Dhaka Courier

Economic Impact of Climatic Catastrophes in Char-lands

Families who live on ‘chars’ – river islands formed from sedimentation – are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. Photo: Courtesy

Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen lauded Bangladesh's social development in many fields, such as gender equity, women's empowerment, mortality rate, life expectancy and immunization. Despite such significant improvement in Bangladesh's economic performance, formidable economic challenges still lie ahead. With per capita income of US$ 2000.00, country still remains one of the least developed countries in the world.  An estimated 63 million people live under the poverty line in a country of 163 million people. Bangladesh has also witnessed rapid urbanization with more than a third of population now living in urban areas and continuing. Despite the population growth rate has come down to 1.2 per cent per annum, the country remains one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

One good indicator for looking at the worst form of income inequality is the Palma ratio, which focuses on extremes of inequality-the ratio of incomes at the very top to those at the bottom.  In Bangladesh, it is the changes in these extremes that are most noticeable; while the share of income in the middle is relatively stable. The Palma ratio at the national level has consistently increased from 1.68 in 1964 to 2.93 in 2016; in urban areas, it rose from 2.00 to 2.96 while, in rural areas, it grew from 1.38 to 2.51 over the same period. Over the period, the share of the middle 50 per cent has remained relatively stable; while the poorest 40 per cent have generally lost in terms of income share, the richest 10 per cent have gained. In the case of income, one of the targets of SDG10 is to progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average by 2030. The national data since the 1980s show that the average per capita household income (at 2010 prices) during 1986-2016 grew at 1.43 per cent while the same for the bottom 40 per cent grew by only 0.28 per cent. The worse form of inequality that is widespread in the country is inequality of opportunities, which are both the cause and consequence of inequality of outcomes. Reduced inequalities have both economic and social benefits. It strengthens people's perception about fair society, improves social cohesion and mobility, and boosts employment and education with beneficial effects on human capital and development. Without equal opportunities, systemic patterns of discrimination and exclusion prevent the poor and disadvantaged groups from accessing economic, political and social resources, resulting in 'inequality traps' and the persistence of inequality across generations.

Environment, Climatic Vulnerability and Livelihood in the Char-lands

Char-lands are the sandbars that emerge as islands within the river channel or as attached land to the riverbanks as a result of the dynamics of erosion and accretion in the rivers of Bangladesh. The Chars are, thus, home to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Bangladesh. These areas are particularly prone to the effects of frequent climatic shocks (floods, drought and cyclones) which increase the precariousness of poor people’s lives by wiping out their assets and pushing them deeper into poverty. Char, which comes about a total area of approximately 7,200 square kilometers. In addition to the major physical risks associated with the rivers, Char-dwellers in particular are marginalized from the benefits of mainland Bangladeshi society through their poor communication networks. The Char dwellers mainly depend on agriculture and agriculture related activities. Opportunities for off farm activities are marginal.

Livelihood strategies linked to environmental change and variability, are, therefore, by necessity, mobile to cope with regular erosion. These areas have not been the focus of development efforts of the public or private agencies in Bangladesh. The lack of basic services and governance representation and dependence on limited and seasonally variable resource access demands highly innovative and diversified livelihood strategies in the Chars but this also leads to considerable social inequity. High food insecurity and low income results in the out migration of at least one household member to find employment, leaving women and children to subsist. Many women headed households in the Chars and poorer women are burdened with household, crop cultivation and income generating demands.

In Char areas interventions to increase agriculture productivity without addressing the vulnerability context of peoples’ livelihood strategies will do little to affect poverty dynamics. It may not offer options for those poorest families unable to incorporate the technologies introduced from the outside. Sustainable management of disasters through mitigation measures therefore requires increasing the livelihood options so that they gain more control over their lives and environment. Sustainable development requires harmonizing of environmental protection and development so that the natural resource base be protected and enhanced, and institutions are established to promote equitable growth, both factors which are essential for reducing disaster hazard risk and vulnerability. Diversification of livelihoods will need to be addressed to reduce pressure on natural and common property resources.  Poor Char dwellers need to be able to effectively sustain their livelihoods and engage in the local and national economy by broadening economic opportunities and strengthening productive livelihood strategies. This will reduce food insecurity; increase employment opportunities and income, and permit people to accumulate assets, which will improve their ability to cope with future shocks to their livelihoods without falling deeper into poverty.

Inequality implies fewer resources for the disadvantaged groups to commence coping and re- covery measures. These resources can generally take four forms: households’ own (private) resources, community resources, resources provided by various non government organisations (NGOs), including religious and philanthropic organizations and philanthropic activities of private companies, foundations, and public resources provided by the government, including local governments. The interventions for the future can include a) building the effective voice of poor Char dwellers, as citizens, to demand services; b) building accountable and responsive institutions in the public, private and civil sectors to supply pro-poor services and infrastructure; c) providing Char dwellers with choice in service provision and diversified channels for access to services.

Concluding Remarks

We always debate how climate change exacerbates economic inequality, but rarely do we think the opposite: that inequality itself can be a driver of climate change. What’s missing from the conversation is what our inequality crisis is doing to our planet. How unequal societies inflict more environmental damage than more economically even societies. One key topic that is still overlooked is how environmental degradation and climate change are themselves the toxic by-products of our inequality problem. Many people who live in low-income communities, for example, cannot afford to retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient, meaning they use more power than necessary, generating more pollution.

Shishir Reza is an Environmental Analyst & Associate Member, Bangladesh Economic Association.

  • Catastrophes in Char-lands
  • Climate Change

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