Research Study on Non-Economic Losses and Damages from a Local Perspective in Southern Bangladesh

By Stephanie Andrei

At the international level, loss and damage has gained unprecedented attention largely due to inadequate mitigation ambitions and a lack of resources to fund adaptation in developing countries. Furthermore, it is now clear that neither mitigation nor adaptation are sufficient to address the future effects of climate change. Yet while the term essentially captures impacts at the local level, research on loss and damage has not trickled down beyond the national.

The two terms have been used interchangeably over the years and more predominantly have been fixated on calculations and costs. The danger with this is not all impacts fall under the same measurement. For instance, the loss of human life, loss of culture, loss of education, territory, health impacts, ecosystem impacts, loss of local/traditional/indigenous practices and human mobility are not easily measured or compared. As such, it has been the goal of our research to get a better understanding of non-economic losses and damages from the local perspective so as to better inform national and international discussions and move beyond our obsession with numbers.

Although climate change has become a political and economic issue, vulnerable communities living with adverse weather conditions will feel its impacts more greatly. Sea level rise has already had severe impacts on coastal regions where the livelihoods of communities are being compromised due to salinity levels, temperature increases, erratic behaviour of  rainfall, and more extreme weather events (e.g. cyclone and storm surge, excessive rainfall caused water logging) ). In Bangladesh, a 1.5 metre sea level rise threatens an estimated 17 million people, many of whom may become displaced over time. Already many communities in the South of Bangladesh have been forced to cope with saline intrusion that directly threatens their crops, fresh water resources, fisheries and livestock. But the issue is much more complex and requires a wider discussion.

In our research in the Khulna and Satkhira districts in Bangladesh, we hope to bring out stories of non-economic impacts due to rapid and slow onset climatic events. The methodology for our research therefore relies on interviews and open group discussions with vulnerable coastal communities. We hope our research will help others working on climate change and development look beyond loss and damage as an economic measurement. Already our preliminary research has revealed an incredibly complex relationship between the environment and the livelihoods of locals that, most interestingly, spills into social and cultural and lifestyle losses and damages.

During our preliminary focus group discussions with members from the Katmarchar village of Koira Upazilla in Khulna district, several men noted the issue of different types of loss and damages in different ways. As saline levels in surface water and soil continue to rise, more and more indigenous fish and fruit species are being wiped out. Poultry farming and livestock rearing  became extremely challenging after the cyclone Aila hit in May 2009 in this study village.  This has left locals with fewer and fewer options and shrimp cultivation is simply too expensive of an investment for most. In addition, the children of the study village had to stop going to the school for about a year because of infrastructure damage caused by Aila. They were also feeling trapped in terms of owning land.  Although many of the individuals did not want to sell their land, they felt their assets threatened due to environmental factors and outside pressures. Ultimately they were afraid of losing their land entirely one day.

A similar story was shared by our focus group in the Shinghortoli village of Shyamnagar Upazilla in Satkhira district. Some people here however did not own any land and therefore worked on others land to meet subsistence. Similar to the other village, salinity has cost the village several different species of fish, crops and fruits, thus leaving many farmers to cultivate ‘white’ fish. The catch here is that this fish is nocturnal forcing many fisherman to work until six o’clock in the morning. The villagers went further to comment that many people have become ill due these working hours. In reality however widespread illness in the community is likely due to a combination of factors such as nutrition and potentially unhealthy levels of pesticides and fertilisers in the market produce.

This loss of various crops, fruits and fish species might be a natural process but we know climate change is aggravating this, giving species less time to adapt. To a certain degree all communities in the world will be forced adapt due to climate change, however in the communities we interviewed, adaptation has meant growing market dependence. This high demand for vegetables and fruits alongside strong economic incentives for farmers has triggered the unhealthy use of fertilisers and pesticides. While the story does not end here, this might just go to show how incredibly complex the relationship is. Certainly, these losses cannot be summarised with a few numbers or dollar signs.

It is no longer feasible or acceptable to separate environmental and economic impacts. Furthermore, when describing livelihoods of local communities we should not forget the cultural and symbolic value this land has to the people. For both communities we visited, it was clear that migration would be a last resort for many of them. When asked the question ‘if the government and NGOs provided sufficient support for you to continue living here, would you stay?’ both focus groups replied without hesitation that they would stay.This is not a rare finding in most focus group discussions and if you could have seen these picturesque homes made up of various local materials, the handmade wood boats along the shoreline, the coconut trees that lined the embankments and the greenery and luscious forests that surrounded them, you likely would say the same. Of course the grass is always greener on the other side but exploring these stories will bring us closer to understanding the wants as well as needs of local communities– a common challenge in most development work.

We all are guilty of constantly encouraging “participation of the local people” but we often fail to define what kind of participation is needed. Likewise, often times individuals get lost in our notion of ‘local people’. Yet what development work has constantly taught us is that if local people do not see value in the support NGOs and government provide them with, change will not be long-term. It is therefore the goal of our research to add value to these qualitative accounts of loss and damage and improve the quality of discussions at the international level.

Our main research will be conducted next month, exploring non-economic losses and damages in eight villages and two districts – four in Satkhira and four in Khulna.

This project has been made possible by the Asia Development Bank and the work plan is being developed by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS).

About The Author:

StephanieStephanie Andrei is a researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and is currently coordinating and managing research related on loss and damage. Her research interests include environmentally-induced migration, remittances, migration-for-development, livelihood security, adaptation to climate change and issues related to loss and damage more generally.