An eye on our most vulnerable



Meer Ahsan Habib is a National Consultant – Communication Specialist, National Adaptation Plan Process at UNDP Bangladesh and 2021 participant in the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) project, “Transparency and Accountability in Government for the Indo-Pacific.” Habib develops the communications strategy of the National Adaptation Plan of Bangladesh. By engaging policy experts and the public, he provides policy analysis and suggestions to create an inclusive National Adaptation Plan and comprehensive position papers on climate change adaptation for Bangladesh’s Department of Environment. Habib is also a freelance columnist for several media outlets and has written numerous op-ed pieces on freedom of expression, government accountability, gender-based violence, and public health. His co-author A K M Azad Rahman also works at the UNDP. The authors gratefully acknowledge the deliberations from the participants at NAP formulation consultation held at Shalla, Sunamganj. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the UNDP. This was first published in the Dhaka Tribune on 17 January 2022. To read Habib’s blog, click here.

Nature-based solutions, climate-resilient agriculture, and financial intervention can pave the way of climate change adaptation in haor regions.

Haors (large bowl-shaped depressions and seasonal wetlands) have become a popular tourist destination in Bangladesh these days, thanks to social media being flooded with refreshing and beautiful photographs, videos, and travel blogs describing the beauty of the haors, mostly located in the north-eastern part of the country.

These seasonal wetlands remain full of water from July to September, a time when the monsoon is about to end. Thereafter, the water starts receding and the haors are gradually reduced in size. In the winter, these haors attract a large number of indigenous and migratory birds. With the arrival of summer, the haors are no longer there. They are also perhaps one of the best examples of extreme weather events harshly affecting the life and livelihood of the people.

Some haor areas are so remote that it takes more than half a day to reach. Some of the haor areas, for instance, Shalla Upazila, do not have any motorized vehicles, except for a few motorcycles. Each of the villages, which are in fact pieces of highland, turn into a small piece of the island when the haors are full of water. The livelihood of the majority of the people depends on agriculture, fishing, and animal husbandry.

Like any other ecosystems and habitats, haors are also affected by variations and changes to the environment triggered by climate change. This article is based on a field visit experience in Sunamganj District — an area which is largely dominated by haor ecosystems and subjected to afal (waves created by wind), unvarying regular floods and extreme rainfall. Apart from these, flash-floods and drought are the two most damaging climatic stresses greatly affecting people’s livelihood.

Afal is the most prominent climate-induced disaster that wreaks havoc on the life and livelihood of the haor people. It erodes soil, contributing to shrinking the size of livable land. Locals have conventionally been trying to temporarily check the erosion by building fences made of bamboo, tree branches, and straw. While it gives small-scale protection, these fences are washed away within moments if the afals are stronger and bigger.

This challenge resonates for medium- and long-term adaptation interventions, which can permanently check the land erosion. A mix of nature-based adaptation of planting on-aquatic but highly adaptive trees like Koroch and Hijal and structural intervention of building retaining concrete walls circling an entire village island can take away the woes of the haor people. The trees will work as the first line of defense against the afals, weakening them in the first place. A relatively much weaker afal will then hit the concrete walls, causing no land erosion.

Another big issue with the plantation is its sustainability. Because of its high demand for artificial fish habitats, people tend to cut down and sell fully grown Koroch trees to the haor leaseholders. To overcome this hurdle, community-based Koroch plantation can be considered that will give a certain percentage of ownership to the community. Besides protecting from afal, this is equally beneficial for agriculture, fishing, and livestock farming. Using native species instead of exotic plants with traditional knowledge is more likely to provide more sustainable adaptation that needs to be scaled up at the local level.

Climate resilient agriculture is needed

Most of the lands in Shalla yield a single harvest (popularly known as Boro harvest) each year and the rest of the time, people depend on fishing to earn their livelihood. Rather than earning an income, livestock rearing largely contributes to meeting the demand for milk, protein and cooking fuel.

Flash floods during April-May every year remain the most dangerous of natural disasters for the people of Shalla. It takes a heavy toll on their livelihood by destroying crops and killing cattle. It hits without warning and allows no time for the farmer to harvest the paddy. Therefore, it would be an excellent solution for the farmers if the rice cropping life cycle could be reduced from the existing 145 to 165 days (differs on the variety of the paddy) by adopting a new variety which essentially would be cold tolerant as well. This will allow the farmers to harvest paddy at a much earlier date and avoid flash floods. It is notable that the haor areas of Bangladesh account for one-fifth of the total rice production, hence vital for food security.

