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Lessons from Bangladesh for a post-Sandy New York

By News Desk
January 28 2013





On 14 January Dr Saleemul Huq – senior fellow in IIED’s climate change group – spoke at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies/Columbia University in New York City about the lessons US cities can learn from Bangladesh as they adapt to climate change.


A community in Bangladesh maps out their local resources and plans for an emergency. Photo: Isabelle Lemaire

The Urban Climate Change Research Network organised the event in collaboration with the Bangladesh Environment Network and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Bangladesh, located at the northern tip of the Bay of Bengal, is one of the world’s most at-risk countries for severe coastal storms. With much of its land area at or only several feet above sea level, it is particularly vulnerable to destructive tropical cyclones or hurricanes.  In response, the people of Bangladesh have adapted their homes, villages, wells, and crops to cope with frequent flooding. Locally and nationally, governments have also put in place “preparedness committees”, chains of communication, and a National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) to minimize the country’s exposure to disaster risk.

In light of Bangladesh’s experience with planning for and adapting to catastrophic floods, this Dr Saleemul Huq shared the lessons learned in building climate and disaster resilience in coastal cities. Other environmental experts from Bangladesh (Mizan Khan) and New York City (Dr Cynthia Rosenzweig) shared their knowledge and discussing how these lessons can be applied to New York City. Biographies of all three speakers follow these notes on their talks, which Gary Monitz wrote during the event.

Coping with Cyclones in Bangladesh: Lessons for New York (Dr Saleemul Huq)

Dr Huq opened by discussing how climate change is a global problem and there is much mutual learning that can be done between countries. In many ways, there is more to learn from the poorer countries than can be learned from the more developed countries. Experiences from developing countries around the world, Bangladesh being an example, can be shared to our mutual benefit. In the case of climate change vulnerability, impacts and adaptation, Bangladesh is leading the way and has much knowledge to share with vulnerable cities and locations like New York.

Dr Huq continued on with a historical overview of tropical cyclones on Bangladesh. The main point here was that the death toll from cyclones in Bangladesh has decreased significantly over time as a result of numerous adaptation strategies that have been implemented over the years. Engineered barriers such as polders and coastal embankments have helped to protect against storm surge and flooding since the 1960s and 1970s, although many are now in poor condition and at risk of being overtopped by storm surge and flooding. An early warning system (Bangladesh cyclone preparedness program) utilizes over 5000 volunteers to make people aware of oncoming cyclones. Bangladesh has been encouraging a “people-centered” early warning system in which people are no longer “vulnerable”, but rather capable, resilient and able to protect themselves.

Emergency cyclone shelters have been built for people to evacuate to, although the capacity of these shelters still needs to be increased. Many of the emergency shelters also serve other functions such as schools and have the ability to store livestock and water. Another adaptive measure being undertaken is to increase the effectiveness of natural vegetation as a storm barrier. This has often involved what Dr Huq refers to as “social forestry”, where the people plant trees and mangroves themselves to act as storm buffers. Another method employed has been the development of floating gardens, or “bairas” that can withstand floods. Finally, Bangladesh has implemented successful programs to increase the awareness of climate change and cyclone risk amongst the most vulnerable populations.

Dr Huq went on to discuss the impacts of climate change on Bangladesh. Similar to what is expected for New York City and the U.S. East Coast, the likelihood of extreme events is expected to increase (a greater number of storms with higher winds and rainfall rates), although a decrease or no change in overall cyclone frequency is expected. Although adaption measures are expected to continue to be successful in reducing loss of life, the economic losses from cyclones is expected to increase. Dr Huq estimates that the equivalent of about US$5 billion in adaptation costs will be required to protect economic assets.

The key lessons from the first part of Dr Huq’s discussion is that technology and engineering can play a large role in adapting to the impacts of climate change, but it cannot solve the problem by itself. Investment in human and community knowledge, awareness and capacity is also necessary. Special attention and priority must be given to the most vulnerable in a society. Focus should be on empowering people and helping them to deal with disasters on their own, rather than treating them as victims. Taking adaptive measures in advance is a more cost-effective way to cope with disasters.

