion, sea level rise, increased floods and coastal storms, and how they affect the country. Secondly, the study aims to provide direction on how the potential effects of climate change and adaptation options can be factored into policy making. Thus the study looks at the strategic implications of climate change for policy makers and the strategic direction that policy makers could take. It is not meant as a guide or manual for policy makers and project managers in Bangladesh to incorporate in their project planning without any further work. Rather it is meant to be used as a discussion document to enable a broad consensus of practitioners and planners in Bangladesh on priorities for further action. Only after achieving such consensus a move should be made to the next stage of developing more project–specific or sector-specific guidelines.

Finally, this study illustrates how dealing with climate change could be incorporated in ongoing initiatives through analyzing development projects that may be sensitive to impacts of climate change and through proposing adaptation measures.

The climate change threat for Bangladesh is related to development. On the one hand development could facilitate the introduction of adaptation measures. On the other hand, given the overriding importance of the coastal and fresh water resources in Bangladesh, climate change posses a major threat to sustainable development. Rather than being mutually exclusive, adapting to climate change should be seen as a requirement for sustainable development.

The report illustrates key risks from climate change and the necessary strategic adaptation. It is written to help stimulate thinking among development and climate sensitive sector experts and planners in the GOB, the Bank, and the rest of the donor community. The report shows the need for far greater emphasis on knowledge based integrated planning and decision making, and a greater focus on monitoring and provision of reliable data. With this strategic move, there are feasible ways to adapt to climate change.

Summary.2 - Key risks

Sea level rise, temperature rise, increased evaporation, changes in precipitation and changes in cross boundary river flows are identified as the agents of change, which cause the most threatening impacts in the natural, social and economic systems of the country. They are quantified in this report but cannot be addressed by policy makers and planners in Bangladesh alone.

The agents of change have an impact on several main natural system processes, such as: inundation, storm surges, low river flows, salt water intrusion, and river and coastal morphology. They pose a risk to the country's social and economic development. The extend of the impacts is within the direct control of the policy makers and planners in Bangladesh. Therefore, the report focuses on dealing with these impacts.

The following key risks have been identified for adaptation: drainage congestion, reduced fresh water availability, disturbance of morphologic processes and increased intensity of flooding and disasters. The key risks can be classified as (i) gradual long-term changes, or (ii) changes in frequency and intensity of extreme events. Adaptation to long-term changes is emphasized for several reasons:

About drainage congestion

The combined effect of higher sea water levels, subsidence, siltation of estuary branches, higher riverbed levels and reduced sedimentation in flood protected areas, will gradually increase drainage and water logging problems. This effect will be particularly strong in the coastal zone but occurs also in riverine flood plains. The problem will be aggravated by the steady development of infrastructure as well as embankments reducing the limited natural drainage capacity in the delta and the flood plains. One of the key effects of drainage congestion is that it will increase the period of inundation. This will hamper agricultural production. In addition it poses a threat to human health by increasing the potential for water borne diseases. Drainage congestion is one of the key reasons for anticipatory adaptation because of its adverse effects on agriculture, human health and hydrology.

About reduced fresh water availability

Low river flows and increased evapotranspiration in the dry period will reduce the amount of fresh water that is available. In the coastal zone there is the additional effect of saline water intrusion into the estuaries and into the groundwater as a result of low river flow, sea level rise and local over-abstraction. Since (shallow) groundwater is fully replenished in the wet season, drainage congestion does not improve fresh water availability. Reduced availability will become a serious constraint to development that is aggravated by growing demands from population growth, economic development and by climate change because of increased evapotranspiration. Reduced fresh water availability as a result of reduced supply and growing demand, is a threat to all sectors in Bangladesh.

About disturbance of morphologic processes

Bangladesh' riverine and coastal morphological processes are extremely dynamic, to a large extend because of the tidal and seasonal variations in river flows and run-off. Climate change is expected to increase these variations, giving rise to two related and disturbing processes:

(i)                  Increased bank erosion and bed level changes of rivers and coastal areas. Theory gives an exponential increase of morphological activity with increased river flow, implying that bank erosion might substantially increase in the future. Experience with the latest severe floods in Bangladesh seems to support this prediction. The yearly erosion of river and coastal banks incurs the loss of valuable land and homesteads of hundred of thousands of people, which is not compensated by the accretion and allotment of new lands.