Another difficulty with the harvest is related to technology. Farmers need to operate harvesting machinery in 8 to 10 inches of mud. This equipment is similar to the ones used in plain lands and often gets stuck in the mud. Therefore, harvesting machinery needs to be compatible with the muddy environment of the haor.

Planned dredging has many benefits

Apart from fishing, people greatly depend on fishing for their livelihood. However, their access to these very rich fishing grounds is limited, as influential and well-off people tend to lease a significant portion of the haor bills from the government for fish farming. Although the government is getting revenue from leasing the bills, it is slowly making some impact on aquatic life.

The leaseholders tend to dry up the bills and canals for maximum fishing.The locals commonly perceive that such malpractice is a key reason for decreasing the quantity of fish. Drying up bills and canals also make irrigation extremely difficult during the dry season causing less harvest. To overcome this challenge, the government may consider withdrawing the lease and making it open to the marginal people for fishing and landless people to harvest paddy. Key breeding areas of native species should come under conservation effort. Controlling fine mesh-sized nets or banning fishing during the spawning season should also be considered to conserve haor biodiversity.

Another contributing factor toward decreasing the quantity of fishing is that the rivers and the canals are being filled with silt every year. As a result, fishing becomes extremely difficult in the dry season. In this backdrop, well-planned dredging of the Kushiara and Darail rivers, as well as the connecting canals, can have a long-lasting and positive impact on fish cultivation as well as improve the livelihood of the people.

Timely and planned dredging is likely to make even distribution of silt across the haor carried by the rivers and canals contributing to increased harvest. Dredging will also allow rivers and canals to hold an increased quantity of water giving protection from flash floods.

Agricultural insurance to provide financial security to farmers

Loss of harvest due to extreme weather events like heatwave, drought, and flash floods is very common in the haors of Shalla upazila. As the area yields only once a year, loss of any harvest makes these low-income people quite vulnerable. They are then left with no other choice but to make temporary migration to the capital Dhaka and other megacities to earn their livelihood. Introducing agricultural insurance schemes among the farmers can be an effective intervention to check this kind of migration.

There are strong possibilities that such intervention will lead to the proliferation of insurance and climate change initiatives through partnerships between the governments, donors, private sector insurers, and multilateral organizations. In this regard, Bangladesh can learn from neighbouring India that has mainstreamed agricultural insurance through Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. Several private sector companies are also providing agricultural insurance to the farmers.

Agricultural insurance can potentially play a vital role in climate change adaptation for the haor households as part of the national-level climate change adaptation plan. However, many market failures inhibit their full development. In this regard, the government may consider researching different dimensions of the issue and, in practice, with the introduction of pilot schemes with innovative products and funding, address the challenges.

Scarcity of land makes it difficult for the hoar people to have their storage facility. They find it quite challenging to protect the harvested crops and livestock in the event of flash floods and heavy floods. One ideal way to mitigate this challenge can be reviving of killa — (a concrete construction built on relatively high land) to help the people store their harvest and livestock from such disasters.

It is pertinent to mention that under the Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP), in 1972, higher grounds (popularly known as Mujib Killa) were built in flood-prone areas to protect the people and their livestock during floods. Therefore, reviving and reconstructing an up-to-date Mujib Killa-styled structure focusing on the needs of the people is likely to reduce the risk of loss of crops and livestock during floods.

National Adaptation Plan should be locally-led

The government of Bangladesh, with support from the Green Climate Fund, is formulating the National Adaptation Plan. Climate change may be a global phenomenon, but more often, its impacts which are felt by nations are local-context-specific.

In doing so, the NAP process adopted local level consultations to understand how communities in different settings have perceived and are managing climatic stresses involving indigenous knowledge, livelihood activities, and innovation and help better contextualization of adaptation options.

Against this backdrop, locally-led and local context relevant NAP is expected to create the linkage between climate change adaptation and the national development process, and postulate the urgent need for mainstreaming a medium to long term adaptation plan into the national economic and development planning processes.