A people‐centred perspective on climate change, environmental stress, and livelihood resilience in Bangladesh
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- Ayeb-Karlsson, S., van der Geest, K., Ahmed, I. et al. Sustain Sci (2016) 11: 679. doi:10.1007/s11625-016-0379-z
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The Ganges–Brahmaputra delta enables Bangladesh to sustain a dense population, but it also exposes people to natural hazards. This article presents findings from the Gibika project, which researches livelihood resilience in seven study sites across Bangladesh. This study aims to understand how people in the study sites build resilience against environmental stresses, such as cyclones, floods, riverbank erosion, and drought, and in what ways their strategies sometimes fail. The article applies a new methodology for studying people’s decision making in risk-prone environments: the personal Livelihood History interviews (N = 28). The findings show how environmental stress, shocks, and disturbances affect people’s livelihood resilience and why adaptation measures can be unsuccessful. Floods, riverbank erosion, and droughts cause damage to agricultural lands, crops, houses, and properties. People manage to adapt by modifying their agricultural practices, switching to alternative livelihoods, or using migration as an adaptive strategy. In the coastal study sites, cyclones are a severe hazard. The study reveals that when a cyclone approaches, people sometimes choose not to evacuate: they put their lives at risk to protect their livelihoods and properties. Future policy and adaptation planning must use lessons learned from people currently facing environmental stress and shocks.
KeywordsLivelihood resilience Climate change Adaptation Natural disasters People-centred research
Nature has been kind to Bangladesh by positioning the country in the world’s largest delta. Out of the world’s 500 million people living in deltas, 100 million live in the Ganges–Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh and India. Jamuna, Meghna, and other rivers criss-cross their way through the country before flowing out into the Bay of Bengal. Historically, the delta enables the country to sustain a dense population, but the delta location also exposes people to natural hazards. Cyclones, riverbank erosion, sea-level rise, land loss, and drought are all typical stressors in delta areas (Ahmed et al. 2012; Pouliotte et al. 2009; Lewis 2011).
This article provides insights from study sites spread across Bangladesh; Barisal, Khulna, Rajshahi, and Dhaka division.
Scientific evidence, synthesized in subsequent IPCC reports, shows that low-income countries are the most severely affected by climatic stress (Khan and Nahar 2014; Schneider et al. 2007; van der Geest and Warner 2015; IPCC WG2 AR5 2014). The soil, water, and land that people in climate change-affected areas depend on for their livelihoods are at risk of losing their ability to support humans and their societies (Baudoin et al. 2016; Costanza et al. 1997; Zommers et al. 2014). Poverty and food insecurity exacerbate vulnerability to natural hazards. Communities in poor countries are, therefore, hit harder by the effects of natural hazards and climate change (Basher 2006; Blaikie et al. 2014; Cannon 2000). Bangladesh ranked number 142 out of 188 countries on the 2014 Human Development Index, with a life expectancy of 71.6 years, 5.1 years of schooling, and a Gross National Income of $3191 PPP per capita (UNDP HDR 2015). According to the 2015 World Risk Index, the country is the sixth most at risk of natural disasters worldwide (Garschagen et al. 2015).
Livelihood resilience is a central concept in this article. In ecology, resilience is usually seen as a system’s ability to absorb and recover from disturbance (Folke et al. 2004; Gall 2013). The resilience process depends on a number of factors, such as previous condition, the time between disturbances, and their severity (Cutter et al. 2008). This study takes a people-centred perspective on resilience1 that emphasises not only the ability to absorb shocks and recover, but also livelihood improvement, despite disturbances. The definition of adaptation2 used in this article is in line with the one commonly referred to in the climate change field, also by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Adaptation must consider climate change, but it may not be to climate change alone; the informants in this study describe responding practices to environmental stress in Bangladesh. As the adaptation definition includes short-term coping as well as long-term transformations, they are also considered as adaptation strategies. In addition, this article defines disasters3 as natural hazards affecting vulnerable people (Blaikie et al. 2014; Cannon 2000; Cutter 2006; Cannon and Müller-Mahn 2010).