(ii)                Disturbance of the balance between river sediment transport and deposition in rivers, coastal areas and flood plains. Disturbance of the sedimentation balance will result in higher bed levels of rivers and coastal areas, which in turn will lead to higher water levels. In the coastal zone this effect is enhanced by sea level rise. Continuous protection of rural areas against inundation will further reduce the sedimentation in the flood plains, which might increase riverbank erosion, drainage congestion and the risk of flooding.

About increased incidence of flooding and disasters

The increase of extreme events particularly relates to cyclones, riverine and coastal floods and droughts. The reason that disasters are one of the key reasons for anticipatory adaptation is that, even though the country is relatively well equipped to manage the cyclone and flood disasters, an increased incidence of these disasters implies a major constraint to the country's social and economic development. Foreign investment in the coastal zone, for example, is likely to be affected by the risks of cyclones and increased flooding, hampering the exploitation of the oil and gas resources, the prospects of industrialization in that area and the necessary chances to adapt to climate change in the coastal zone.

Summary.3 - Strategic adaptation to climate change

Climate change offers an additional challenge for policy makers and planners in Bangladesh. Business as usual is no longer good enough and new concepts are required in the management of natural resources and the socio-economic system.

This study tries to identify the strategic adaptations that should be considered by policy makers and planners to strengthen the capacity of Bangladesh to deal with climate change. Focus is on anticipatory, rather than on reactive adaptation. An anticipatory approach is favored over a reactive response because impacts of climate change are found that (i) are gradual, long-term and may be irreversible; (ii) increase the intensity of extreme events, such as cyclones and floods; (iii) affect the long-term performance of planning decisions and investments.

Strategic adaptations are formulated in line with the key impacts and the key challenges that are summarized hereafter. Strategic adaptation to climate change should produce a coordinated response, supported by all stakeholders, on three different levels:

Thus, strategic adaptation relates to a coordinated institutional response, enhancing integrated planning, information management and international activities. These directions are considered crucial in the effort to reduce Bangladesh' vulnerability to climate change. Not only do they prepare and are they needed for the implementation of more operational actions, but they would also significantly contribute to an increased awareness, which in itself is a core strategic adaptation.

A. Coordinated institutional response to climate change in Bangladesh

A coordinated institutional response to climate change within the GOB is needed. The adaptations that are discussed hereafter depend on this government support. There are several options for coordinating climate change activities, including:

B. Integrated planning

Integrated planning is identified as one of the key adaptations to reduce Bangladesh' vulnerability to climate change. This holds in particular for the coastal zone and fresh water resources. Community participation on different levels and effective strengthening of local management organizations are essential parts of integrated planning for functional resources management. Following actions are recommended.

1. Support and continue to improve structures and procedures
for Integrated Water Resources Planning
Water resources planning is a proper mechanism to account for the many aspects of supply and demand of water and to consider long-term issues of sustainable resource management. Through integrated management the different sectoral interests can be coordinated and links can be made to land use and environmental planning and management. In addition various initiatives to regulate and divert water either by physical adaptations or operational control should be coordinated on a (sub-) national level to optimize coherence. The National Water Management Plan NWMP is currently being revised by the Water Research and Planning Organization (WARPO) for the NWRC. The plan offers an excellent opportunity to integrate climate change related issues in resource management development planning. A clear link should be made to integrated coastal zone management initiatives.

2. Strengthening of integrated coastal zone management (ICZM).
ICZM aims at optimal use of the combined potential of all coastal resources. The ICZM plan should consider existing and future threats to the coastal zone and adaptation possibilities (CZMS, 1990).
In March 1999, a Joint Donor Identification Mission structured an approach for integrated coastal zone management in Bangladesh. During a preparatory phase of about two years, an ICZM program will be developed, based on consensus between all stakeholders involved. Input from the national, regional and local level is important to build confidence and take advantage of local knowledge about adaptation. The program is to be implemented in a second investment phase. There is no specific agency responsible for coastal zone planning in Bangladesh yet. Therefore all different agencies, that have responsibilities for the different sectors have to be included.

