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Climate change and natural disasters in Bangladesh: humanitarianism and the challenge of « resilience »
Camille Raillon

Climate change is causing more and more frequent and destructive natural disasters in Bangladesh, raising questions about humanitarian practices there. What opportunities exist in terms of responding to the population’s needs while, at the same time, building their capacity to cope with future disasters? This article reviews current practices and proposes some initial ideas for a multi-actor approach.

Bangladesh is among the countries most at risk from climate change and the decade ahead is going to be extremely difficult in terms of risk reduction and adaptation. In the context of the economic, environmental and security crises currently facing societies, and high-risk countries like Bangladesh in particular, strengthening the capacities and resilience of nations and communities is a complex issue.

Risk reduction is not just a matter of reducing vulnerability to natural hazards. It is also necessary to address a range of economic, social and political vulnerabilities which themselves create or increase individuals’ vulnerability to natural hazards. Risk reduction is therefore at the heart of major local and global issues which will affect individuals, states and even humanity as a whole in the future. Climate change, the shortage of arable land, the steady reduction of water resources, the decline of other natural resources and the massive migrations which are on the horizon mean that there is a question mark over all of our futures. Many actors are trying to do something about this situation in order to limit the negative consequences to come.

In this context, what progress could be made in terms of humanitarian practices in Bangladesh? Beyond the emergency phase following rapid onset disasters like cyclones (e.g. Sidr and Aila), how can the resilience of communities be strengthened in the face of climate change and recurring natural disasters whose negative causes and effects are steadily getting worse?

 I - Vulnerability to disasters in Bangladesh

1.1. A very worrying scenario


A recent list produced by the World Bank ranked Bangladesh among the twelve countries most at risk from climate change: drought, flooding, storms, rising sea level and loss of agricultural production. Whether slow-onset but irreversible or rapid-onset and chaotic, climatic and natural disasters are becoming the major cause of a permanent humanitarian crisis in this country.

Though the disasters which have affected Bangladesh are the consequence of natural phenomena, as indicated in scientific reports, it is also true that poverty, social exclusion and political marginalisation have been aggravating factors. They are best described as ‘socio-natural’ disasters. The consequences of these crises are such that they are likely to create massive needs in terms of infrastructure, water and food and potential conflict over land and resources both in rural and urban areas. Bangladesh is far from being the only country at risk. Many people, communities and states are threatened by climate change and they will have to deal with its consequences.

At the local level, climate-related disasters are causing a latent food crisis alongside chronic poverty (repeated destruction of the jute and rice harvests on which more than 80% of the population of the Sundarbans region depend), an unsustainable demographic explosion and waves of mass migration to the over-populated shanty towns of major cities both inside and outside the country. The risk of a humanitarian crisis is very high in the districts of Khulna, Satkhira and Mongla, which were visited. Climate change (salinisation of land and rivers) and natural disasters (cyclones and erosion) have caused a huge amount of human, material and territorial destruction. Since the Aila cyclone in May 2009, communities have not been able to regain the already critical standard of living they had before the disaster despite a large-scale humanitarian operation. One year after the cyclone, the saline water which spread over the arable land has still not gone. Dykes which protect the coast and villages have continued to collapse and many roads have disappeared beneath the water. Due to the rising sea level, villages are more and more isolated from each other and there is growing fear for the future. In addition, communities have very little access to electricity, the health situation is critical and access to clean water is very difficult [1]. These disastrous and/or climatic upheavals also lead to inaccessible schools and the destruction or decline of already scarce social infrastructure such as local markets, piers, roads, health centres, etc.

The Bangladeshi state is incapable of dealing with these disastrous impacts at the local level. Its current strategy is undermining all resilience strategies for dealing with climate crises at the national level. In the 1990s, the structural adjustment policies that were more or less directly promoted by the international economic institutions, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), called for less state, while economic liberalism steadily dismantled all national and international regulation. Like many other countries, Bangladesh was influenced by and/or forced to adhere to this dogma. According to the Nobel Prize winner for economics, Joseph Stiglitz, in his book, “The Roaring Nineties”, this global system, which continues to dominate the world, creates greater poverty and instability in certain developing countries. Bangladesh must now face climatic crises and disasters from a position of heightened fragility both economically (as a result of domination) and politically (no or little redistribution of the fruits of growth: 5% per year). The country also has enormous problems in terms of governance, inequality, corruption and bureaucracy which further undermine any resilience strategy.

The international community also seems to be at a loss as to how it should deal with the disastrous impacts of climate change at the national level. It appears unable to control the negative impacts of globalisation and the pursuit of financial profit which it promotes. This pursuit of profit leads to unsustainable environmental damage which in turn causes terrible climate-related impacts around the world. According to the IPCC, the whole of humanity is walking on a tightrope.

What can be done in response to these different crises and the scale of projected needs? What can individuals, communities and states do to cope? The notion of resilience has become of central concern for humanitarian actors. It is defined as the capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt, by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure [2]. Resilience is principally the capacity to resist in dangerous situations, allowing minimal damage to occur and then being able to recover effectively. This can involve mental, moral, physical, material or financial strength. The concept of resilience incorporates novel but important ideas such as the existence of opportunities even in chaotic contexts or the idea of sustainable development to the benefit of all. However, current studies focus more on factors of vulnerability to the detriment of strategies for strengthening resilience capacity. And yet, the survival of communities and states will depend on understanding of both vulnerabilities and resilience mechanisms.

[1] This article does not cover the issue of arsenic, but it is also a major problem in the region.

[2] Definition from the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.