The research aim is to understand how people in the study sites can (and cannot) build resilience against a wide range of environmental stressors, in what ways their adaptation strategies sometimes fail and how we can learn from their lessons. A deeper understanding of people’s behaviour, when facing environmental stress, can provide valuable insights on people’s coping and adaptation constraints (Callahan and Elliott 1996; Patt and Schröter 2008; Patt and Schrag 2003). Qualitative research, involving a selection of 28 individuals, has been carried out through the personal Livelihood History interviews to enhance such behavioural understanding. The article material includes face-to-face interviews as well as textual analysis of the transcripts. There is currently a lack of people-centred research within the area of environmental science, climate change, and adaptation (Adger 2010; Oliver-Smith 1996). This journal article, therefore, is one of few that presents such a qualitative, people-centred perspective on climate change, environmental stress, and livelihood resilience in Bangladesh. In addition, it introduces and applies a new method for studying how people’s livelihoods and adaptation strategies evolve over time: The Livelihood History methodology.
How does environmental stress and climate change influence peoples’ livelihood resilience in Bangladesh?
How do people adapt to absorb and recover from environmental stress, shocks, and climate change impacts?
In what ways do these adaptation strategies strengthen people’s livelihood resilience, and in what ways do they fail?
How can insights on people’s adaptation strategies and constraints support future policy and adaptation planning?
The methodology selected to answer the research questions, personal Livelihood History interviews, provides a detailed analysis of people’s behaviour and responses to environmental stress and shocks. This method enables a deeper understanding of how and why people’s adaptation strategies fail. Policy makers depend on such insights while creating more sustainable climate change adaptation policies (Brown and Westaway 2011; Grothmann and Patt 2005; Adger 2010; Tompkins and Adger 2004). An objective of this article is, therefore, to show the added value of a people-centred approach to livelihood resilience. If one wishes to help increase the resilience level of communities against environmental stress and climate change impacts, it is fundamental to understand peoples’ behaviour. Assessing and enhancing the effectiveness of climate change adaptation will be accomplished by including beneficiaries in the process.
Cyclones on the coast.
River bank erosion in flood plains.
Drought in water-stressed areas in North-Western Bangladesh.
In 2014, visits to the study sites conducted multi-methodological fieldwork that aimed to identify how people were affected by, and adapted to, stressors, with or without support from the government and NGOs.
Before the interview, informants were given a general description of the project and the aims and intended use of the research findings was clarified. The interviews took 3–5 h each, and the interview sessions were spread out over 2–3 days to avoid response fatigue. The researchers faced some minor challenges with informants dropping out due to livelihood activities and time constraints. The fact that the interview sessions were spread out over a couple of days helped, including less flexible informants. The researchers used a two‐page checklist containing about 30 topics, but the story and perceptions of each respondent guided the interview. The field team consisted of three international (from Europe/US) researchers and seven Bengali speaking researchers. Translations into Bengali of research topics, concepts, and tools were critically discussed before the research sessions within the field team. During the research sessions, the international researchers worked with at least one Bengali speaking researcher who acted as interpreter.
The informants were given a choice to approve or decline the recording of the interview. A consent form in Bengali was signed allowing the material to be published for non-commercial use. This consent form was read and discussed with the informants before and after the interview sessions. Return visits to clarify uncertainties in the interviews have taken place. All research data were recorded through audio recorders, notebooks, and data entry templates. Transcription, and data entry into electronic documents in English, was scheduled on a daily basis after each set of research sessions.
Qualitative research on people’s responses to environmental stress provides decision and policy makers with crucial insights that support the creation of sustainable climate policies. Oliver-Smith (1996), for example, argues that understanding disasters, stress, and shocks from an anthropological and societal viewpoint are crucial. Disasters, environmental stress, and shocks help signal the response processes and failures of a society to adapt successfully to specific features of its natural and socially constructed environment (Blaikie et al. 2014; Cannon and Müller-Mahn 2010). That is why it is important to understand how and why people’s adaptation strategies sometimes fail, or why people do not adapt at all. Understanding the sustainability of a society is critical to its survival and increased resilience level (Oliver-Smith 1996; Brown and Westaway 2011). The greater cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration between quantitative and qualitative scientists, within the field of disaster research, is a result of the increased urgency surrounding the topic. The study of human–environment interaction is a key to address social issues and problems which contribute to the complexity and difficulties of disaster response, resilience level, and adaptive capacity (Oliver-Smith 1996; Grothmann and Patt 2005; Tompkins and Adger 2004). Adger (2010) argues that policy discussions frame the impacts of climate change as a threat to nation-states, so the discourse has moved away from people, and their capability to adapt to imposed harm and human wellbeing. Human security provides a broader understanding of climate security than one focused on the security of states. That is because it includes justice, adaptation, and vulnerability (Adger 2010).
