It has been nearly 15 years when Bangladesh was identified as the country worst vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, with metrological agencies and experts foreseeing that the country would face the worst climatic disasters in the next 20 years. Their prediction was partly right. Bangladesh did face several catastrophic natural disasters like Super Cyclone Sidr, Cyclone Aila and devastating flood of 2004 over the last 15 years. The damage the calamities caused to the country was colossal. The cyclone in 1991 claimed the lives of some 138,000 people, while Sidr killed 3447. But these subsequent disasters could not put the people of this country on back foot. Every time they turned out to be more resilient. After every disaster, the people of the affected communities turned around, stood hand in hand, and shoulder to shoulder to get back to normal life. For the rescue-workers, it was always a big surprise the way the community people tackled the disaster. Had the affected communities not grown the resilience within themselves it would have been impossible for the rescuers and aid agencies to deal with the aftermaths. I was one of the fortunate persons to see it as an aid-worker deployed right after cyclone Mahasen that hit Bangladesh in May last. Yes. I believe in the capacity, determination and knowledge of community people. Like many other victims living in Kalapara of Patuakhali, a coastal district in southwestern part of the country, Sabita Hawlader(40) has lost everything what she had in cyclone Sidr. “Nothing was left–my home, cattle, tools, crops everything was washed away. We just managed to survive taking shelter in a cyclone centre. Almost 400 people died in our locality,” recalls Sabita. It had taken six years for Sabita and others of her neighbourhood to recoup the losses and start the life anew before Mahasen hit on May 16 this year. Sabita says:

But this time we were fully prepared. Household shores, cattle, hoarded crops were already shifted to the safety. We were following the danger alert aired from the Radio, TV and instructions from local authorities and moved to the shelter-home timely. The storm could not cause much damage to us; rather we won over it.  

Women- the immediate responders in disaster

Sabita continues sharing her experience about ‘Mahasen’. “Mahasen’ caused only 17 casualties with 463,303 people affected as reported by the government of Bangladesh. The figures of casualties and losses drew my attention for a specific reason. Compared chronologically from Sidr to Mahasen, the figures saw a dramatic fall. Apart from the casualties, some nine million people from 30 districts were affected by Sidr,  while in Aila the number of affected people was about one million and recently in Mahasen it is 0.4 million. 

What’s the catalyst behind this tremendous change? It is nothing but awareness of the community people about climate change adaptation. “Once we had little knowledge about climate change and adaptation. But after getting awareness training on preparing for and after disasters, now we know about safe water supply and sanitation, building flood-resilient houses, vegetable gardening, and rehabilitation after Cyclone. Now we can make some linkages with the local government departments too,” says Sabita. This is what development organisaitons have long been advocating-‘Community Based Climate Adaptation’- the solution which has already been proven to be one of the most effective and adaptive approaches. 

Bangladesh was the first country to submit a National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2005, which focused on the most urgent and immediate priorities for climate change adaptation. Since then community-based adaptation projects are being implemented by the government of Bangladesh, NGOs, and a host of development agencies like USAID, the World Bank and UNDP. Bangladesh, in fact, has many pioneering examples of community-based adaptation including expanding traditional methods of agriculture like floating gardens that help the communities survive at times of water logging, planting mangroves for protection from cyclonic storms, and using tidal river management to clear drainage canals. However, very few of these initiatives ensured the direct participation of community women and addressed their vulnerabilities. 

Therefore, right after Mahasen, ActionAid Bangladesh (AAB) has introduced a new approach namely ‘Women Led Emergency Response (WLER)’. The approach opens up a new window for community-based adaptation process. AAB has been providing assistance to local communities on community-based climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in several regions of Bangladesh since 2008 and found that women are the immediate responders in any emergency situation. Based on that findings, AAB initiated ‘WLER’ which has brought a group of community women like Sabita, Hawa, Sufia and many other from Sirajganj, Naogaon, Patuakhlai and Fairdpur– four disaster-prone districts- together to lead vulnerability assessments of climate risks, identify action plans and then to implement those plans. 

However, I was pondering whether Women-led Emergency Response can be a way-out to deal with climate change? I believe that the answer lies in the key achievements of AAB’s WLER intervention.  My belief has got reinforced after this initiative earned AAB recognition at global platform – the UNFCCC ‘Lighthouse Activities 2013’ Award under ‘Momentum for Change’. 

Surely, such initiatives at community level are the key to combat climate change for a country like Bangladesh in the days to come and save the people at risk.