Funding Climate Adaptation in Bangladesh

UN Photo/Kibae Park
A child washes himself in Kallyanpur, a slum in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. One of the objectives of the World Bank climate change adaptation program in Bangladesh is to improve water supply and sanitation systems.

More than almost any other nation, Bangladesh is on the front lines of climate change. It’s one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries, and most of its lands are less than 30 feet above sea level. In recent years, storms have become more frequent and more severe, claiming the lives of thousands. Almost a third of the country is vulnerable to tidal flooding, and in 2007 two successive floods covered over 70 percent of the country, destroying more than 85,000 homes and 1.2 million acres of crops. And the rain has been falling harder in recent years (14 inches of rain in a single day in 2004). Meanwhile, encroaching ocean waters have forced many farmers in coastal areas to switch from growing rice to farming prawns. Rising salinity poses a major threat to food security, as fields become less and less productive. According to the World Bank, crop yields are predicted to fall by up to 30 percent in coming decades. What can the developed world do to help Bangladesh weather the storm?

One response has been World-Bank–administered climate-adaptation loans, through which wealthy nations assist poor countries like Bangladesh that are likely to be hit hardest by climate change. The loans are distributed through the World Bank’s Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR) and are funded by developed nations such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany. The program seeks to encourage climate resilience as part of development efforts in at-risk countries. As of May 2011, the funding nations have given U.S.$647 million to the PPCR, and more money has been pledged. The PPCR operates in nine countries, including Yemen, Zambia, and Cambodia, and there are regional programs in the Pacific and the Caribbean. The PPCR effort in Bangladesh has been awarded $110 million in grants and loans to promote crop varieties resistant to climate change; rehabilitate and reforest coastal embankments to protect coastal areas from storm surges; improve water supply and sanitation systems; and develop infrastructure and roads to increase access to markets and social services.

But the World Bank’s climate-adaptation loans have taken heavy criticism from the nations they are intended to help. Campaigners in Bangladesh and other poor nations have vigorously protested the loans, which, in the words of one Bangladeshi NGO leader in an article in the Guardian, make “people in countries like mine pay twice for climate change, even though we played virtually no part in causing the problem.” Last June, more than 50 civil-society groups from the countries chosen to participate in the PPCR program released a statement arguing that rich nations like the United Kingdom and United States should take responsibility for climate change and give “reparations for the damage [they have] caused to the lives of people around the world.” The statement emphasizes the injustice of climate change: that the countries most affected are the ones who contributed the least to the problem. It argues that the climate-adaptation loans “will only lock our countries into further debt, and further impoverish our people.” Critics also oppose the involvement of the World Bank, which they consider an undemocratic institution dominated by wealthy nations.

The in-country NGOs instead urge developed countries to contribute to the UN climate change adaptation fund, established at the UN climate talks, which they believe the World Bank’s effort undermines. Adaptation projects funded by the United Nations include mitigating flood risks in Pakistan, improving water security in Mongolia, building climate change–resilient farming systems in Turkmenistan, and facilitating adaptation to coastal erosion in vulnerable areas of Senegal. In contrast to the World Bank fund, the UN fund does not offer loans, and the majority of the latter’s governing members are from developing nations. The UN fund has received only about $60 million in contributions to date, a fraction of the PPCR’s budget.