Adaptation to climate change — how well is Dhaka doing?

(This article has originally been published here)

A recent article by researchers working at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in the Tribune explained the challenges Dhaka will face due to climate change. The city has a population of over 18 million residents and continues to grow at an explosive 6.9% yearly rate. Climatic pressures are a major driver of Dhaka’s population growth as rural inhabitants come to the city after facing cyclones or riverbank erosion in the coastal regions.

The capital, however, is not immune to the impacts of climate change: Most of Dhaka is less than three metres above sea level and many of the city’s slums are located in areas assigned for flood drainage and are exposed to chronic water logging. Scientists predict that river flooding and monsoon rains will become more frequent and intense due to human-induced climate change, putting extra pressure on flood prevention and drainage infrastructure. Addressing expansive infrastructure demands, deficits in housing and basic services, especially of the 40% of the population who live in slums, remain significant challenges for government authorities.

It is unclear whether Dhaka is prepared to face the impacts of climate change. Adaptation is the process of adjustment in response to extreme climatic events and long-term changes in weather patterns, such as heavy storms and erratic temperatures. In Dhaka’s context, adaptation refers to policies and practices put in place to protect people and infrastructure from the impacts. Many cities around the world have climate change adaptation plans, outlining the government’s planned initiatives to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Examples of these initiatives include raising awareness about the future effects, identifying deficits of green areas in the city, or upgrading air pollution control, among many others.

Dhaka North City Corporation has a Climate Change, Environment, and Disaster Management department, established in 2011. The department has completed small-scale adaptation projects, such as producing educational videos about climate change for children. This is progress, but it is far from sufficient to address the large-scale threats the city faces. RAJUK, the agency responsible for planning land use and development in the city, has already prepared its Master Plan for 2016-2025, but the impacts of climate change receive only cursory mentions. This is a missed opportunity and now the agency will have to wait until its next Master Plan in 2026 to tackle climate change in a meaningful manner.

The national government has made more progress to engage with the issue of climate change in urban areas, but there are no concrete plans in place for Dhaka yet. On August 2, 2015, a workshop on introducing climate change concerns into national urban policies was held jointly by UN Habitat, the Bangladeshi Ministry of Housing, and the Urban Development Directorate, a national level agency tasked with co-ordinating urban development across cities. The objectives of the workshop were to discuss a common agenda for climate change, prioritise issues in order of importance, and enhance commitment of national and local governments to incorporate climate change concerns into national urban policies. This progress is important, because it means that governments at the national and local level are laying the building blocks for action on climate change in cities.

There is a lot of work to be done. Policies at the national level must trickle down to local governments in Dhaka, but questions remain about how this will be done. The responsibilities of government in Dhaka are fragmented across institutions. For example, the City Corporations have expressed the need for more green space in Dhaka, but RAJUK is the institution responsible for land use development, including planning for parks and other green spaces. Lack of co-ordination across these institutions is a barrier towards adaptation planning. Another question concerns the role of research in supporting policy. Do we know which areas of the city are the most flood-prone, or who are the most vulnerable individuals to extreme weather? Answering these questions requires that policy-makers engage with climate change researchers and students. These issues will have to be addressed before Dhaka can call itself “climate change proof.’’

Written by: Malcolm Araos Egan, Visiting Researcher – ICCCAD.