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As the world increasingly faces rising disasters, crises and conflict, insights from Bangladesh share how the most vulnerable communities can build resilience, and how supporting people to form the right networks is a more powerful investment than we may realise.
Rising salinity in Bangladesh’s coastal regions, increased heat stress, storm surges and flooding risks add to the already challenging baseline conditions of flooding and river erosion in the country. These changes, however, are not felt equally by all.
Climate change exacerbates the pre-existing inequalities of communities living in vulnerability. Communities relying on farming and already struggling with rising costs face income insecurity from erratic yields and prices. Ongoing struggles for fair wages and working conditions intensify with frequent heat waves and erratic rainfall. The impacts of the climate crisis thus occur within the long-standing dynamics wrought by the socioeconomic, historical and environmental inequities that play out within familiar power struggles.
A framework to measure resilience
Resilience of a community to climatic shocks is an important indicator of their vulnerability to climate change. Resilience captures a community’s capacity to recover from catastrophic occurrences and to adapt to changes over time. BRAC’s resilience framework breaks it down to four aspects: absorptive, anticipatory, adaptive and transformative capacities:
The first three capacities are well included in global conversations about adaptation, in the form of better predictive climate models, climate-resilient crops and other technological advances. The fourth capacity – transformative resilience – often gets overlooked. It is here where citizen participation, grassroots mobilisation and community strengthening play a key role.
We’re not all in the same boat, though
While resilience frameworks are helpful at a community level, structural issues put many groups at disproportionately higher risk than others in the same community. For example, mortality rates for women in disasters are higher than men. Women tend to have less ability to take quick and immediate measures for safety, such as running quickly or climbing a tree, due to clothing or social norms. Family members often attend to injured women after men. These structural issues feed into women’s absorptive capacity.
Women’s anticipatory capacity also gets affected by gender norms. Women tend to work inside, rather than outside the home, which increases their vulnerability through reduced access to risk information, including disaster warnings. Women have less access to information about climate change risks. Research conducted by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) in 2022 found that of the 33,554 women respondents surveyed across Bangladesh, 33% did not feel comfortable speaking about climate change.
Women’s relative lack of access to resources forms an important aspect of the disproportionate impact. These arise from a lack of access to paid employment and greater reliance on natural resources, which are associated with greater climate shocks and income volatility. Differential norms not only limit access to, but also authority over resources, as well as limiting involvement in decision-making processes.
Community support is integral in coping with disasters
BIGD’s ongoing research on poverty graduation programmes in Bangladesh shows that increasing women’s participation in decision-making strengthens their ability to respond to climate change. For example, in BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation programme, participants meet regularly weekly with other participants. This improves response networks and enhances awareness and chances of receiving assistance during crises.
Strong community bonds also help to cope with slow onset climate change impacts, by increasing the number of individuals whom a person can seek support from. A support network can also help households absorb shocks effectively through sharing risks. The programme ensures technical knowledge is easily disseminated and understood, and regular meetings with other participants ensures risk awareness and technical training around adaptive enterprises are well absorbed by the group. All of these contribute to building transformative resilience.
Insights for the world
As we plan adaptation measures, we need to factor in building resilience in all of its forms, particularly ensuring we include measures to build transformative resilience to overcome structural inequalities. Something as simple as having a strong network of neighbours, peers, and friends – particularly for women – can be the difference between life and death in a natural disaster.
Rohini Kamal is a Research Fellow leading the Environment and Climate Change research at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.