Bangladesh is among the most disaster-vulnerable countries in the world, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. Every year, the country experiences severe weather events including floods and cyclones, which are becoming increasingly intense due to climate change. The southern, coastal area of the country is also highly affected by saltwater intrusion as sea level rise and storms funnel seawater up the Bay of Bengal.
Another significant trend in the country is greater urbanization. In the 1970s, the proportion of the population living in urban areas was only 9 percent. By 2011, this had increased to 28 percent. Rapidly expanding urban populations are making it more difficult for municipal governments to provide adequate services with limited resources.
These challenges are further aggravated by climate-related shocks and stresses. As floods and other events become more frequent and intense, the government, along with NGOs, has initiated a disaster preparedness program that includes structural and non-structural interventions to reduce the impact of extreme events.
Shahnawaz Whara is a specialist for urban disaster risk reduction at Plan International Bangladesh. He is also a consultant serving as the Bangladesh city resilience officer to ADB’s Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund.
Resilience requires sustained engagement and communication across scales
One such intervention is the establishment of disaster management committees (DMCs) at the city level. DMCs are responsible for implementing a sustainable disaster management system within defined municipal boundaries. One of these DMCs is in Bagerhat municipality in southwest Bangladesh, also one of the target cities of the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF).
Disaster management committees provide a forum for collaboration
Bagerhat, one of Bangladesh’s oldest municipalities, has been experiencing extreme events such as cyclones, extreme rainfall, flooding, and saline intrusion for many years. The DMC has been active in responding to these extreme events, particularly several large cyclones.
More recently, DMCs have turned their attention to disaster preparedness and resilience building to minimize the impact of extreme events. Oftentimes, communities are consumed by the challenges of daily life and do not have access to reliable sources of information on climate resilience. This prevents many people from accessing important information that can increase their overall resilience, such as messages from disaster early warning systems.
The DMC in Bagerhat, which consist of 25 to 30 members, are well organized when dealing with disasters. During the monsoon and cyclone season, it becomes the focal points for communications about disaster planning and preparedness efforts. As it is made up of representatives from local government, civil society, and NGOs, as well as service providers and other local leaders, the DMC is a powerful forum for planning, implementing, and communicating resilience-building initiatives, such as early warning systems and community evacuation plans.
Proposed site for a new cyclone center in Bagerhat, Pakistan (photo by Maliha Khan).
Resilience planning requires sustained engagement
The DMCs, however, do not have sufficient funding to remain active outside of the monsoon season. This poses a problem, as they remain largely reactive organizations responding to specific climate threats. Planning and implementing strategies that build resilience is an ongoing process that requires continuous engagement and coordination across municipal agencies. Resilience requires sustained engagement and communication across scales .
The Mayor of Bagerhat Municipality, Khan Habibur Rahman, explained that currently the DMCs lack experience on resilience approaches and the latest knowledge on climate change impacts. However, he also said that the indigenous knowledge of local communities holds many valuable lessons for how to respond to shocks and stresses in the urban environment. Therefore, forums where communities can contribute to resilience building are extremely valuable, and the DMC model would benefit from taking a more holistic approach.
Resilience approaches to urban development can only be achieved through broad engagement, incorporating a wide range of organizations and people from across government and civil society. However, institutions that facilitate this sort of dialogue are in short supply. The DMCs in Bangladesh show the value of such platforms; but for this to be successful in the context of urban resilience, the endeavor must be year-round, not just in the disaster season.