Protecting coastal agriculture through transformational adaptation

Ranjan Roy | Published: June 14, 2019 21:33:57 | Updated: June 20, 2019 21:00:08

Climate change is a significant threat to Bangladesh's aspirations to ensure food security, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development. Agriculture is the most climate-sensitive sector. Unequivocal proofs demonstrate that coastal agriculture is vulnerable to increasing salinity, sea level rise (SLR), waterlogging, tidal fluctuation, and growing intensity of cyclones. With the exceptions of Cox's Bazar, Jashore and Feni, rice productivity is lower than the national average in all other coastal districts. The lowest productivity is observed in Patuakhali at only 0.72 tonnes/acre, which is 41 per cent lower than the national average of 1.22 tonnes/acre (2017).

Asian Development Bank estimates show that the overall rice production in Bangladesh is likely to decline by 17 per cent by 2050 due to climate change (mainly, increasing temperature and CO2 level). According to the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, the decline in rice production is anticipated to bring a negative impact on the real gross domestic product (GDP) of Bangladesh by 0.67 per cent in 2050 and 0.93 per cent in 2100 under the business as usual scenario.

The Government has already identified the coastal zone as 'agro-ecologically disadvantaged region.' Historically, the coastal belt was a significant bread-basket of Bangladesh. Even in the early 80s, the coastal belt accounted for 22 per cent of the total rice production in this country. The share fell to 16 per cent in 2013-14, which is a typical year in terms of weather pattern and climatic condition. Much of the impact happens from waterlogging and salinity intrusion.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report 'Global warming of 1.5°C' indicates that salinity will become the biggest problem in the coastal zone for the next 50 to 100 years, owing to SLR and uncertainty in river flows. Creating a soil salinity map for 1973, 2000, and 2009, the Soil Resources Development Institute (SRDI) illustrates that the severity of salinity is increasing in the coastal zone. The map indicates soils of Jhalokati, Narail, Jashore, Gopalganj, Faridpur, Gopalganj and Magura were newly salinised over 24 years.

The overall trend of SLR in this coastal zone is 6-20 mm/year, and because of the possibilities of increased intensity and extent of coastal flooding, this trend is predicted to grow in the distant future (Baseline Study of the Delta Plan). The gross impacts of changing the climate on coastal agricultural production, livelihoods, health, biodiversity, and environment are huge requiring an integrated and long-term planning and effective implementation.

Adaptation and mitigation are the two strategic policy options available for addressing climate change. Adaptation actions that are currently taking place in agriculture and other sectors can be characterised mainly as incremental adaptations-"actions where the central aim is to maintain the essence and integrity of the existing technological, institutional, governance, and value systems" (IPCC) such as using more efficient irrigation and changing planting times. However, a growing body of research has shown that incremental adaptations are inadequate to protect coastal agriculture under a severe climatic condition, like accelerated sea level rise. The concept of transformational adaptation (i.e., adaptation as transformation) has emerged and received prominence in recent years as a potential solution to tackle climate change impacts where further incremental adjustments are impractical (e.g., due to prohibitive costs), and where incremental approaches cannot keep pace with changes in climate due to the magnitude of those changes.

Transformational adaptation seeks to change the fundamental attributes of systems in response to actual or expected climate and its effects, often at a scale and ambition higher than incremental activities. At its core, this adaptation involves questioning the effectiveness of existing systems and processes in the light of changing circumstances, particularly the potentially significant impacts of climate change. It can be reactive or, some argue, planned. However, this approach is not a silver bullet to solve all adaptation challenges. Instead, it will be necessary where climate change results in the crossing of critical thresholds or 'thresholds of viability,' beyond which existing systems and practices cannot be sustained.

As transformational adaptation is an evolving concept, it lacks operational definitions. A pertinent question may arise: is transformational adaptation happening? Based on the simple input-output definition of transformation, the answer is yes. Several examples of transformational adaptation are available: in Bangladesh (shifting from rice to shrimp farming), China (shifting from rice to cotton production), India (switching from cereals to apple farming) and Kenya (shifting from cattle to camel production). International Development Research Centre (IDRC) has developed an authoritative account of transformational adaptations from four deltas-the Mekong, Mississippi, Rhine-Meuse and Yangtze.

Transformational adaptation can be undertaken around farming and water-related strategies for protecting coastal agriculture. Notably, the polder technology can be strengthened and modernised through long-term and system-wide change-of transformational adaptation. Exemplary lessons on (coastal) flood management can be learned from the Netherlands' Delta Programme that reflects the characteristics required to implement transformational adaptation. Governments should determine whether, when, and where transformative approaches are needed to protect coastal agriculture.

Transformational adaptation has many implications, including financial, institutional, economic, and behavioural. Adaptations at this speed, scale, and novelty usually seem more expensive to materialise in comparison to incremental adaptation. Transformative change may clash with cultural norms and traditions, may threaten the status quo, and lead to conflict (due to oppositional views). This change may have unintended negative consequences for the livelihoods and well-being of poor and marginalised.

In spite of barriers to implement, transformational adaptation is an optimal choice to protect the coastal agriculture against "dangerous" climate change (Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)). Bangladesh can lead the development of knowledge on transformational adaptation by examining the country's long-term trends, impacts, and vulnerabilities while submitting the next adaptation communications: the National Communications, National Adaptation Planning (NAP) and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Scientific institutions, as well as international development agencies including FAO, UNDP and UNEP have important roles to play in this regard.


Ranjan Roy, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Extension and Information System, Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka.  ranjansau@yahoo.com

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