C. Information management

Policy and development planning depends on accessible accurate information and on coordinated research and evaluation. However, information about climate change related issues is scattered and sometimes difficult to access. Political focus is recommended on the management of climate change information. The study identifies a number of information needs:

1. Research, analysis and data provision about climate change

Bangladesh has a long experience in climate change research. It is represented in international fora, and organizations such as BIDS, BUET, BUP, BCAS, SPARRSO, BARC, EGIS and SWMC have been actively involved in various studies on climate change. However, information about climate change related issues is scattered, incomplete and sometimes difficult to access. Policy and development planning relies on this information. It is strongly recommended to stimulate and promote scientific work and that the Government develops a focused policy towards a coordinated research agenda and a modern climate change knowledge base, that is integrated and widely shared. This would not only strongly support planning and awareness building, but also enhance Bangladesh' role in international negotiations, as outlined hereafter.

Key issues are the coordination between different research organizations and identification of research possibilities on climate change issues in existing project such as ARMP, ICZM, BEMP and SEMP.

2. Prepare practical guidelines on including climate change issues in planning and design

An important recommendation in the short term, is the preparation of planning guidelines for climate change issues that agree on best possible estimates of the expected impacts, a typology of anticipatory adaptation measures, and a framework for the analysis and assessment of possible adaptations. Next criteria could be developed to evaluate proposed projects with respect to the expected impacts, just as they might be evaluated with respect to social transformation or economic impact. Development of an analytical framework for analysis of climate change impacts is well within present Bangladeshi capacity. These impacts and criteria should become integrated into the frame of mind  in Bangladesh as well as in the protocols for infrastructure design.

3. Climate Change Impact Assessments (CCIA)

Part of the integrated planning approaches could be a more formal obligation to make a CCIA and present such an impact assessment to a responsible authority. Pilot CCIAs could be made in close coordination with the development of specific planning guidelines.

4. Development of a climate change knowledge base

Development of a modern knowledge base, integrated and widely shared, to support policy and development planning is of great strategic importance to Bangladesh. Regional climate data monitoring and recording networks for Bangladesh, South Asia, and the Bay of Bengal should be maintained and enhanced. Without a continuous and reliable stream of data with broad geographic coverage, it is difficult to determine if and how climate is changing. In addition, there needs to be sufficient support for analysis of the data to examine changes in climate and variability.

Climate change adds a long-term strategic perspective to the ongoing development of an integrated information system including GIS and Remote Sensing for the coastal zone. The NWMP process offers an opportunity to incorporate this recommendation and to make the necessary institutional changes, including the more open sharing of information.

5. Awareness building and dissemination

Awareness building and dissemination plays an important role on many different levels from the general public, local farmers, and local government to NGOs, scientists, policy makers, planners and politicians in the government. All levels have their own information requirements and can in their own way respond to the climate change threat. At all levels lack of information hampers adaptation to climate change: policy makers may fail to recognize the effect of climate change on the success of their projects and local farmers may be unaware of crop varieties that are less vulnerable to flooding and salinity.

A national awareness building program should coordinate the dissemination of knowledge about the effects of climate change and possibilities for adaptation. Connection with ongoing initiatives should be sought. Under the SEMP and BEMP projects mechanisms are implemented for awareness raising on environmental issues. Guidelines on including climate change issues in planning may be formulated and shared among other ministries as part of BEMP.

Climate change adaptations, especially in the water sector, could be disseminated by the Bangladesh Water Partnership. Similarly, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) could play a major role in raising awareness in the ministries concerned. The apex body of NGOs, the Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh (ADAB) in coordination with the Coalition for Environmental NGOs (CEN) can disseminate information at the grassroots. For creating general awareness, media can play an important role. The Federation of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh (FEJB) and the Ministry of Information (MOI) should have a role, especially under the SEMP, in raising awareness about climate change related issues with the general public.

D. International activities

A special type of adaptation measure focuses on the causes or sources of climate change. They are not under the exclusive control of the planners and policy makers in Bangladesh, but can and have to be addressed in an international effort. Examples are cross-boundary river flows and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

1. Actively participate in all international debates on climate changes.

The level of reduction of global emission will influence the magnitude of climate change impacts. Although Bangladesh’ contribution to global greenhouse gas emission is minimal, Bangladesh should become a more active participant in the international efforts (IPCC, UNFCC, COP) addressing the underlying causes of climate change and encourage countries (both developed and developing) to agree to binding targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, as in the Kyoto protocol targets. A strategy is needed for participating in international negotiations with a team of negotiators, backed up by a national team of experts. Debates on effects, mitigation as well as adaptation could be followed to attract more international attention to the severe adverse effects of climate change in countries like Bangladesh. In addition, Bangladesh could actively promote international support to implement adaptation measures. The expertise of Bangladesh in climate change related issues greatly facilitates such a role; the proposed research above would further enhance it.

