Climate Change Poses Urgent Threat to Poor of Coastal Bangladesh

June 24, 2016


From left to right: Susmita Dasgupta, Asli Demirgüç-Kunt, Stéphane Hallegatte

  • Nearly 12 million people live in poverty in the coastal region of Bangladesh.
  • Poor households in coastal Bangladesh will confront increasingly severe challenges from climate change through heightened cyclonic inundation, rising river salinity, and increased soil salinity.
  • The World Bank is working with the Government of Bangladesh to enable poor households to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Nearly 12 million people live in poverty in the coastal regions of Bangladesh. The climate already poses a challenge to the lives and livelihoods of these households, seen vividly in the damage caused by Cyclone Roanu a few weeks ago. New projections published by the World Bank suggest climate change will pose an even more severe challenge over the next three decades.   

“Climate change is a major issue for all of us, but particularly the poor and vulnerable”, said Research Director Asli Demirguc-Kunt, who recently hosted a Policy Research Talk on the issue. “It’s been leading to crop failures, natural disasters, and the spread of water-borne diseases, and it’s an important push factor for migration.”

Lead Environmental Economist Susmita Dasgupta, the main speaker at the event, presented the results of a seven-year body of research projecting the likely impact of climate change in coastal Bangladesh through 2050. Dasgupta’s projections highlight three current and growing risks with severe consequences for the poor: cyclonic inundation, river salinity, and soil salinity.

Perhaps the most visible of all threats, cyclones destroy lives and livelihoods with alarming regularity in coastal Bangladesh: severe cyclones strike every three years on average. Rising sea levels—a direct result of climate change—will increase the land surface exposed to high levels of cyclonic inundation by more than 50 percent.

Rising river salinity presents a less visible but equally damaging threat. River salinity increases health risks, causes a scarcity of drinking water and water for irrigation, and reduces the number of fish species—a critical source of protein for many households. Dasgupta projects a more than doubling of the number of poor exposed to saline rivers.

" Climate change is going to create severe poverty traps. Unless we address the climate change problem now, sustainable poverty reduction will remain a dream. "

Susmita Dasgupta

Lead Environmental Economist

Increases in soil salinity will challenge a country where 48 percent of the labor force works in the agricultural sector. Dasgupta projects that soil salinity levels will exceed a critical threshold resulting in large yield losses in at least 24 sub-districts of Bangladesh by 2050, a pattern that is already evident in some sub-districts.          

The World Bank has been working closely with the Government of Bangladesh and other development partners on critical measures to enable poor households in coastal Bangladesh to adapt to the impacts of climate change. These include strengthening coastal embankments, construction of multipurpose emergency shelters, and improving early warning and evacuation systems.

But based on this new body of research, Dasgupta warned that more needs to be done. Many working-age adults have already been migrating out of threatened areas, and Dasgupta called for more efforts to provide vocational training and assistance to cope with the process of out-migration.

Another option is investment in roads outside the critical biodiverse areas of the UNESCO World Heritage Sundarbans. Those who remain in threatened areas will be able to take advantage of better connections to market centers.

“Bangladeshi households are in the forefront of climate change. Their behavior and their path to adaptation can help us understand how millions of households around the world will behave in the future,” said Dagupta. “Climate change is going to create severe poverty traps. Unless we address the climate change problem now, sustainable poverty reduction will remain a dream.”

Stéphane Hallegatte, a Senior Economist in the Climate Change Group of the World Bank, added that “if you can find a solution that works in coastal Bangladesh, it will be very useful for other coastal regions where the challenge is not as severe.”