The dilemma of governance, climate justice, and development
Climate justice requires that the benefits and burdens of climate change interventions are fairly distributed across society
"It's just sand," remarked Harinath, as he scooped up a handful of sand from the dam that had been repaired in December 2021.
Four months later in April 2022, a catastrophic flood hit the haors of Sunamganj, a region in the northeastern part of Bangladesh's Sylhet division. The area has long been plagued by flooding.
"They were supposed to use soil, not sand," Harinath continued. "They cannot play games with the money meant for our livelihood and survival."
During my field visit to the Shalla upazila in Sunamganj in September 2021, where I was involved in the formulation of the National Adaptation Plan, I met Harinath, a shopkeeper in his forties.
Harinath was referring to the corrupt practices of influential contractors over the years, who have been taking advantage of the vulnerable situation in the haors.
Although flash floods and floods are not direct effects of climate change, their frequency and magnitude of devastation are influenced by climate change. Structural failures often cause devastating loss to people like Harinath, and some tend to attribute this failure to climate change.
Here comes the role of the institutions in arresting the corrupt -- and serving people like Harinath who perhaps comprise the majority of the population of Bangladesh.
While institutions are meant to serve the needs of all members of society, in many cases, they are failing to do so because of their biases towards the ruling elite.
As a result, the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society do not receive the support they need. This is very likely to hurt climate change interventions and contribute to broader inequalities.
Climate justice requires that the benefits and burdens of climate change interventions are fairly distributed across society. This means that those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as those living in poverty or facing discrimination, should be given the support they need to adapt and thrive.
However, achieving this goal requires strong and inclusive institutions that are accountable to all members of society, not just the powerful.
To achieve climate justice, it is important to address institutional failures and biases. This can involve efforts to increase transparency, accountability, and participation in decision-making, as well as measures to reduce corruption and promote the rule of law.
It is also important to focus on the needs of the most vulnerable, including those who are living in poverty, facing discrimination, or living in areas that are most at risk from the impacts of climate change.
Hybrid regimes, which are characterized by a mixture of democratic and authoritarian elements, may be more prone to institutional ineffectiveness and corruption. This can lead to a lack of progress on climate change and contribute to climate injustice. Institutions that are ineffective or corrupt may not be able to effectively address the challenges posed by climate change.
In addition, institutional ineffectiveness and corruption can exacerbate social and economic inequalities, which can lead to disproportionate impacts of climate change on vulnerable and marginalized populations. Those who are living in poverty or areas with limited access to resources may be less able to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
According to World Inequality Database (2021), only 1% of the population of Bangladesh holds 16.2% of the national income while the bottom half of the population holds only 17.1% of the national income. This indicates that our governance system is failing the majority of the population Harinath belongs to.
Therefore, addressing governance issues should be a priority to effectively address climate justice.
Corruption and ineffective governance can divert resources away from important climate change interventions and hinder efforts to promote transparency and accountability.
It is important to ensure that resources are effectively and efficiently allocated towards programs and policies that promote climate justice, and that governance systems are in place to ensure that these resources are used appropriately.
Climate justice is increasingly recognized as a crucial component of global efforts to address climate change, and is a key focus of international climate negotiations and policymaking.
However, achieving climate justice remains a complex and challenging task, requiring sustained efforts and collaboration across sectors and communities. This requires a transparent and accountable governance system that prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable.
Sadly, our governance system is non-inclusive and not very democratic. This is not only widening economic inequality but also unfairly distributing the benefits and burdens of development interventions. Climate change interventions are no exception.
The 29.7-kilometre long Itna-Mithaimon-Astagram all-weather road in Kishoreganj built at a cost of $80 million (Tk 874 Crore) was portrayed as a marvel.
But this marvel was largely blamed for obstructing the natural flow of water as well as endangering biodiversity. It also contributed to severe water logging during the flood of April 2022 as the water could not recede to the river.
Now that the country is bracing for elevated roads in haors we need to pinpoint the drivers of change keeping the local population on the top and generate multiple scenarios. Based on the scenarios, there has to be a contingency plan with a robust scenario to determine the trigger point.
On May 2, 2023, the World Bank and Bangladesh government signed a loan agreement under which the latter would get a $2.25bn loan for five projects.
Four of the five projects are directly linked to environmental sustainability, climate change adaptation, and resilience. The remaining one on transport and trade connectivity will also address these elements.
There is no doubt that these interventions will largely benefit Bangladesh. But to get the best out of it, we have to address the existing governance challenge by creating a space for all the members of society in decision-making processes related to climate change.
Meer Ahsan Habib is a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University. His Twitter handle is @meeriyadh.