• Tuesday, Oct 20, 2020
  • Last Update : 08:18 am

OP-ED: When coronavirus meets climate change

  • Published at 09:05 pm June 2nd, 2020
File photo: Lasting for hours, the storm left a trail of devastation in its wake in the coastal districts of Bangladesh, including Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat and Pirojpur

How we can fight this deadly combo

The deadly combination of Covid-19 and climate change has been established in Bangladesh. Already, Covid-19 has created a health crisis and impacted Bangladesh psycho-socially and socio-economically.

Furthermore, Cyclone Amphan, intensified by abnormally high sea surface temperature in the Bay of Bengal, is evidence of climate change which devastated the situation by adding more to the loss and damage of lives and properties.

As emergency measures, Bangladesh is trying to fight against Covid-19 by implementing lockdown measures, introducing social distancing, community awareness building, reforming health services and infrastructures, providing relief to the poor, and stimulus packages for different sectors.

However, the limited resources, gaps in the system, and huge population pressure have created more difficulties to combat Covid-19. In addition, climate change impacts like temperature extremes, erratic rainfall, sea level rise-induced salinity intrusion, and increased intensity of floods and cyclones have amplified the risk and vulnerability of this developing nation with high population density.

Covid-19 has created more extreme poverty, and climate change is going to hit the poorest the hardest. This lethal combination is affecting livelihoods,public health, food security, water availability, and pushing people below the poverty line.

Future projections also predict that there will be more extreme events due to climate change, including the outbreak of infectious diseases which will affect millions of lives.

Going forward with this devastating situation, here are some of the options which can be effective for strengthening resilience during or after the pandemic situation:

Paradigm shift to pro-active emergency response

As climate change-induced extreme events will become more intense and frequent, there is a need for a proactive emergency response mechanism for reaching the most vulnerable in time.

More scientific approaches for strengthening early warning and forecasting systems, specific future projections of climatic events, a location-specific detailed database of vulnerable groups and populations, digitized social safety net coverage, and awareness and capacity building of communities for using digital tools can enable the options for proactive emergency response.

Also, updating and customization of the Standing Order on Disaster (SOD) based on the lesson learned from the pandemic situation can facilitate the proactive response in a more inclusive and effective way.

Prioritizing climate-smart agriculture

Re-inventing agricultural approaches in the face of the pandemic and climate change is necessary for ensuring food security and increasing agricultural production.

Nationwide capacity building of small scale farmers for proper utilization of land, water, fertilizer, seeds, and technologies can increase agricultural production. Moreover, implementation of locally-led actions like introducing low cost climate-resilient agricultural technologies, promoting climate-adaptive agricultural practices, community-based storage facilities, women-led small scale agricultural interventions, and value chain building, etc. can support the nation for becoming food secured despite the pandemic and climatic shocks.

Also, digital databases and platforms of farmers, digital marketing of agricultural products,forecast-based crop insurance invulnerable areas, climate-resilient crop varieties development and promotion, and innovative urban farming can add value to this approach.

Shift from shelter to resilient housing

Cyclone Amphan has shown that during a disaster it’s nearly impossible to ensure maximum capacity and maintain social distance 

simultaneously in shelters.As the numbers of shelters are insufficient in vulnerable areas and most of the shelters do not function properly due to lack of security,distance from the house, lack of approachable roads, gender and security issues, water and hygiene issues, and food safety, many people are enforced to stay at their own houses during the disaster, which often makes them unsafe.

An innovative, cost-effective solution is required to protect these most vulnerable people during disaster. Geography and context-specific low-cost individual housing cum mini shelters would be effective in saving these vulnerable people from future catastrophic events.Piloting prototype shelters in target areas and testing their feasibility result will help policy-makers to shape bigger action.

Prioritizing public health

Covid-19 has revealed that most countries, including Bangladesh,are not well equipped in the health sector.

Due to the huge population,Bangladesh faces a double burden in the health sector.The pandemic curve can be under containment with social distancing and personal hygiene measures, and a vaccine could help defeat Covid-19.But we need more collective,urgent, and effective adaptation and mitigation actions to deal with the health impacts of climate change.