This journal article presents a qualitative, people-centred, research approach achieved through the LH interviews. The objective is that such an approach will move the focus back to peoples’ adaptation strategies and the constraints they face when confronting environmental stress and shocks. Individual’s conceptual understanding of the causes and meanings of events is crucial within anthropology, philosophy, sociology, behaviour economy, and social psychology (Callahan and Elliott 1996; Patt and Schröter 2008; Patt and Schrag 2003). The LH approach helps present clear insights in how people communicate meaning and understand specific events. The experimental design of ‘reconstructing stories’ is a free narrative approach that ensures a rich data collection that is especially valuable for understanding everyday behaviour.
The diverse environmental stressors identified in the seven study sites disturb, interrupt, and shock people’s livelihood systems, in particular, those who depend on natural resources.
Reports on how environmental stress and shocks disturb people’s livelihood resilience
The research in the study sites looked at factors that enhance and undermine resilience. A wide range of adaptation strategies that people use to confront environmental stress, but also the numerous constraints they face, were revealed. Climatic stress puts pressure on vulnerable populations struggling with poverty, food scarcity, land degradation, and lack of adequate housing (Adger et al. 2003; Leighton 2011; Cannon 2000). The environmental stressors typical in the study sites, such as cyclones, floods, riverbank erosion, and drought, can result in livelihood instability (Huq et al. 2013; Warner and van der Geest 2013).
When the riverbank erosion started we lost happiness in life. When I was a child we used to eat rice from our own fields. After [the riverbank erosion] we never got to eat rice from our fields again./…/There used to be three roads, three villages and three wells by the riverside but they all went under water, into the river. The food scarcity came with the riverbank erosion [Female (1955), Dalbanga South, 2014.05.18].4
I experienced the extreme effect of riverbank erosion in 2010 when 25 houses [in the village] went under water over a night. Several crop fields were also damaged. We lost everything./…/We never managed to overcome the damages of this disaster. Now we are close to being landless people (Male (1959), Singpur, 2014.06.02).5
We were doing quite well until Sidr/…/with 19 cows producing milk that I could sell for 50 taka/litre, and combining it with selling the fish that I managed to catch each day. I was pretty well off economically./…/Then it was that day that changed my life, the day when 10 out of 19 of my cows died, the day I lost my wife [Male (1968), Mazer Char, 2014.05.22].6
Sidr was an enormous shock to the informant’s livelihood security. It was such a shock that he specifies the exact number of cows that died and why they were so important to him. Only then, does he mention the loss of his wife. That does not mean that the death of his wife was less important. However, it rather emphasises the importance of losing his livestock; the livestock represents security of livelihood, food, health, family, and life. Since the family could not afford to lose their livestock, they chose not to evacuate to the cyclone shelter. They stayed to protect their livelihood security, and as a result of that, his wife died. The abundant vegetation and forest protection on Mazer Char make the island very suitable for keeping livestock. People let their livestock walk around freely on the island, and they do not need to provide them with food. However, when environmental shocks, such as cyclones and floods, occur, people can lose in a single day the herd that they have accumulated over years (Chowdhury et al. 1993; Alam and Rahman 2014). In Singpur, agricultural land gets flooded every year during the rainy season. Farmers suffer crop losses when the floods arrive earlier than usual. People in Singpur cannot farm during the rainy season because of the annual floods. They pursue alternative livelihoods options, often in other places, which results in yearly seasonal migration.
Hot waves [drought] can destroy the crops. Due to the hot wave the paddy burns out and ends up without rice in it. When the crops start to have paddy and it does not get water, the paddy turns into patan [rice-less paddy]. Deep tube-well water is expensive. The people who have ponds only use the water for their own land./…/It happened to us 4–5 years ago, half of our paddy turned into patan./…/We had to take loans from the rich people to survive that year [Female (1964), Babupur, 2014.06.07].7
Our dry season starts every year in the Bengali month of Chaitra [March–April] and lasts until Jaistha [May–June] but it is also dry during Ashin [Sept–Oct]. This time is the driest period here. We can not get water for irrigation so the rice production goes down [Female (1989), Babupur, 2014.06.05].8
This year my husband already went to Dhaka twice and he was planning to go now again, but then we got some rain so he will find work here in the village now. That is why he did not go this time./…/My husband goes to Dhaka during drought [and dry spell] because those periods mean less crops and less work [Female (1983), Jamalpur, 2014.06.09].
