Bangladesh's 'green wall' fights global climate change

offsetting carbon emissions
The coastal afforestation project rehabilitates the poorest families displaced by extreme weather events. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh / Kawser Ahmed

Five years ago, on the night of November 15, a cyclone ripped through Bangladesh’s coast killing more than 3,000 people and leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

“We woke up in terror after the roof of my house was swept away, and moments later we were chest deep in the rising waters,” says Hasan Gharami, 33, of Borguna, who fled to high ground with his family to survive. “For generations we have lived with floods and cyclones, but we had never seen anything like this since the big cyclone of 1970.”

Highlights

  • Bangladesh is vulnerable to rising sea levels and an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like cyclones linked to global climate change
  • 'Green wall' across 14kms are improving natural protection against climate change-related storms, tidal surges and other disasters
  • Over its life-span, this projects will offset 600,000 tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of annual emissions by roughly two million Bangladeshis.

That night more than a million people lost their homes, with many families living on spits of high land to this day, crowded into shanties built from salvaged debris.

“We couldn’t return to our land. We lost our boats, we lost our cattle, and our land was flooded with salt water – too saline even to drink, let alone grow crops,” says Hassan.

Gharami’s is one of 20,000 displaced families who have been settled on barren government land since 2009, through a UNDP innovation that recently won the international Earthcare Award for pioneering a new approach to climate change adaptations that offsets global carbon emissions.   

 “It has taken five years, but my days have returned,” he says, using a local turn of phrase to describe good fortune.

The Community Based Coastal Afforestation project has allotted Gharami, and many others, a plot of land about the size of twelve parking spots, where he is farming fish and growing fruit, in exchange for a community pledge to protect coastal forests that act as a ‘green wall’ against the onslaught of cyclones and tidal surges.

The landscape looks like a deserted war front reclaimed by nature. Behind a treeline of dense mangroves that shields the sea from view, are a series of ditches lined by parapets of raised earth.

“All of the families here volunteered their labour to dig ditches in the land we were given, and we harvested rainwater to make fish nurseries,” says Gharami. “With the earth we excavated from the ditch, we have constructed dykes around our ponds where we grow bananas and guavas,” he says. “It also protects the dykes when the tidal waters rise.”

“Two years ago, we were living on relief distributed by NGOs,” says Shahina Akhter who has been the sole breadwinner in her family ever since her husband fell ill. “Now I am earning about $400 from the fruits and vegetables, and maybe this year we will earn much more from the fish.” 

Coping with climate change

“The challenge was to create a sustainable innovation that was customised to local needs and drew from local knowledge,” says Stefan Priesner, Country Director of UNDP Bangladesh. “Through this project, we are preserving eco-habitats, lifting people out of chronic poverty, and achieving climate change adaptations that are sustainable in the long run.”

Bangladesh’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like cyclones linked to global climate change, means this model has a powerful policy resonance in a country saddled with half the population size of the US packed into a land area the size of Florida state.

Climate change is predicted to raise average sea levels by around 18-79 cm during this century. Even if sea levels rise to half of that extreme scenario, about 12 per cent of the country’s total land area could face regular inundation affecting over 10 million people according the government’s estimates.

Living in a country that has the lowest per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the world, however, Hasan Gharami and these families are unlikely agents of mitigation efforts. And yet, they are doing their bit to offset emissions too.  

Over five years, the mangroves that Gharami and his community are protecting from illegal loggers will offset more than 610,000 tonnes of carbon: the equivalent of annual emissions by roughly two million Bangladeshis.

“We are rapidly coming to terms with the fact that we will not be able to adapt fast enough to cope with the impacts of climate change,” says Priesner. “We have to place both mitigation and adaptation at the centre of our coping strategies, and our coastal afforestation project does just that” he says.  

“For poor communities in Bangladesh – ravaged by the worst excesses of climate change – to do its part in offsetting carbon emissions is a powerful idea,” he adds.

“All of the families here understand that if we protect these mangroves at the edge of the water, villages for miles around will be protected when the next cyclone hits,” says Gharami. “We protect these forests from illegal loggers because they are the only protection we have for our houses and for our lives.”

With the ‘green wall’ of mangroves preventing gradually accreting land and preventing river erosion, Gharami and his community finally enjoy a security that has eluded them for generations.   

Donors: UNDP / Global Environment Facility (GEF) / Embassy of Switzerland/ SDC

 

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