Bangladesh’s economic miracle must be a blueprint for development in climate-vulnerable nations. The nation’s unlikely climate resilience proves the power of community and leaders at COP28 must take note.
Nations least responsible for climate are also the most vulnerable to its fallout. This inconvenient truth was laid bare at COP27, where the conversation pivoted from climate targets to the issue of climate finance, loss, and adaptation.
Buffering citizens and economies from climate change is an expensive business. Yet, as proven by Bangladesh, climate resilience can be built on a shoestring budget, if supplemented by innovation and community engagement.
As international leaders meet in Dubai this November, they will discuss how to facilitate a just, green transition. In Bangladesh, they have a blueprint for how against all the odds, climate-vulnerable nations can leapfrog traditional developmental stages, and become flourishing global economies.
Bangladesh has been described as ‘ground zero’ when it comes to climate vulnerability. The country ranks seven out of 181 countries for climate vulnerability on the Climate Risk Index, making it one of the countries most affected by extreme weather events.
This should have created an especially bleak outlook for Bangladesh. At the end of its bloody civil war in 1971, Kissinger described the nation as a ‘basket case’. Yet the country’s story is not one of victims, but one of heroes.
Bangladesh’s economic miracle, owing to a combination of civil sector innovation, community cohesion and forward-thinking public policy.
The explosion of the nation’s garment producing sector has brought millions out of poverty. Today, Bangladesh’s economy remains robust; it was one of the few countries to maintain a high growth rate even through COVID, recording 6.94% growth in 2021.
This will prove to be instructive at COP28, is that Bangladesh’s economic development has gone hand in hand with climate resiliency; for example, over the past 50 years, it has reduced cyclone-related deaths 100-fold.
Ultimately, we have to understand that building climate resiliency and growing an economy are symbiotic. Natural disasters are expensive affairs; Bangladesh’s 2007 cyclone Sidr cost the country a predicted $1.67 billion.
Bangladesh’s natural early warning system has become a trailblazer in terms of what an effective early warning system looks like, especially for nations with relatively few resources.
The Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD) monitors weather conditions constantly. In 1970, the country had only 2 coastal radars. Today, the country now has an early-warning system that is capable of evacuating millions of people in 24 hours.
This capability relies on being able to inform citizens of impending natural disasters quickly. The BMD disseminates warnings of cyclones through PUSH messages, loud speakers as well as radio and TV broadcasts. These messages are tailored to be location specific, and are translated into the 44 native languages spoken in Bangladesh.
The same is true of detecting floods. By partnering with Google, Bangladesh’s digital innovation & transformation agency ‘Aspire to Innovate’ (a2i) have developed a flood forecasting system designed to provide an early warning that is accessible to marginalised people in remote areas. As a result of this initiative, during the monsoon season between August 13 and 31, 2021, over 2.9 million notifications were sent to 1.5 million unique users, which invariably saved countless lives.
This is just a flavour of the agile thinking and frugal innovation that has been key to Bangladesh’s unique climate resilience. Just as TV and radio networks double up as disaster warnings, Bangladesh’s strategic public policy requires primary schools to be built on stilts, and made of cyclone resistant concrete, meaning they can double up as cyclone and hurricane shelters. Whereas in 1970 the country had only 100 shelters, today the nation has over 5,000, which can house nearly 5 million people.
Studies repeatedly find that community-led approaches to disaster response are often the most effective at saving lives. Today, it isn’t uncommon to see local volunteers erecting flags with a colour-coded system referring to a storm’s severity, and conducting practice evacuation drills. In fact, Bangladesh’s Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) has over 76,000 volunteers, half of whom are women.
The Asian nation proves that education, effective data dissemination and community engagement are all essential for disaster preparedness, and that these measures are possible on a small budget.
Yet, a common thread that runs through Bangladesh’s unique climate resilience is the power of community.
Of course, disaster preparedness is only one sliver of the climate resilience question. The use of community-led solar power irrigation systems, along with small-scale water harvesting structures and climate-resilient houses built in the community all play their role in protecting Bangladesh’s 169 million people.
Similarly, agriculture makes up over 11% of the nation’s GDP. When crops are destroyed, livelihoods are destroyed with it. The introduction of climate friendly crop varieties, improved irrigation systems, promotion of sustainable farming practices and facilitation of access to microfinance and crop insurance have all buffered the nation’s agriculture sectors, and livelihoods that depend on it, against the impact of climate change.
As Bangladesh implements its Vision 2041, of which digital transformation is essential, a2i is exploring Smart Agriculture with focus in both IoT and drone technology, which will arm farmers with the data they need to protect and maximise their yields in the era of increasingly erratic seasons.
Of course, investment is crucial to be able to implement these measures. However, what is more important than money and technology, is the people. Bangladesh proves that social cohesion and community action is the invisible glue that holds a climate vulnerable nation together.
As leaders coalesce in Dubai in November for COP28, they would be wise to learn from Bangladesh. As nations agree to commit funds to the Adaptation Fund, they must understand that local communities provide the most robust line of defence against climate fallout. Excessive bureaucracy and regulation around exactly Adaptation Funds are spent will only hamper climate resilience efforts.
If leaders should take one Mantra from the Bangladesh’s economic miracle it would be this; Think global; act local.