Our village’s biggest problem is [access to] drinking water./…/We have to go to other villages to get water./…/The problem is more serious during Magh, Falgun and Choitro [winter/spring] [Male (1982), Jamalpur, 2014.06.09].9
In Babupur, deep tube-wells help people to maintain access to drinking water throughout the year. In some areas of the village, however, the groundwater level is low and the tube-wells dry up. While deep tube-wells can be a successful short term adaptation strategy to a lack of rainfall, it is maladaptive in two ways. First, it reduces access to water for those who cannot use the deep tube-well, and second, it reduces access to water in the longer term because of its effect on the groundwater table (Shahid and Hazarika 2010; Raleigh and Kniveton 2012). In Jamalpur access to fresh water is even more limited, and people face conflicts and attacks from neighbouring village members when trying to collect drinking water from their tube-wells. Worldwide studies show that loss of natural resources, and limited access to water and land, for example, can result in violence between people. As natural hazards, stress, and shocks become worse due to climate change impacts, adaption planning needs to take social pressure and disturbance into consideration (Homer-Dixon 1994, 2009; Percival and Homer-Dixon 1998; Raleigh and Kniveton 2012; Raleigh et al. 2015).
Bhola Slum in Dhaka is a common destination for migrants from Bhola Island. Those people usually move there permanently. The Island is becoming uninhabitable due to extreme environmental stress, but not everybody who moves wants to move. Climate change and environmental stress can push people into impossible situations that force them to leave their homes. In such instances, global policy frameworks should be able to protect and support vulnerable people in their decision to move (McNamara et al. 2015; Black et al. 2011a, 2013; Kniveton et al. 2012; Adger et al. 2003). Future adaptation planning, therefore, needs to include a critical assessment on how to support and assist those who consider migration an option. While forced displacement due to climate change and environmental stress needs to be avoided to the extent possible (Black et al. 2011a, b; Adger et al. 2003). The environmental stressors and shocks people face in this study puts pressure on their livelihood systems and wellbeing. Adaptation strategies to such stress can be successful by enhancing resilience. However, our findings also reveal that adaptation measures at times fail and undermine livelihood resilience.
Adaptation strategies and constraints
This section addresses the questions on how people adapt, absorb, and recover from environmental stress and shocks, and in what way the adaptation strategies enhance people’s livelihood resilience as well as their constraints to do so. Agricultural adaptation, alternative livelihoods, and migration are the most common strategies identified in the study sites.
Modifying agricultural practices
A large number of people in Bangladesh have agricultural livelihoods that depend on natural resources and are sensitive to climatic disturbances. People struggle to bounce back from extreme weather events and natural hazards when their livelihood systems fail them (Blaikie et al. 2014; Corendea et al. 2012; Kloos et al. 2013). To make their livelihoods less sensitive to a volatile climate, farmers interviewed in the northern study sites have adapted their farming practices to cope with the drought.
I was the first man who started mango farming in this village/…/I used to do share cropping on Porsha’s [other people’s] land. I was told to try mango farming on my land and so I did./…/I benefited from the mango cultivation as I think it [mango] grows better here in the northern area [Male (1964), Jamalpur, 2014.06.08].10
I do not know whether it is good or not but the fact is that nowadays, mango farming is more profitable than paddy cultivation./…/Drought can not harm mango farming that much when the trees are small, they need water, but after a while they can survive without [almost] any water [Male (1987), Babupur, 2014.06.05].11
Sometimes I sell my pond water and sometimes I only rent the pump. I do not sell my pond water when I need it myself. The hourly rent for my water pump is 120 taka and the total price for pond water and water pump rental is 400 taka/h [Female (1949), Jamalpur, 2014.06.08].12
I do not have any land. I have taken two Adi [share] cows and now they have become three. We will sell them and distribute the money [between us] as 50/50 %. I also have three Adi goats. We got three Adi goats [from an NGO] and from them we got three more. I want to sell them but the price is not that good right now. So we are waiting. When the price goes up we will sell them and distribute the money into 50/50 [Female (1983), Jamalpur, 2014.06.09].13
The positive side of sharecropping and share-ownership of livestock is that people do not invest as much money when buying livestock or cultivating crops. They divide the offspring or harvest between themselves, and if there is a loss, due to environmental stress, shocks or other adversities, they lose less. When there is a loss, those who are already poor and vulnerable may end up in debt or without food, leaving them even more vulnerable than before the investment. In drought-affected areas, such as Babupur and Jamalpur, or in flood prone areas, such as Singpur, these systems are common. These sharing systems sometimes result in decreasing people livelihood resilience, and sometimes increase their ability to bounce back from natural hazards.
