SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

When Climate Change Adaptation Goes Wrong in Bangladesh

New research by Prof Benjamin Sovacool highlights the urgent need for climate change adaption policies in Bangladesh to be re-thought.

Bangladesh contributes little to global greenhouse gas emissions, yet is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, prone to a multitude of climate-related disasters such as floods, droughts, tropical cyclones and storm surges, which are being worsened due to global warming. In addition to this, Bangladesh also has an extremely high population density with one of the worst rates of poverty in the world.

Since May 2010, international donors have spent more than US$170m on climate change adaption efforts such as altering infrastructure, institutions and ecosystems in Bangladesh, bringing some success environmentally. Yet, research by Prof Sovacool examines and highlights how on the flip side of these efforts, existing social and political injustices within Bangladesh have been re-affirmed and exacerbated.

In his paper ‘Bamboo Beating Bandits: Conflict, Inequality, and Vulnerability in the Political Ecology of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh’  Prof Sovacool reveals that climate change policies implemented under the country’s National Adaptation Program of Action have ended up enabling elites to capture land through public servants, the military, and even gangs carrying bamboo sticks. Climate protection measures have also encroached upon village property, char (public) land, forests, farms, and other public commons. More shockingly, community coping strategies for climate change have actually entrenched class and ethnic hierarchies in some communities, trapping the poor, powerless and displaced in a patronage system, leading to increased human insecurity and intensified violent conflict.

Using a mix of original interviews and a literature review, Prof Sovacool examined the processes of:

  • Enclosure - when adaptation projects transfer public assets into private hands or expand the roles of private actors into the public sphere
  • Exclusion - when adaptation projects limit access to resources or marginalize particular stake- holders in decision-making activities
  • Encroachment - when adaptation projects intrude on bio- diversity areas or contribute to other forms of environmental degradation
  • Entrenchment - when adaptation projects aggravate the disempowerment of women and minorities, or worsen concentrations of wealth and income inequality within a community

He found that the political ecology of adaptation runs across the macro, meso, and micro scales:

  • At the macro scale, national policies have unwittingly reoriented efforts toward boosting resilience and enhancing exports and economic development, practices that protect some—notably wealthy land owners and shrimp farm industrialists—but excluded others— notably the landless and displaced peasants
  • At the meso scale, at the level of cities and communities, we see thugs and bandits roaming the countryside to steal land or appropriate resources, with an eye for which climate change adaptation projects make land more valuable and worth grabbing
  • At the micro scale, within neighborhoods and households, we see how family members cope with disaster, often by delegating some of the hardest work to women or ethnic minorities, or by taking advantage of distress selling by households that lack savings or property

What can be done to combat the problem? The research concludes that climate change adaption policies need to be informed not just by costs or vulnerability assessments, but also a more refined understanding of the justice, equity, and vulnerability dimensions of climate adaption in practice. International planners need to reconceive adaption as a political as well as a social challenge and not allow climatic and development goals to further marginalize vulnerable groups. National climate planners also need a vision which is multi-scalar: emphasizing only a single scale—say, a household practice, a community action plan, a national policy—ignores and may even obscure the circulation of more complex, deeper political ecology forces.

Prof Benjamin Sovacool states:

“The presence and pervasiveness of some of the political ecology elements associated with adaptation—especially the classism, violence, and feudal nature of patronage—should serve as a wakeup call for Bangladeshi planners that they can no longer ignore the broader social and political environment in which they operate. For, while it is true that climate change can be described as a major causal factor creating ‘‘descents into poverty” where households succumb to flooding and ill-health, our research suggests that community responses, and adaptive measures, can also serve as a lever that forces Bangladeshis to descend and remain trapped in poverty and human insecurity.”

The research ultimately reminds us that pro-climate interventions may not always be pro-community.

Citation: Sovacool, BK. “Bamboo beating bandits: Conflict, inequality, and vulnerability in the political ecology of climate change adaptation in Bangladesh,” World Development 102 (February, 2018), pp. 183-194.

Editorial credit: Suvra Kanti Das / Shutterstock.com