The latter part of Dr Huq’s talk centered on the Action Research for Community Adaptation in Bangladesh (ARCAB) program. ARCAB is a long-term action research program that will work at sites across Bangladesh with the goal of researching knowledge and actions for adaptation at the community level in order to support the development of climate resilient communities. Researchers on the project gather data from 20 research stations in different local communities across the country, located in different ecosystems. Action partners for the project include 11 international NGOs working on CBA. Research partners for the project are divided into three tiers: 1) national academic institutions which employ graduate students to conduct research at the field sites, 2) national research institutions with particular sectoral expertise, and 3) international universities and institutions. ARCAB aims to use rigorous research to develop proven community-based adaptation strategies that can be scaled up and replicated in many locations.

Comments from Dr Mizan Khan

“There is no option but to be prepared, which will require a greater investment in disaster risk reduction. In the US, climate change is rarely or almost never mentioned in politics or government reports, what are American leaders afraid of? What will convince American leaders to accept the truth about climate change? More than two-thirds of the American public accepts that climate change is happening, so why do politicians continue to do so little about it? There needs to be more empowerment from the people. The change is not long-term, it’s happening now and we can no longer afford to sit back and not do anything about it.”

Hurricane Sandy-Role of Science in Forecasting Impacts (Dr Cynthia Rosenzweig)

In her talk, Dr  Rosenzweig evaluated the effectiveness of New York City’s preparation for, and response to Superstorm Sandy. One day prior to Sandy’s arrival, the city issued a mandatory evacuation of coastal Flood Zone A. The evacuation did help to prevent some loss of life, although there is still a significant amount of criticism about how the city handled the evacuation. Sandy claimed over 200 lives in total, over 100 of which were in the United States and 43 of which were in New York City.  Over 4 million people in the metropolitan area lost power, which was the most widespread outage this area has ever seen. Utility companies were simply unprepared to handle such a massive outage in a timely manner, leaving some people without power for weeks.

Dr  Rosenzweig went on to discuss the links between Sandy and climate change. The 1 foot of sea level rise which has occurred in New York Harbor over the past 100 years exacerbated the storm surge flooding in many low-lying areas. Coastal flooding is projected to occur more frequently and with greater intensity in the future. In addition, an increase in hurricane intensity and the frequency of more intense hurricanes is expected. Another possible connection which may have influenced the path of Sandy is changing jet stream patterns, possibly associated with melting Arctic sea ice, which may cause storms to turn westward more frequently. However, this is still an area of active research and is not clearly understood at this point.

The city had taken several preventative actions prior to Sandy. The MTA was in the process of enhancing existing programs and had also conducted a pilot project to raise subway air vents on the sidewalk. Planning/engineering programs already in place included the NYC DEP Climate Change Integrated Modeling Project (CCMIP) analyzing impacts on water supply as well as various DEP studies on the impacts of rising sea levels on Wastewater Pollution Control Plants, tide gates and other structures. The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) has recommended an update to the 100-year floodplain to include more vulnerable areas. Dr  Rosenzweig also discussed the role of urban design in creating a future city that is vibrant, sustainable, and can deal with future storms.

Dr  Rosenzweig concluded her talk with a discussion of the overall role of cities in fostering climate change adaptation. Cities are universally connected through a variety of flows. The role of cities in this regard has been strengthening as they emerge as first responders for both adaptation and mitigation. Concrete actions going on amongst cities include prototype mitigation and adaptation standards, common sets of standards for reporting, and engaging citizens in a bottom-up approach, especially from the poorest and most vulnerable people already suffering the most from the impacts of climate change. We should use Sandy as a tipping point to incorporate the discussion of climate change into all of our actions.

Originally published by IIED

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