Switching to alternative livelihoods
I used to cultivate my own land and then I had to switch to share cropping. Lately I have been fishing. I started fishing because our income was not good enough and I do not have the strength anymore to cut mud [do day labour]. If I manage to catch at least 50 fish [a day], then I can buy the essential things I need. If I get 200 then I get something extra for my wife [Male (1944), Dalbanga South, 2014.05.19].14
At first the/…/family and the/…/family used to do business together, but then three people came here from Barguna and decided to take up the same business. The newly arrived said; “You are fishing on our land and you are cleaning out our waters. Are you not going to include us in your business? If you want to do business alone we will see how well you will manage to continue the business [Male (1939), Dalbanga South, italic mine, 2014.05.18].15
They tied him up with ropes, hands and feet, so he could not move and then they started beating him up. They used wooden sticks and took turns to beat him up until he was unconsciousness. Then they spit paan [betel leaf with areca nut sometimes chewed with tobacco] on him and told him to leave and stop occupying land that did not belong to him./…/After that they threw him in the river. If it was not for a man passing by, finding him half dead in the water and bringing him back home to us. He would have died (Female (1963), Mazer Char, 2014.05.24).16
The informant is referring to her father who was beaten up badly, because the family was living on land that was not theirs. As a result, her father lost function in his hand and arm. The conflict was a shock to their livelihood security, since the father was no longer able to work and provide for his family.
You never know for sure when it comes to fishing./…/When fishing in rivers you sometimes end up with a lot of fish and sometimes with nothing. Fishing is an occupation that if I am lucky allows me to earn up to 500 taka/day, but if I am unlucky as little as 100 taka/day. It is not a very stable profession since the income varies a lot/…/by doing [timber] day labor in the Sundarbans you earn a fixed amount of money [Male (1968), Gabtola, 2014.05.26].17
What is illegal? Some military men come here to hunt deer. That is completely prohibited. The police joined them too. They are the people who are supposed to protect the law and they hunt deer. So please tell me what is illegal and not [Female (1967), Gabtola, 2014.05.26].18
We go to the Sundarbans not because of greed but to support our stomachs. If we do not go there then what should we do to feed our families? It is not an easy job to cut wood in the Sundarbans, it is hard work [Male (1968), Gabtola, 2014.05.26].
I think it was a good decision to invest in a harvest machine. I worked on other people’s fields before on contract based labour./…/I did not have anything then but now I can earn some money and with that money I can feed my family./…/My sons and I use the machine to separate rice and receive rice as payment [Male (1959), Babupur, 2014.06.04].20
When Aila struck we did not really face any severe loss of lives, but the crop fields got completely destroyed due to the saline water. Even today, we still can not really cultivate large amounts of our fields since the land still has not recovered its productivity [Female (1967), Gabtola, 2014.05.27].22
When people are unable to cope and adapt locally, temporary, seasonal or permanent migration is another option (Black et al. 2011a; Kniveton et al. 2012; Adger et al. 2003; Oliver-Smith 2009). Migration, in the search for livelihood opportunities elsewhere, can be an escape from a temporary or permanent failure of a livelihood system.