2. Incorporate climate change considerations in water sharing negotiations.

A treaty on sharing the Ganges waters at Farakka was signed in December 1996. This treaty also provides a commitment for settling water-sharing arrangements of all common river basins. It is recommended that such negotiations include contingencies for changes in runoff and demand due to climate change.

Summary.4 - Impacts of climate change and sectoral adaptation

Five sectors have been identified as most relevant to Bangladesh in relation to climate change impacts: coastal resources, fresh water resources, agriculture, ecosystems & biodiversity, and human health. From these sectors coastal resources are most impacted by climate change, whereas ecosystems may be most endangered. The strategic adaptations reach all sectors.

Coastal resources

The key risks that have been identified affect all coastal resources. Inundation of agricultural lands, increased risk of cyclone damage and salinization of important ecological areas, such as the Sundarbans, are the most alarming impacts of climate change.

Key adaptations aim to secure a coastal zone that provides sufficient protection against flooding and storm surges for its population and economic activities. Protection is the most important condition for coastal zone development. To deal with major constraints in coastal water resources (fresh water availability and drainage congestion), a shift to industrialization merits attention, which would reduce the coast's dependence on agriculture. Management of the scarce fresh water requires priority for domestic and industrial uses and for ecologically sound management of coastal ecosystems as the Sundarbans.

Physical possibilities for adaptation to drainage congestion and salinity intrusion seem constrained by limited effectiveness and high costs or require extended institutional arrangements. Recently, tidal basin management with a strong participatory component and extensive monitoring was found very promising. ICZM is the proper mechanism to consider all risks in their interrelation and optimize the use of the increasingly scarce resources. Managing new and existing mangrove belts seems promising as a protection against coastal storms and to encourage sedimentation. Cyclone shelters and improved warning systems are confirmed as effective tools against the increased risks of disasters. Bangladesh has already a good record in this respect, which merits to be strengthened where possible.

Key projects to realize adaptation include:
Coastal Embankment rehabilitation Project             Coastal Greenbelt Project
Integrated Coastal Zone Management                     Kulna-Jesore D
rainage Rehabilitation Project

Fresh water resources

Bangladesh’ fresh water resources are most at risk from droughts and drainage congestion. Located on the floodplains of three major rivers, fed by an annual monsoon, Bangladesh is also under risk of more severe floods. Growing morphological activity will result in erosion and loss of land on some locations and sedimentation in others. Sedimentation and drainage congestion go hand in hand, hampering the withdrawal of the water in flooded areas and increasing the period of inundation.

Key adaptations should aim to substantially reduce the risk of drainage congestion, erosion and drought, explicitly addressing the management of water resources both in the wet and in the dry season. Water supplies may expect growth both in quantity and quality for domestic, industrial, irrigation, navigation, and ecosystem use. Reducing water demand may be needed and this requires an integrated approach to water resources planning and management that will also coordinate design, operation and maintenance of major infrastructure and embankments. Climate change impacts should be accounted for in both design criteria and location.

Key projects to realize adaptation include:
National Water Management Plan                                       Water Sector Improvement Project
Small-scale Water Resou
rces Development Sector Project      River Bank Protection Project


Prolonged inundation, increased drought, salinity and loss of land due to erosion are the climate change enhanced risks facing agriculture. Increased droughts and salinization in the dry season and prolonged inundation in the wet season will change the areas suitable for growing rice. Since agriculture is the mainstay for the economy, Bangladesh is very sensitive to impacts on the agricultural sector.

Bangladesh’ agriculture at risk to climate change depends on the adaptations in the coastal and water resources sector. In particular in coastal areas, agricultural activities may be conflicting with industrial development, whereas fresh water availability depends on successful water resources management.

Key adaptations in agriculture would aim at changing agricultural practices to improving water efficiency and crop diversification. This not only in areas that are affected by climate change but in the whole country. The development and introduction of new varieties and corresponding dissemination measures are important and need to be facilitated by (inter)national research. Given the fact that experience with new crops and agricultural practices has to be build up and shared on the farm level, and requires investment, the agricultural sector may not be as flexible to climate change as is widely believed.

Free market reforms and access to credit may give fitting incentives to farmers. Removal of subsidies and restrictions on agriculture could enable farmers to more quickly see the effects of climate change on the market and act on it.

