Pitfalls and potential: Climate change vulnerability in Dhaka, Bangladesh
The Buriganga River in the Bangladeshi city of Dhaka provides transport for the city---yet reminds Dhaka's residents of the need to build resiliency into the city as water levels rise. Photo by William Veerbeek/Flickr.

The Buriganga River in the Bangladeshi city of Dhaka provides transport for the city—yet reminds Dhaka’s residents of the need to build resilience into the city as sea levels continue to escalate around the world as global temperatures rise. Photo by William Veerbeek/Flickr.

According to the United Nations, temperatures are likely to warm anywhere from 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, and scientists warn that “the world is ill-equipped to deal with the impacts of warming.” To help the lives impacted by this changing world, the United Nations member states declared their commitment to achieving eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 – the seventh goal being to ensure environmental sustainability. With 2015 quickly approaching, however, further action must be taken in countries where progress is slow, and this includes Bangladesh.

While Bangladesh may not be contributing as much as the developed world to this rise in global temperatures, the country is a microcosm of the adaptation challenges that will continue to escalate around the world, and holds many lessons for building a more resilient urban future.

Bangladesh has already seen its share of intense floods and storms related to climate change: the country’s leaders are well aware of the havoc that higher temperatures and a three-foot rise in sea level will cause. Furthermore, the country is at a critical point, with 142 million people living in low-lying, flood-prone river deltas in both cities and rural areas, with tenuous infrastructure to evacuate them. Even in the face of these challenges, if Bangladesh can find a way to mitigate its current carbon impacts and design for resilience, it can become a leader in adaptable design.

Big problems, big potential

Bangladesh’s capital and largest city Dhaka, home to 20 million people and one of the fastest growing cities in the world, experiences extreme traffic congestion due to inadequate infrastructure. These traffic conditions have doubled carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from 0.2 metric tons per capita in 1994 to 0.4 metric tons per capita in 2010.

Yet, there are few alternatives to private transport, as mismanaged public transport systems, low capacity buses, and poor maintenance add up to make private mobility the only feasible mode of transport. The country’s urban residents are make strides towards cheaper, more sustainable alternatives. Some 24,000 people mount their bicycles each day to negotiate streets clogged up by 890,000 vehicles and 700,000 three-wheeled rickshaws. However, this is often a short-lived hope as people are dissuaded from cycling because without safe infrastructure, leading to 86 deaths per 10,000 people every year.

Sustainable transport, development, and adaptation

The World Bank, with the government of Bangladesh, stated in its second National Strategy for Accelerated Poverty Reduction that “an efficient transportation network with adequate coverage synchronized with sustained service delivery is an essential input for development of the economy.” While the government may be committed to building a metro system, construction hasn’t even started. Congestion, traffic crashes, and emissions continue, still.

By 2050, Bangladesh will require approximately US$ 2.4 billion to deal with issues associated with climate change, including weather events, sea level rise, and the displacement of affected populations. Short-term solutions to halt rapid environmental destruction and remove large amounts of CO2 can be enforced through incentives, cycling safety courses, and adding bike infrastructure that provides a mobility alternative to the private car. These steps, while small, are important in building momentum for the more systemic changes that city leaders will need to implement in the long term.

Moving forward for climate resilient cities

Dhaka and other Bangladeshi cities must be more ambitious in advancing climate change policy and economic development goals simultaneously. For example, car pool lanes and toll roads can be constructed in congested areas, which would help transport goods more quickly, create a revenue source for further infrastructure improvements, and provide disincentives for private car use.

And while the city’s geographic location in a tornado and hurricane prone region presents added challenges, this just underscores the need for climate resiliency also faced by cities around the world. Unlike developed cities, which have years of auto-centric infrastructure and sprawling urban development to counteract, Dhaka and other Bangladeshi cities have the opportunity to pursue resilient and sustainable design strategies from the beginning. These cities can create buildings that can bend in the wind, porous roads that can cope with being under water, and information networks that can track weather patterns and help each individual chart a route to safety.

Climate resilience is a three-pronged paradigm for Bangladesh’s cities to chart a route forward for a prosperous future. The road ahead is clearly not easy, but if they are successful, Bangladeshi cities can stand as remarkable examples for how to build resilience to climate change into urban development.

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