Migration as an adaptive strategy
I went to Sylhet to cut wood in a saw factory. I go there every year for 2–3 months./…/My daughter also went to Dhaka to work in the garment factories. Now she is earning 7000–8000 taka a month [Male (1963), Gabtola, 2014.05.27].23
I usually go to Dhaka when there is no work to do here. After [Bengali month] Magh the crops are harvested so there is no work for us. That is why we go to Dhaka in [Bengali month] Falgun and spend the whole month there. After 1 month we return to the village for about 15 days and then we go back to Dhaka. We go to Dhaka to work as day labors [Male (1982), Jamalpur, 2014.06.09].24
I went there because we did not have any money left in our family to survive. So I was almost forced to go and work for a living [Female (1984), Singpur, 2014.06.02].25
In 1995 we all came to Dhaka. I could not continue living there [Bhola Island] after my parents passed away. We had already lost most of our land to riverbank erosion and our house was located very close to the river. We had no other option than to come here. That is why we moved to Dhaka [Male (1952), Bhola Slum, 2014.06.12].26
When there is no work on the fields, they [my sons] normally go to Dhaka./…/The money we can earn here is not enough for the year. So to make a decent living we have to go to Dhaka./…/In Dhaka we can earn 500–600 taka/day. We thought of going to Dhaka for the first time when we saw others doing so. Other villagers and people from other villages went to Dhaka to work for a better living so we thought, why are we sitting here [during the dry season] and doing nothing [Female (1949), Jamalpur, 2014.06.08].
I usually go to Dhaka during the rainy season because then we do not have anything to do in our village. If I go to Dhaka to work, it helps my family to survive [Male (1990), Singpur, 2014.06.01].27
My husband can not work properly as he had an accident. While cutting mud on a hill he was struck by a sudden landslide. There was a pipe inside the hill and it broke creating a landslide and he fell down in a hole got buried. The other workers removed the mud and managed to save him. They took my husband to the hospital. Now when trying to work he faces a lot of problems. He has pain coming from two sides of his belly and sometimes when he coughs, blood comes out of his mouth [Female (1975), Bhola Slum, 2014.06.15].28
Carrying bricks is not the nicest job. It is hard and it breaks you down. I know that you must think that I am older than 35, but I am not. I am quite young. It is the effect of the hard work [Female (1981), Singpur, 2014.06.01].29
Many people from this village went to Alliganj after losing everything [previous crop failure]. They went to Alliganj because anybody can get work there. Your whole family can work there which is impossible here. Though they have to work hard in Alliganj, which makes them forget about their [additional] family back here [Male (1990), Singpur, 2014.06.01].30
I came to this place because my father had a lot of property on Bhola Island, but with the riverbank erosion everything went under water./…/When we came here, we made our houses on top of bamboos pillars making sure it was high enough for the water not to enter the house./…/The slum was about 200 hands down when we first came here. Even some trollers and launches [boats] used to depart from here. After that we filled up the water with garbage, to create land where there was water. /…/ Then we had to buy sacks filled of mud at the cost of 10 taka/bag to cover up the garbage and create land [Male (1945), Bhola Slum, 2014.06.12].31
Our house was quite far from the river so I never thought that the river would get that close so fast. I never thought the house would go under water so quickly. When also my house went into the water due to the erosion, that is when I came to Dhaka [Female (1963), Bhola Slum, 2014.06.15].32
Sometimes, non-material resources are essential to ensure access to material resources (Ayeb-Karlsson et al. 2015). People who migrate to a place where they already have a social network may have better access to livelihood assets, such as land, housing, and jobs. That increases the likelihood of turning migration into a successful adaptation strategy (Black et al. 2011a, 2013; Kniveton et al. 2012; Warner and van der Geest 2013). New migrants from Bhola Island find such a network in Bhola Slum.
We now struggle with hunger./…/We have to leave our pride behind and beg for help from others. If I had stayed on Bhola Island, if I still would have my land and house there, I would be all right today. Our living condition would be better and our children would have ended up being highly educated [Female (1975), Bhola Slum, 2014.06.15].33
Policy relevance and future adaptation planning
The cyclone EWS is currently not fully functional since the responsible NGO/…/left the community about a year ago and stopped their disaster preparedness training program with the people in the village [EWS FGD, Dalbanga South, 2014.10.15].
I heard about the cyclone at 2 pm but when trying to prepare everything it got too late. We tried getting to the cyclone shelter in the evening but we failed. The roads were already blocked by then with broken trees [Male (1936), Mazer Char, 2014.05.24].34
The water flooded in so suddenly, people tried to escape to the cyclone shelter but not everybody managed to reach it. Me and my family, my husband and our three children got caught in the flood and were pulled away. The strong wave took us all the way to the school building where we managed to crawl up on the rooftop [Female (1974), Mazer Char, 2014.05.19].35
If an embankment against the riverbank erosion will be built, it will be on my land because my land and house is on the riverbank. So if the embankment is built on my land then where should I go? [Female (1939), Mazer Char, 2014.05.25].36
It is, therefore, crucial to involve people at an early stage in adaptation planning. People-centred research, such as this study, can provide policy makers with valuable local knowledge on social and environmental vulnerability (Keeley and Scoones 2014; Gardner and Lewis 1996).