Key projects to realize adaptation include:
Command-Area Development Project
                                  National Water Management Plan

Ecosystem and biodiversity

Ecosystems and biodiversity may be at greatest risk of all sectors sensitive to climate change. Whereas adaptation to reduce vulnerability of the other sectors can be addressed as part of existing programs, the management of ecosystems is only existent as a concept. Its institutional realization is still relatively weak and the institutions that are involved lack capacity.

Most at threat from climate change are the Sundarbans, the Haor and Beel wetlands, and fish and other aquatic life. Sea level rise may inundate parts of the Sundarbans and ecosystems are threatened by salinization of surface and groundwater. Higher water temperatures, loss of brackish-waters and reduced flows could harm fisheries. Human development has in many cases fragmented or reduced habitat, decreased species population and blocked the migration routes of species.

In densely populated Bangladesh it may be very difficult to implement adaptations like buffer zones or migration corridors. Removing land from economic production is socially unacceptable. Financial support to preserve or relocate species is small. Technical knowledge is also limited. Thus, a concerted effort to protect biodiversity in Bangladesh may require significant infusions of capital and other support from donor agencies.

A number of location specific initiatives exist that are mainly initiated by NGOs and CBOs. These initiatives need to be strengthened and coordinated with the state-run programs.

Key projects to realize adaptation include:
Sustainable Environmental Management Program             
Forth Fisheries Project
Sundarbans Biodiversity Conservation Project                    Forestry Sector Project

Human health

The risk to human health in tropical developing countries is one of the salient risks of climate change. Drainage congestion and standing water will increase the potential for outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne and diarrheal diseases. The pressure on the availability and access to safe water, in particular during the dry period, and the increasing reliance on groundwater are an additional threat. Natural disasters threaten people and there belongings. Finally the pressure on agricultural production may result in malnutrition.

The impact of climate change on human health depends critically on the success to adapt to climate change in the other sectors. Of course, human health would be less vulnerable with an improved health care system, reliable drinking water supply and improved sanitation.

Key projects to realize adaptation include:
Third Water Supply and Sanitation Project

Summary.5 - Key challenges in realizing anticipatory adaptation

The need for disaster relief oriented anticipatory adaptation and the required focus on long-term impacts of climate change meet special institutional and technical problems.

Summary.6 - Conclusions and recommendations

Climate change is not only an “environmental” concern but really a “development” concern for Bangladesh. This means that climate change as an issue must come out of the ghetto of “environmental problems” to take center stage as a major developmental problem.

The study shows that Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to climate change in its coastal zone, covering about 30 per cent of the country. Here prospects of industrial development, based on its rich energy resources, will seriously be constrained by the increased occurrence of coastal storms, flooding and reduced fresh water availability. The study also analyzes impacts on water resources, agriculture, ecosystems and human health, concluding that in all these sectors, the country’s drive to development might be seriously restrained if no anticipatory actions are taken.

Ecosystems and biodiversity, as a key sector for sustainable development, merits particular attention and of all sectors vulnerable to climate change this may be the most vulnerable. This not only refers to a few itemized ecosystems or endangered species. What is at stake is the “environment as a whole” and the activities of all Bangladeshi, which are still very dependent on the country’s natural resources base. Even with sector-oriented anticipatory adaptation, the overall system may be losing its flexibility and resilience to adapt to changes. This will result not only in a loss of biodiversity, but in a loss of productivity as well, seriously challenging the country’s prospect for sustainable development.

The study identifies and discusses the possibilities and limitations for adaptation in the various sectors. It studies selected development programs on the need and possibilities to include climate change considerations in their approach and the possible contribution they could have to anticipatory adaptations. The results show that physical interventions on their own are generally in-effective and costly, whilst requiring maintenance arrangements and coordination of separate initiatives.

More promising anticipatory adaptations are changes in behavioral patterns, human practices and international actions. However, these type of adaptations meet serious institutional constraints and consequently should be carefully prepared and, if possible, integrated in existing structures and procedures. The main mechanisms to gradually overcome these constraints are coordination of climate change activities, (integrated) planning and information management.

It is highly recommended that next steps to reduce Bangladesh’ vulnerability to impacts of climate change and sea level rise, concentrate on the adaptation mechanisms of planning, information management and international actions. Here, the National Water Management Plan (NWMP) that is currently being developed and the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (ICZMP) under design offer key opportunities.

The following specific actions are recommended:

 [1]                Definitions from IPCC (Houghton, et al., 1996).