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Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impact of climate change and must develop a resilience strategy to withstand the increasing shocks of disasters and climate-induced impact. In fact, Bangladesh must confront the climate threat and take the opportunity of developing a transformative climate resilience. The resilience framework is increasingly becoming central to the climate change strategy. Bangladesh is in a position to lead the world in this, as it is doing in adaptation. It needs the convergence of efforts of all actors—the government, NGOs, CBOs, communities, private sector and development partners.

The climate change impact includes a sea-level rise (nearly 1 metre by 2100), increasing cyclones and associated storm surges contributing to high level of salinity in the southern coastal areas, repeated and enhanced flooding in the central flood plain, drought in the north west, flash floods in the north east and landslides in the eastern hill districts. It is the possible combination of multiple vulnerabilities that contributes to the impact on the population and ecosystems, contributing to the challenges in the securities of food, water, energy, health and livelihoods of the household and communities.

The geophysical location of Bangladesh being just below the mighty Himalayans and at the apex of the virulent Bay of Bengal, crisis-crossed by thousands of rivers and encompassing convergence of three massive river systems—the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna—make it extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in monsoon and precipitation. Of all the water that follows through Bangladesh, only about 8 percent falls vertically on the Bangladesh territory and the rest of it comes from its adjacent countries of China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. This makes water and rainfall a key variability controlling agriculture, economy, disasters and climate change impacts.

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In 2017, the extreme and multiple floods from unexpected rainfall in North East Bangladesh and adjacent Indian states destroyed almost the entirety of the rice crop of the Haor region. The government of Bangladesh had to import nearly one million tonnes of rice for its people. Gradually the farmers bounced back and the 2018 crops raise new hope. The combination of central and local government agencies, farmers, fishers, communities and NGOs, private sector and commercial networks all contributed to this rejuvenation.

The country has faced a serious shortfall in electricity over the past few decades. In the last decade, increasing investment has led to a quadruple increase in potential electricity production, though black outs and brown outs are occurring in some parts of the country. However, particularly the poor households made the biggest progress in the sector of solar home systems (SHS). It was our privilege to initiate one of the first SHS programmes in the early 21st century. Beside early difficulties, a community-based market was facilitated for SHS, supported by microcredit and technical back-up, creating new and user-friendly institutions. Now 4.8 million, mostly poor, households have solar electricity.

Though it is an example of climate mitigation, actual benefits to the poor families have been the contribution to their basic needs, such as lighting in the evening enabling children to attend school and improve family health by doing away with the poisonous fumes from kerosene burning lamps. Similarly, improved stoves, biogas systems and household tree plantation are examples of good mitigation practice contributing to good sustainable development outcomes. These are initially apparent acts of mitigation but the wider benefit is in adaptation and sustainable development initiatives as AdMit—“Ad” for Adaptation combined with “Mit” for mitigation.

Strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity of the vulnerable sections of people, development sectors (such as water, agriculture and food, health, transport, housing and infrastructure) and ecosystems would be most crucial in the coming years. Implementation could be effective by targeting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems as the key concerns. The climate adaptation fund and green climate funds under the UNFCCC are the immediate opportunities the country can use, but the government has to prove its capacity, transparency and accountability to access these global funds.

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Great global convergence and inclusive growth

From the mid-1980s, the concept of sustainable development has dominated the global and national development discourse. Sustainable development for Bangladesh or similar poor and rapidly transforming societies can be defined as rapid economic growth, which is environmentally sound and socially just, focusing on poverty reduction. The year 2015 saw the culmination of three interacting and reinforcing global processes including the emergence of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

The SDG declaration emphasises a plan of action for the people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets build on the MDGs where Bangladesh has performed reasonably well. The above three processes and the development path of Bangladesh have much in common as two of the greatest challenges in Bangladesh’s journey towards sustainable development are the threat of climate change impacts and the burden of poverty.

Governance processes, society, communities and ecosystems must become resilient to absorb the shocks and transform into a more sustainable world when climate change and extreme events threaten Bangladesh’s development. The whole population of Bangladesh must be incorporated into an inclusive growth paradigm where all communities, sectors, ecosystems and locales, particularly the climate vulnerable regions, become integrated into sustainable development discourses and actions. Thus, inclusive growth and climate resilient development must encompass all aspects of Bangladesh and its development efforts. The coincidence of these global processes and Bangladesh’s own journey towards sustainable development in the next two to three decades offer tremendous opportunities despite many challenges. Bangladesh aims to become a developed country in the early 2040s. Sustainable development pathways through incorporation of SDG successes, inclusive growth and climate resilient development offer the way forward.

Bangladesh formulated the National Adaptation Programme of Actions (NAPA -2005) and Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP – 2009) as urgent and immediate actions. Two funds have been created to implement adaptation and mitigation (low carbon economy) actions charted in the climate strategy and action plan.

Climate-resilient development framework

Resilience is a perceived global comprehensive approach or concept to address climate change, disasters and development simultaneously.  Most recent global policy and strategic documents, including Sendai Framework (Priority 3), Paris Climate Agreement and SDGs specifically talk about strengthening resilience at global and national levels.  In Bangladesh, the Seventh Five Year Plan or 7FYP and Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) also refer to resilience for overall disaster management and sustainable development. The BCCSAP indicated the need to build capacity and resilience to address climate change in Bangladesh in 2009. The 7FYP states “the overall objective of disaster management during 7FYP is to build resilience of the poor and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to geo-hydro-meteorological hazards, environmental shocks, man-made disasters, emerging hazards and climate related extreme events to make our cities, human habitat and resources safe, resilient and sustainable”.