This article provides a people-centred perspective on environmental stress, natural hazards adaptation, and livelihood resilience. The findings represent a valuable resource for understanding how people can and cannot adapt to environmental stress and shocks in Bangladesh. More people-centred research on adaptation is needed to understand fully the decision-making of societies facing climatic stress. Such studies provide crucial insights that can support people’s future adaptive capacity, and help identify vulnerabilities (Grothmann and Patt 2005).
To summarize the findings, environmental stress, shocks, and disturbances influence people’s livelihood resilience in several ways, and while people adopt a wide range of measures to adapt and recover, these are often not successful. The personal Livelihood Histories showed that people lose livestock and land in the cyclones. They, therefore, sometimes choose not to evacuate, stay behind to protect their livelihoods, and end up putting their lives at risk. Floods and riverbank erosion damage agricultural lands and crops, which may impose food insecurity to people depending on them. However, people can adapt and recover from such environmental stress by modifying their agricultural practices, switching to alternative livelihoods, or using migration as an adaptive strategy. These adaptation strategies strengthen people’s livelihood resilience. For example, when people switch to drought-resistant crops or diversify their livelihoods to include fishing and farming, their livelihoods are more likely to sustain them through a period of stress. People also migrate away from cyclone and flood affected areas to safe places. Nevertheless, the study also finds that sometimes the adaptation strategies fail. Migration can serve as a successful adaptation strategy, but it may also leave people more vulnerable due to poor or dangerous living and/or working conditions. Future policy and adaptation planning must use lessons learned provided by people facing environmental stress. For example, this study highlighted significant gaps in the disaster preparedness and early warning functionality in the coastal study sites. If people had time to move their livestock, fishing nets and boats to safety prior a cyclone, fewer lives, and livelihood assets would be lost. Furthermore, that would result in them being able to pick up their livelihoods sooner after a cyclone strike.
The study confirms the sustainable rural livelihoods framework. People increase their livelihood resilience by adding on an alternative livelihood activity, as this reduces the risk of losing all income sources (Scoones 1998, Scoones 2009). The alternative livelihood activities were often less dependent on natural resources, such as brick and garment factory work. The informants also comprehensively described the inter-linkage between loss of resources, tension in social interactions, and conflicts. Disasters and climate change impacts need to be perceived as stressors that overload the coping capacity of human societies and the resilience level of social systems (Blaikie et al. 2014; Homer-Dixon 2009; Raleigh and Kniveton 2012). People-centred research can help structure people’s responses and behaviour around stress, scarcity, and power relations. As environmental stress and shocks become more frequent and intense worldwide, due to climate change, understanding how people can and cannot adapt provides valuable lessons. People all over the world will, for example, continue to use migration from rural to urban areas as an adaptation strategy. It is, therefore, necessary to better understand not just the number of people migrating, but also people’s decisions, and behaviour in the migration process. Adaptation strategies sometimes fail or add on other risks and pressures to peoples’ wellbeing, health, and livelihood resilience. A more people-centred research approach can help mitigate failures and risks (Black et al. 2011a, 2013; Kniveton et al. 2012; McNamara et al. 2015).
Bangladesh is in the middle of the world’s largest delta. The delta-based ecosystem nourishes a dense population, but it comes with a wide variety of climatic and environmental stresses, such as cyclones, floods, saline intrusion, waterlogging, sea-level rise, land loss, and riverbank erosion. Droughts and landslides are additional problems that occasionally cause havoc in parts of the country. Among the most vulnerable people in the world are the ones depending on sensitive ecosystems and their providing services. Adaptation strategies, such as agricultural change, livelihood diversification, and migration, can be ways to enhance livelihood resilience. This article argues for the enhancement of global policy frameworks for protecting vulnerable populations against future climate change impacts using a people-centred approach that analyses local experiences with adaptation strategies and constraints. Lessons have already been learned and continue to be learned every day. People-centred case studies, such as the Gibika project in Bangladesh, provide valuable research examples on what people need to increase their livelihood resilience. Furthermore, such case studies help enhance understanding of why people’s adaptation strategies sometimes work and sometimes fail, where the gaps are and how to address them. Future research should include a more people-centred approach focused on the effectiveness of autonomous and planned adaptation measures.
