Bangladesh Leaps Ahead in Preparing for the Worst of Climate Change. Here is What We Can Learn | Opinion

They say that geography is destiny. The deadliest tropical cyclone on record killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people in Bangladesh in 1970. Another severe cyclone in 1991 claimed more than 100,000 lives. It was as if fate had determined that Bangladesh—a poor and populous low-lying delta country—would be periodically razed by the forces of nature.

But when extremely severe cyclone Fani hit the Bangladeshi coast in early May, the death toll was only 12. Thanks to more accurate weather forecasting and better shelters, 1.6 million people had been evacuated to safety before the cyclone struck. Rather than accept its destiny—geographical or otherwise—Bangladesh had been preparing for the onslaught of fiercer and more frequent tropical cyclones that global warming would surely bring. The way it has gone about this holds valuable lessons for vulnerable coastal communities all over the world.

Preparing and engaging communities is vital, initially as first responders and then in the reconstruction of more resilient housing and community facilities. But alongside this necessary response to the increasing frequency of cyclones grew a belief that great change can only follow when all levels of society are engaged.

The first result of this, in 2009, was the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan – the first national strategy of its kind. Bangladesh has so far allocated about $500 million to measures ranging from increasing food security to low-carbon development. One of the plan's biggest achievements is the country's early warning system for natural disasters, which gives people in coastal communities time to flee to safety.

Another major focus is helping farmers in the delta adapt to the increasing salinity of the soil. Rising sea levels are an immediate danger for low-lying countries because the sea water invades both drinking water wells and aquifers and arable land. Bangladesh has responded by helping farmers to grow saline-resistant rice or switching to cultivating shrimp in areas of extreme salinity. Work is also taking place to replenish mangrove forests to help buffer the coast.

Bangladesh believes that adapting to climate change cannot be siloed in a single ministry—it is the responsibility of the entire government. Since 2014, when its Climate Fiscal Framework was first published, the responsibility for climate change is embedded in 20 ministries, including agriculture, housing and energy, with budgets to match.

More than 70 per cent of Bangladesh's expenditure to cope with climate change is domestic; the rest comes from development partners. But much more will be needed if the country – which is so vulnerable that up to one-third of the population risks displacement through rising sea levels—is to adapt at scale.

Bangladesh needs technology and expertise to improve its salinity management systems and cyclone-resistant housing. It is keen to share knowledge about adaptation solutions and techniques—for while Bangladesh has much to teach, it is also keen to learn from the experience of other countries facing similar challenges.

In addition, Bangladesh needs more funds to finance its adaptation efforts. A 2018 report from the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies calculates the country needs $3 billion a year to adapt to climate change until 2030. Combined domestic and international spend in this area is $1.3 billion per annum, leaving an annual financial 'adaptation gap' of $1.7 billion.

Rich countries urgently need to commit more climate funds to help those less fortunate than themselves. Although developed countries agreed to mobilize $100bn in climate finance in developing countries by 2020, public finance reached just $54.5bn in 2017. The ongoing first replenishment of the Green Climate Fund is a key channel to see the continued scale-up of public resources. Discussing how international action can be accelerated will be one of the issues raised at the meeting of the Global Commission on Adaptation in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka on July 9-10—the first to take place in the Global South.

Bangladesh is a striking example of how poor communities can be the most innovative in adapting to climate change. Now it hopes the valuable lessons it has learnt will help the rest of the world adapt to our new climate reality.

Sheikh Hasina is the Bangladeshi Prime Minister and Ban Ki-moon is the 8th UN Secretary-General and Chair of the Global Commission on Adaptation

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​