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What locally-led adaptation looks like

  • Published at 09:14 pm September 30th, 2020
CT_September 2020_Pg 3 (1)
Photo: Touhid Pervez Biplob

LLA in Monpura

Monpura island became a widely known name across the country in 2009 after an eponymously titled Bangladeshi movie became a blockbuster hit in the cinemas. But Monpura was well known to people working in disaster management related fields. Situated on the southern coast at the Meghna estuary, the area is a known name to people involved in disaster risk reduction (DRR) because of its frequent exposures to extreme coastal events. 

The island has experienced the wrath of major cyclones and tidal surges in 1970, 1991, 1997, 2007, 2009, 2013, and 2019. According to the oral history told by local people, no women and children on this island survived the 1970 Bhola cyclone. CRS and Caritas Bangladesh are responding to some of their local issues as a coordinated effort known as Mukti. I supported designing and evaluating the second phase of this project when I had the opportunity to spend six weeks on that island with my research team. We tried to understand the meaning of environmental stress in their everyday life. I experienced three depressions while being in that place. I observed what they value as their strength and how they progressed to achieve them. I would like to tell this story here.

Monpura, like any inhabited island on the coast, has a larger group of fisher folks, who are heavily dependent on mohajons for boats, fishing-nets, family maintenance, and selling their catch. Mohajons, who are moneylenders, have existed as a historic informal financial institution and often operate as loan sharks. They exist in the fishing supply chain at different tiers and operate like one-stop financial service providers for fishermen. In return, they use fishermen as their bonded labour to accrue their profit.

Some fishermen have agricultural lands as a supporting livelihood. A small portion of them who are relatively well off own enough lands to avoid going off to fishing. They, being in a low lying island, are regularly inundated in king tides and water surges. Their remote location deprives them of institutional services like education, health, banking, finance, and livelihood information, which a standard Upazila has.

These development deficits constrain their advancement. On top of that, regular extreme events damage their crops, kill their livestock, shrink their fish catch, and make them indebted. Against this backdrop, Mukti supported to empower them and to fight through the challenges. We capture their act as adaptation, action, or process of voluntarily adopting or being compelled to adapt. 

In the context of hazard and risk, adapting means adjusting to a new or unfamiliar set of climatic attributes or changed parameters of existing attributes. Since life in Monpura runs on trial and error, there could be a debate whether their everyday adjustments could fit into the concept of ‘scientific’ adaptation. Instead of bringing that debate up, I would like to elaborate on the processes of those adjustments from designing to implementing their actions against adversities to propose an idea of how a locally-led adaptation could essentially look like.

By the locals, for the locals

Mukti was designed through a bottom-up approach to strengthening individual and household capacity to reduce their disaster risk through protecting and diversifying people’s livelihoods. Project employees are from the locality who understand the local culture, norms, and practicalities. 

They also live in the project sites which allow them to develop connectedness with the place and experience local events of all sorts. Project employees’ consistent engagement with the people and place helps to understand local challenges and needs. 

Senior management of the organization consults with the community and project staffs to identify a potential list of activities, evaluate them based on previous experiences, consult with external experts to further validate the list and synchronise the activities in different bundles, and discuss them with the higher management and donors to make them strategically aligned. 

Finalized project activities were tried in real-life settings to obtain further feedback from the beneficiaries. Thus, they planned the project kick-off phase in a fashion to maximise the benefit of the people. Flexibility was visible all through the project phases, spanning over 46 months, from June 1, 2016, and March 31, 2020. 

For instance, a few activities were either cancelled or amended on recommendations from the beneficiaries at different stages of the project. Thus, adaptation measures were locally relevant and they were designed through emancipatory participation of beneficiaries. This approach empowered the participating beneficiaries and reciprocally assured their active engagement through designing activities around how people experience their needs amid environmental onsets.

Theory of change: 

The earlier section of this article highlights some major elementary steps and philosophical foci to set the scene. The following step is to finalise activities and bundle them up with weaving logic to achieve a set of outcomes. 

In this case, the article looks at the activities through the lens of sustainable livelihood framework, where – (i) a set of asset bundles are decayed by stresses and hazards from one side, and (ii) structures, legislations, and support services protect the asset bundles through injecting resources and reducing magnitudes of stresses from the other end. In case of an efficient support system, despite pressures from all sorts of calamities, protected asset bundles flourish in its course and contribute to human wellbeing, which eventually accelerates investments to enhance asset bundles. Thus, livelihoods are protected against the backlashes of adversities and spiral up as life goes on.