“The capacity of all people across generations to sustain and improve their livelihood opportunities and well-being despite environmental, economical, social and political disturbance (Tanner et al. 2015: 23–24)”.
“Adaptation involves changes in social-ecological systems in response to actual and expected impacts of climate change in the context of interacting non-climatic changes. Adaptation strategies and actions can range from short-term coping to longer-term, deeper trans-formations, aim to meet more than climate change goals alone, and may or may not succeed in moderating harm or exploiting beneficial opportunities (Moser and Ekstrom 2010: 1)”.
“A process/event involving the combination of a potentially destructive agent(s) from the natural and/or technological environment and a population in a socially and technologically produced condition of vulnerability (Oliver-Smith 1996)”.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1955), Gibika field data, Dalbanga South, 2014.05.18: 12.45–14.25/2014.05.19: 12.00–14.05.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1959), Gibika field data, Singpur, 2014.06.02: 11.34–13.14.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1968), Gibika field data, Mazer Char, 2014.05.22: 14.15–15.59 2014.05.24: 14.45–15.05.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1964), Gibika field data, Babupur, 2014.06.07: 11.20–12.46.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1989), Gibika field data, Babupur, 2014.06.05: 12.11–14.24.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1982), Gibika field data, Jamalpur, 2014.06.09: 11.57–13.20.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1964), Gibika field data, Jamalpur, 2014.06.08: 14.40–16.30.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1987), Gibika field data, Babupur, 2014.06.05: 10.50–12.53.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1949), Gibika field data, Jamalpur, 2014.06.08: 14.38–19.00.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1983), Gibika field data, Jamalpur, 2014.06.08: 11.15–13.23.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1944), Gibika field data, Dalbanga South, 2014.05.19:15.36–17.18.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1939), Gibika field data, Dalbanga South, 2014.05.18: 15.58–17.18/2014.05.19: 11.16–12.31.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1963), Gibika field data, Mazer Char, 2014.05.24: 09.40–12.01/2014.05.25: 14.37–15.03.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1968), Gibika field data, Gabtola, 2014.05.26: 09.47–12.03.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1967), Gibika field data, Gabtola, 2014.05.26: 09.51–11.15.
Definition ‘halophyte’: a plant adapted to living in a saline environment (http://thefreedictionary.com).
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1959), Gibika field data, Babupur, 2014.06.04: 15.27–18.10.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1967), Gibika field data, Gabtola, 2014.05.27: 10.30–13.06.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1963), Gibika field data, Gabtola, 2014.05.27: 15.41–17.28.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1982), Gibika field data, Jamalpur, 2014.06.09: 11.57–13.20.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1984), Gibika field data, Singpur, 2014.06.02: 13.30–14.59.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1952), Gibika field data, Bhola Slum, 2014.06.12: 14.40–16.55.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1990), Gibika field data, Singpur, 2014.06.01: 12.09–13.44.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1975), Gibika field data, Bhola Slum, 2014.06.15: 12.27–16.35.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1981), Gibika field data, Singpur, 2014.06.01: 11.59–14.30.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1990), Gibika field data, Singpur, 2014.06.01: 12.09–13.44.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1945), Gibika field data, Bhola Slum, 2014.06.12: 14.40–17.44.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1963), Gibika field data, Bhola Slum, 2014.06.15: 12.32–14.42.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1975), Gibika field data, Bhola Slum, 2014.06.15: 12.27–16.35.
Livelihood History Interview: Male (1936), Gibika field data, Mazer Char, 2014.05.24: 15.58–17.18.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1974), Gibika field data, Dalbanga South, 2014.05.19: 15.50–18.10/2014.05.20: 13.45–15.05.
Livelihood History Interview: Female (1939), Gibika field data, Mazer Char, 2014.05.25: 09.35–11.45.
The authors are grateful to the informants and their families, as well as additional field team members, in particular David Wrathall, Sarder Shafiqul Alam and Tanzinia Khanom. Thanks to Dominic Kniveton, Gino Fox, Terry Cannon, Steve Huckle, Casey Williams and three anonymous reviewers for support and valuable comments on earlier versions of this article. Further, we thank our colleagues at UNU-EHS, ICCCAD and Munich Re-Foundation, especially Jakob Rhyner, Aileen Orate, Thomas Loster and Christian Barthelt.
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