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Designing and planning of a resilience programme may include following elements: a bottom-up approach, coordination with communities and government, integration of climate related and disaster information, partnership, consistency with government strategies and policies and local and national priorities.

The Paris Agreement

Despite many limitations and the failure of the Kyoto Protocol and poor leadership of rich countries led by the US, the Paris Agreement offered new hope for the planet. Leadership role of European and newly emerging countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa gave inputs to the Paris Agreement and its initial implementation. Acceptance by and inclusion of all the parties was its main strength. Though the Paris Agreement dropped the integral concept of “Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” enshrined in the UNFCCC at the altar of “Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)” to accommodate the rich countries and their need for voluntarism.

Several of the key reasons for the achievement of the difficult agreement in Paris includes the up-front role of several important government leaders, focus on the science and the risks, being ambitious and yet purposeful, inclusion of all key actors and addressing the bottom line of finance through the Green Climate Fund and a commitment of minimum $100 billion per year from 2020.

But the challenges in its implementations are enormous. If all the NDCs are implemented, the greenhouse gas emission gap will force the planet to move towards 30C plus by 2100 and with severe extreme climatic events undermining the development potential of poor and vulnerable countries.

Despite the Trump administration walking out of the Paris Agreement, the unique expression of solidarity and commitment by many US actors such as the leading large private sector companies, key leaders of large states, many mayors of cities gave a new life to the Paris Agreement moving forward, albeit slowly.  This was closely demonstrated more recently in CoP23 in Bonn in November 2017.

Even with all the limitations, Bangladesh being one of the most climate vulnerable countries has limited choice but to maximise the utilisation, financing and scientific progress built into the Paris agreement and its potential implementation.

Follow-up on Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement will give rise to a large number of activities in many sectors such as finance, mitigation, adaptation, capacity building, disaster management, governance, planning, monitoring and evaluation, agriculture and food, energy, water, forestry, infrastructure, health, fisheries, coastal, ecosystem services, transport, land, local government, human rights, gender integration, regional cooperation, to mention a few. It will need a huge amount of expertise as well as specific institutions and dedicated human resources. Many of these issues are going to be long-term activities (5-15 years or more), while initially some short-term activities (1-2 years) may emerge as follow-up to the Paris Agreement.

In Bangladesh, several senior officers have emerged as experts in the ministries of environment and forests, disaster management, finance, foreign affairs. They have started developing expertise in finance and planning as well as integrating climate change, adaptation, DRR and mitigation. Recent training and capacity building initiatives in the country have exposed another large group of government officials and experts to climate change issues. Beyond that and often in collaboration with the government, a few independent think-tanks, research organisations and individuals have developed a reputation of being world leaders in climate change science and policy.

But there is a need to develop a much larger number of experts and disciplines of expertise to address the forthcoming challenges. Climate change is no longer a sub-set of environment issues. It encompasses many issues of environment, development, foreign affairs, energy, social science, law, technology and private sector delivery systems. There has long been a discussion in some government, civil society and planning sectors to set up a new Ministry of Climate Change in Bangladesh. This would follow the lead of many other countries which have already developed such initiatives.

If a softer approach is preferred by the policy makers, a high powered National Climate Change Commission could be set up under the leadership of the prime minister to consider the right approach, time frame and integration of agencies to enable the formation of a Ministry of Climate Change or any other name it deems appropriate.

This would address the large and emerging issues of climate change and also enable the country to prepare itself for much of the new finances coming under global climate change. Further, this would address many technology and market issues that emanate out of Paris Agreement initiatives. As a start, the officials and experts who have already been trained and exposed to climate change issues could be brought together to be the core of such a new Ministry of Climate Change.

Achieving Vision 2021 and SDGs

To achieve the vision of becoming a middle income country by 2021 and higher country by 2041, it is crucial that Bangladesh is capable of integrating all aspects of climate change into its planning and delivery of services to the citizens and ecosystems.

For this to be efficient there is an absolute need to strengthen the Ministry of Environment and Forests with appropriate expertise to address the red (high pollution and industrial management, legal and implementation issues, brown (medium pollution, agriculture, land, social management, green (conservation, afforestation, ecosystem services. and blue (water: internal and marine, static and flow, quality and safety) issues.  The achievement of major SDGs in Bangladesh will enable the attainment of Vision 2021.

The way forward

To ensure climate-resilient sustainable development with poverty alleviation much of the solution must be focused at the local level, particularly communities and local ecosystems.

Thus strengthening local level government and their resource allocation, mobilisation, participatory management and planning of local issues and planning will be essential to respond to emerging challenges of inclusive growth, climate change and resilient development.

To build a resilient society, both socio-political and policy response, as well as ecological response for environmental conservation, is needed. Science, innovation and technological responses would be required to tackle climate change impacts and building resilience in human, social, economy and ecosystems to address climate change impacts and other externalities. Capacity building of all actors from grassroots to national level would be crucially important for planning and implementing the new approaches and activities towards climate resilient society.

Sustainable development is the key objective of every citizen of Bangladesh. We are at the threshold of a new integrative paradigm of development challenges and opportunities. Integrating the approaches of inclusive growth, confronting and building capacity for climate change adaptation, mitigation and resource mobilisation along with achieving transformative resilience to natural disasters and climate impacts will enable Bangladesh to enter this new phase of development and move rapidly towards sustainable development. Bangladesh’s key actors, including the government, NGOs, CBOs, the private sector and communities, must decide on the key and urgent issues of appropriate institutionalisation to succeed in this integrative paradigm of post Sendai Declaration, Paris Agreement and SDG and march towards a sustainable future. A vision of converting the great climate threat in Bangladesh into a sustainable development opportunity is definitely worth pursuing.

Dr Atiq Rahman is a prominent environmentalist and a member of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.