Bangladesh and the Philippines are subject to the impact of sea level rise driven by climate change and anthropogenic activities, such as improper groundwater extraction practices. Hard engineering methods including sea wall construction and the eviction of flood-prone areas are being implemented by the respective governments, but are these methods enough, and, most importantly, can they be applied to the Indigenous communities in remote areas? These communities usually prefer in-situ adaptation strategies due to their well-established social network and sense of identity. This article will go through case studies in Bangladesh and the Philippines to explore how Indigenous communities perceive the threat of sea-level rise and argue that Indigenous knowledge can be applied to climate change adaptation. 

Case Study 1: Floating Farms in Nazirpur, Bangladesh

The Nazirpur Municipality is situated in the south of Bangladesh, in the proximity of the delta fan in the Pirojpur District. A delta dan is formed by fluvial sediment deposits, situated at the river mouth usually with gentle relief and low elevation. It is home to around 20,000 Indigenous people whose lives mostly depend on farming. 

Topographic settings over Nazirpur revealed that the Municipality is an extremely vulnerable area, subject to seasonal floodings driven by monsoons. Seasonal storm floods usually occur in the summer, from June to September. Incoming floods swipe all of the farmlands, resulting in crop failure with devastating consequences on the livelihood of farmers. The frequency, intensity, and extent of seasonal floods are expected to increase under the impact of climate change. Rapidly increasing sea level rise rates and an increase in precipitation brought by more intense and prolonged summer monsoons (an increase in precipitation) are expected in the near future due to climate change. 

The unforeseen impact of sea level rise and increasingly frequent storm floodings shocked the Indigenous people of the Nazirpur area. High tide will now flood into the areas where the elder Indigenous people used to play around when they were young. Areas previously away from the tidal effects are now flooded during high tide, there is an abrupt change in coastal environments. 

“Water levels are rising. I still can remember I used to play football in the land that now goes underwater during the normal tide,” a 48-year-old man told Reuters in an interview.

The impact of sea level rise and storm flooding this summer disrupted farming practices in Nazirpur as a result of seawater intrusion. Aside from sea-level rise, the rainfall brought by the summer monsoon has other negative impacts on farmers.

There is no way to escape from the threats of sea-level rise as agricultural activities form the main sources of income for Indigenous people in Nazirpur. Their reluctance to leave also makes “adaptation” the only way to tackle sea-level rise and storm floodings. People in this area have a strong sense of identity and bonding tied to Nazirpur, not to mention the social network built in the past decades and even centuries, traced back to when their ancestors settled in Nazirpur. As a response to sea-level rise, Indigenous people apply their knowledge and design to protect their farms from the threat of sea-level rise and storm floods – floating farms. 

The idea of floating farms has been circulating among the Indigenous communities for at least 200 years, and its original intention was to help Nazirpur’s farmers cope with occasional floods. People have never thought that floating farms one day would act like lifesaving ropes, saving them from the threats of sea-level rise. 

“These days, the land is underwater for a longer time. This ancient technique has helped us to earn a living,” Mostafa, a 42-year-old man who adopted the floating farm technique to continue farming activities under the threats of sea-level rise and floods – told Reuters in an interview this summer. 

But what exactly are floating farms?

Floating farms consist of numerous boats holding and elevating seeds or crops above ground. These boats either float or sink according to the sea level change across time, ensuring the proper functioning of farming activities even though there are prolonged or occasional floods. Floating farms have been widely adopted by farmers in Nazipur, as more and more started realising that this is the best option they have to avoid losing their harvest. Even local officials believed floating farming would be a solution for sea-level rise, without disrupting the livelihood of farmers. 

“When we’re fighting… the impact of global warming, floating farming could be the future,” the agricultural official in the Nazirpur sub-district, Digbijoy Hazra, told Reuters

Case Study 2: In-Situ Solutions in Tubigon, The Philippines

Tubigon, a municipality located on the west coast of Bohol, consists of mainland Tubigon and numerous outlying islands. The area is home to numerous island communities, housing more than 45,000 people. 

A 2017 case study by Jamero and colleagues published in the journal Nature looked at the response of four local Indigenous communities to sea-level rise driven by local vertical land motion as a result of the earthquake.

The 2013 Bohol Earthquake, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake with an epicentre near Tubigon stroke these island communities with an irreversible impact – earthquake-induced land subsidence, a downward vertical land motion caused by tectonic activities. Here in Tubigon, the main driver of sea-level change is local vertical land motion, which lowers regional elevation and causes a regional sea-level rise. Local communities experienced regular flooding every day, brought by high tides again due to land subsidence.

According to the authors of the study, most Indigenous communities prefer in-situ strategies to cope with sea level rise rather than relocating to a safer area that is less exposed to sea-level rise. In-situ methods include raising the floor above high tide level, elevating belongings in houses, and constructing stilt houses. While they did not alter the physical environment, these solutions led Indigenous people to change their practices. 

This example shows that climate adaptation projects do not always have to modify the physical environment. Instead, communities can rely on nature-based solutions. The in-situ adaptation measures in the Philippines are able to protect Indigenous communities from sea-level rise without forcing them to leave the local network and relocate elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

While there is no doubt that such practices brought by the Indigenous communities can help them cope with sea level rise, the real question is: are these coping mechanisms sustainable in the long run, and do local communities have enough resources to deal with future threats brought by climate change?

Most Indigenous people are so strongly attached to their motherland that they often refused to leave their local communities, even when extreme weather events threaten their lives. This decision comes with the necessity to find ways to cope with these rising threats by applying local knowledge to climate adaptation solutions. 

The case studies presented in this article show that Indigenous knowledge and practices must be included in our climate change adaptation project moving forward, and policy-maker should be able to identify their importance and offer the necessary support. One way to do this would be to allocate more funding for local communities. Policy-makers and anyone involved in coming up with climate adaptation strategies and infrastructure should therefore take advantage of these communities’ knowledge and traditions instead and protect their rights.

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