Vulnerability context: As mentioned already, Monpura is one of the most vulnerable islands in Bangladesh where people are living under the frequent threats of cyclones, floods, and river erosion due to its underlying geographic, cultural, economic, and political conditions. Recurrent environment onsets make families and communities more vulnerable and constrain growth. Against this backdrop of disaster-prone households and communities with a fragile asset base, poor disaster planning, and preparedness capacities, limited capacity of government systems to support communities to prepare and recover from disaster shocks, Mukti is the first and so far the only NGO-effort addressing the issues of DRR. 

Asset bundles: The project invested huge emphasis on – 1) increasing disaster preparedness at the household and community levels, and 2) strengthening the resilience of their livelihoods through protecting assets and eventually promoting long-term disaster risk reduction of the target communities. 

On disaster preparedness, key activities were conducting participatory hazard analyses, strengthening early warning systems, maintaining consistent communication with the Upazila cyclone preparedness office, discussing standard response protocols with neighbours and peers, running mock cyclone preparation drills, developing disaster management/resilience plans. 

Concisely, revising and rehearsing ‘dos and don’ts’ as per the Standing Order on Disaster (SoD) has been very well accomplished. All the individuals and groups asked about their roles and responses during two consecutive cyclones in 2019, Roanu in May and Bulbul in November, and it turned out that they performed their training right. Project activities include livelihoods strengthening, diversifying and increasing household incomes through vegetable gardening, producing organic fertilizers and pesticides, protecting gardens from inundation and other adversities, poultry and cattle rearing, vaccination skills, developing champions from local people and facilitate peer-to-peer learning, connecting them with Upazila agriculture and livestock officers, small groups of savings and internal lending communities (SILC), small-scale infrastructure improvements, and reinforcing homes. Thus, people have their alternative income, access to better nutrition, small savings to use in the time of crisis, the right skill set within their neighbours, networks with potential service providers. 

Endorsements from the beneficiaries:

In two phases in a 3 years interval, we surveyed 625 households to record changes in their disaster response capacity, interviewed 30 individuals to understand their quotidian experiences, consulted key individuals like elected local representatives, traders, civil society members, key informants from government service departments and colleagues from the project to understand myriad perspectives. 

I recorded notes from informal discussions and observations with anyone I encountered during my 6 weeks stays in Monpura. The changes Monpura people are through is enormous and has been captured in Mukti project reports. Instead of repeating those numbers, it would be more helpful to give an account of my observations to comprehend the meaning of those changes in peoples’ lives. I began my career with a development agency in early 2003 and since then my career oscillates between the development sector and academia. Over this time, I have never been to any project site where change is very visible and easily recognisable. Below is the summary of how people described the top two initiatives facilitated through Mukti:

Agriculture: When I first visited Monpura in summer 2016, the island was heavily dependent on the neighbouring Char Fashion for about 90% of its vegetable supply. In three years, these statistics reversed and now they hardly need to import any vegetable from outside. The households that have just the space to build their houses are squeezing out some space to grow one or two vegetable plants. This is not only supporting their regular kitchen supplies, but also giving them small income, which they are using for regular household maintenance, education for their children, and savings for the future. 

Upazila Agriculture Officer has also recognized how this project contributed to revolutionising vegetable production in Monpura. Now, this practice has been spreading around to non-beneficiary households. Some farmers are also growing vegetables commercially and seeing successes. 

Mukti did not only facilitate vegetable gardening, but also trained how to raise seedbeds to protect from heavy pouring and floodwater, to make organic fertilizers and pesticides, and so on. Now they are trained on disaster smart vegetable gardening. The achievements of demo farmers in small clusters have had a multiplier effect and, in the last year, more than 450 farmers proactively learned the techniques from the demo farmers and invested in their vegetable garden. This knowledge transfer has become a permanent legacy of Mukti and would inspire more farmers in years to come.

Saving scheme: One of the major recommendations in the baseline study was to look into options to facilitate access to finance in crisis. Following the process described at the beginning, they came out with a plan to assure better access to finance in a crisis, called Savings and Internal Lending Communities (SILC). It is worth mentioning here that locally there is a culture of distrust because of being a victim of financial forgery previously. However, SILC successfully re-established that sense of trust among local communities. 

This is a very small saving scheme, managed by the committee elected from group members (contributors). Members could make low-interest loans for different needs. Also, they maintain a 30% reserve fund for cyclone periods. They are buying small assets and investing for business once the savings matured. People, particularly women, are having relatively better financial freedom than before, which is certainly contributing to their overall wellbeing. Besides, this idea is also gradually spreading around non-beneficiary groups. 

Until February 2020, women in Utter Sakuchia Union ran two cycles of SILC. The first cycle started in February 2018 and 442 women saved Tk776,350 (each Tk1,756). After a year, when the first cycle ended, their total capital had risen to Tk962,484 (each Tk2,175). 


