Vulnerable communities tackling climate change are our best teachers

The poorest communities (and poorest countries) are leading the world in learning about and practising adaptation to climate change. The rich would do well to learn from them.

Saleemul Huq's picture
Insight by 
Saleemul Huq
19 April 2013
A woman fishing off the island of Padma Pakur.

A woman fishing off the island of Padma Pakur. The sea in the Bay of Bengal is rising but through collective ingenuity people are adapting to the impacts of climate change. Photo: Espen Rasmussen/PANOS

The flood plain of the Ganges river in southern Bangladesh is only around two metres higher than sea level. Rising floodwaters can wipe out crops and leave land waterlogged when it retreats – a formidable challenge for any farmer to overcome. Farmers living in the district of Faridpur, central Bangladesh have adapted an age-old practise by growing vegetables on floating gardens. Called ‘baira’, the organic mats rise and fall with ebbing water levels. They’re made from bamboo frames covered in water hyacinth weed – turning an invasive weed problem into an asset. This is then covered in soil, cow dung and compost made from last year’s rotting ‘baira’.

The technique uses free, abundantly-available resources to allow farmers to grow a crop during the heavy rains when their fields are flooded, and even provides fertiliser for their winter crops. Of course, such a technique can only go so far, and doesn’t resolve all the difficulties people face during the monsoon season, but it does show the farmers’ collective ingenuity in adapting to the impacts of climate change.

It is well established that climate change impacts are already occurring around the world, and will continue with greater severity in future. It is equally well established that those who are most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change are generally the poorest people and communities in every country and the poorest countries in the world.

This is true for both rich countries as well as poor ones. This was demonstrated when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a few years ago and again, to a lesser extent, when hurricane Sandy hit New York last year. Those who suffered the most were generally the poorest communities.

This truth also applies at the global scale across the nearly 200 countries around the globe which have signed and ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention recognises the nearly 50 poorest, or Least Developed Countries (LDCs) as being particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to their poverty, making them less able to adapt.

While it is true that the poor (countries as well as communities) are generally more vulnerable, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t resilient. In fact, as the Bangladeshi floating gardens show, the poorest and most vulnerable communities who are used to facing regular floods, hurricanes and droughts are in fact often more adaptive or resilient than the rich who are not used to those climatic conditions.

This ability to cope with familiar climatic conditions while facing difficulty with unusual conditions is well illustrated in the United Kingdom where a few centimetres of snow bring London to a halt while cities like Edinburgh in Scotland can cope easily with much heavier snow.

Learning by doing

Over the last decade some people and organisations (mainly NGOs), have been working with some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries around the world to improve the ways they are adapting to the effects of climate change. This has now evolved into a significant new community-of-practice on Community-based adaptation (CBA) to climate change with learning shared at international conferences, such as the upcoming CBA7, held each year in different countries.

The learning-by-doing aspect of community-based adaptation (CBA) to climate change has resulted in a significant increase in knowledge and understanding of adaptation to climate change. There are several academic books coming out very soon on lessons about scaling up CBA.

Integrating climate change into projects and policies

This year’s conference, to be held in Bangladesh from 22 to 25 April, will share lessons on how to integrate climate risk management and adaptation to climate change into development projects and policies. This is referred to as mainstreaming. The conference is targeting government officials from both national as well as local governments to share lessons where this has worked successfully in both rural and urban settings. 

CBA6 was held in Vietnam in 2012; six conferences have been held overall. The annual conferences attract well over 300 participants from all over the world who are researchers, representatives from NGOs, funding agencies and the United Nations. During the conferences, participants visit communities to see how they’re adapting to climate change first hand, and then to share research at the conference that follows.  

The CBA7 conference will be inaugurated by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina and will be closed by Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland.   

This time, in addition to the several hundred people attending the conference, we are expecting several thousand to follow it as VIPs (virtual internet participants) who will be able to follow it in real time and participate virtually.

The poor are getting organised

As Dr Atiq Rahman says in the video above, it is possible that the ‘baira’ technology could spread from southern Bangladesh northwards – and even from Bangladesh to other southern countries – an example of “south-south technology transfer”. 

This is the most significant aspect of CBA; it empowers and gives agency to the communities themselves. It enables them to plan and decide their own future and then accept and use help (whether in the form of information, knowledge or financial support) in a manner that is deemed to be useful to them. They are actors and not victims leading the world in learning about and practising adaptation to climate change.