"Since life in Monpura runs on trial and error, there could be a debate whether their everyday adjustments could fit into the concept of ‘scientific’ adaptation"


In the first cycle, 310 members took a loan of Tk769,987 and used that money for household preparedness and disaster-resilient income-generating activities, ie vegetable cultivation, small business, poultry rearing, fishing net purchase, sewing machine purchase, and others. It has helped to increase women’s capacity and status in their families. In the second cycle, which is up and running now, SILC’s profit from lending has increased by 50% and the amount of per capita savings has increased by 46% from the first cycle. Many farmers are very grateful for this project and are tremendously inspired by this female-led saving groups, even thinking of upscaling this initiative.

Elements of locally-led adaptation:

As the story unfolds, Mukti strived to reduce disaster risk through adaptation and the project looked at the problem from a very bottom-up perspective, empowered people of the island to identify their issues, and jointly developed solutions. As echoed in Mukti, the fundamentals of locally-led adaptations are: 

1) Emancipatory participation of local people all through the process, 

2) Locally relevant activities designing

3) Setting realistic and achievable targets, 

4) Enhancing peoples’ capacity with transferable skills, 

5) Having inbuilt flexibility to adjust activities to make them the right fit for people, 

6) Developing a comprehensive approach to make possible connections with other subsets (ie, preparing the climate-smart seedbed, training of pesticide and fertilizer preparation, linking with markets and other services, linking with financial provisions, etc) of activities as portrayed in the above two examples, 

7) Facilitating a friendly and accommodating learning environment.

The above points are elements of every single bundle of locally-led adaptation. This does not comprehend adaptation as an overall strategy for a place. Instead, adaptation is an ever-evolving process unfolded phase by phase. The above-mentioned narratives elaborate on what has been achieved. 

In upcoming days, it is important to scale up what brought good results for people, revise them to make them more relevant, and target some of the next level tasks. For example, in Monpura, fishing -- one of the means of income -- has not been seriously looked at to make the livelihood more resilient to potential onsets. Because the timing and availability of fisher folks do not match with conventional office hours. This was one of the major bottlenecks to have fisher folks on board in the Mukti initiative. There were a few activities with them around cyclone warning and distribution of lifesaving equipment. Apart from the fishermen issue, there are other areas to focus in the future as a part of a broader adaptation plan, such as: 

1) Access to finance is one of the major issues in Monpura and there are opportunities to explore further on different potential financial services.

2) Inland fishing could be another unexplored area where several informants expressed their interests in.

3) So far, Mukti has its concentration around disaster risk reduction. It is important to expand the focus and revisit them under a climate change lens. In the future, climate-resilient livelihoods would be a necessary addition to the list of local adaptation.

4) Fortunately, there was no major environmental onset since 2016. Had there been a major stress, the scenario could be different. None from the beneficiaries could boldly affirm their capability to protect their assets and livelihoods should there be a major cyclone.

5) Watching Monpura against time was interesting, particularly when results showed exponential growth in the production of vegetables, poultry, and livestock. Apart from revising them from the above three points, it is equally important to think of developing entrepreneurship at the local level, which would boost their economy and would give them much freedom to accrue their assets.

6) Following up on the last point, one of the major investments of SILC money is to buy jewellery, not to any direct investment for DRR  or income boosting. It is important to provide them with information on how to use SILC money wisely.

In Life on the Amazon, Harris (2000) resists taking the concept of adaptation on board by posing a few questions –- does adaptation have any space for lived experiences of a disaster-prone area? Does it take account of the ongoing unpredictable nature of the relationship between humans and their surrounding environment? Where is the space for details of quotidian arrangements, trial, and error? The environment is not just one’s surroundings, but also a bearer of symbolically and morally constituted relationships, which are experienced, lived in, and related to. 

I would rather call this quotidian trial and errors locally-led adaptation. Because this is how adaptation measures have developed in human history. People have their continual engagement with the locality. They observe, sense, and judge those changes, and a reaction to that follows, primarily from peoples’ active engagement and movement in the landscape. Inspired by Ingold (2000), Harris (2000: 18) notes,

“Indeed, the rhythm of life on the floodplain is centrally organised around the rise and fall of the river, year after year. Crucially, though, this does not mean people know in advance what will happen; a calendar cannot be produced to aid prediction. Instead, people rely on their perceptual abilities to gain information on changes in the environment. On this basis, they decide what to do, when to plant or reap the crops, when to catch a passing shoal of fish, or whatever.”

Ultimately, adaptation needs to be conceptualized from a temporal scale as it evolves through time and consistently upgrades its look. 

Md Nadiruzzaman, Centre for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN), Climate Change and Security (CLISEC) Research Group, Institute of Geography, University of Hamburg. Email: [email protected]

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