Extreme weather events like heatwaves, severe cold, irregular rainfall,and salinity intrusion disrupt our antibody system and also accelerate this burden and unveil numerous diseases -- dengue, malaria, preeclampsia, menstrual disorders, diarrhoea, skin disease, hormonal disorder, respiratory problems, etc.

To fight against this type of pandemic or any other health threat, improved and well-organized community-based health facilities can reduce mass transmission of a communicable disease like Covid-19.

Along with the pandemic, other extreme events are negatively affecting our mental health. Psychological counselling and mental health support should be considered for any uncertain extreme event.

Nowadays, Universal Health Coverage becomes one of the primary demands to fight against national health threats. Vietnam makes itself a role model against Covid-19, as around 90% of its population is covered by social health insurance.

But in Bangladesh, only about 3% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)is spent on health services. However, government expenditure on health is only about 34% of the total health expenditure (THE), the rest (66%)being out-of-pocket (OOP) expenses.

There is no choice but making public health the main concern and reforming the health sector with the latest technology, as well as a sufficient amount of human resources, experts, and community health workers, would make us a healthy nation.

Water security

Water scarcity is severe in the coastal region due to salinity intrusion  in freshwater sources. Moreover,long and intense dry periods lead to reduced flow from the natural springs of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), creating water scarcity for the indigenous communities. Low rainfall  and a prolonged dry season in the Barind tract, influencing massive use of groundwater for irrigation, cause groundwater table depletion.

Solar-based desalination plants, solar-piped water systems, and household and community-based rainwater harvesting are some examples of providing fresh water for coastal communities.

These technologies should be made more cost-effective and sustainable for widely reaching vulnerable communities. Alternate wetting and drying technology and rain-fed irrigation can reduce the dependency on groundwater in the Barind tract.Tree and bamboo plantations and protecting nature in hill districts can help conserve the springs for water.

Also, customization of the practicing Gravity Flow System (GFS) for water collection and introduction of rainwater harvesting in the hill districts can be effective.

River water can be considered for industrial production rather than huge groundwater mining. Moreover,technology should be introduced in urban areas for groundwater recharge through rainwater.

Livelihood and poverty reduction

Due to this pandemic, formal livelihood is hampered and the unemployment rate has increased.Along with the pandemic, climate change has been limiting livelihood opportunities in vulnerable areas.

People of floodplains and Haor areas become seasonally unemployed; in coastal areas,people lose their agricultural and aquacultural products due to cyclones, storm surges, and saline intrusion.

To continue economic growth and poverty reduction, we should think about digitized financial inclusion for facilitating alternative income sources for those who have trouble managing their livelihood.

Along with formal business,introducing mini garments (swing), comprehensive homestead vegetable gardening, aquaculture, hydroponic and aqua-geophonic, poultry or turkey farming, livestock rearing, and water vending can be the options for improving the livelihoods.

Skill development for creating mobile banking agents, trained health workers, solar system installers and repairers, online shop and delivery, etc can be considered. Formalizing an online marketplace and providing training on online business can be effective in promoting and selling products.

Like urban areas, vending vans with online cash transfer services and necessary goods can be effective in rural areas as well. Also, protecting waste collectors should be considered by ensuring their occupational safety with proper personal protective equipment.

Nature-based solutions

Backing biodiversity and natural resources for human sustainability should be prioritized after the pandemic situation to avoid further jumping of diseases from wildlife. Nature-based solutions are cost-effective, long term solutions for carbon sequestration, hydrological risks, and land and wetland degradation.

Plantations along with roads,dams, or embankments, and restoration of existing forests can protect the infrastructure from extreme events. Ecosystem-based adaptation, mangrove protection, and plantation can provide benefits in the long run.

Enriching biodiversity and indigenous tree plantations can help maintain the ecological balance. In urban areas, roofs can be covered in plants to make a living landscape.

Upholding adaptation practices considering the new normal

Work from home policies inapplicable cases can be adopted to facilitate the low traffic-low emission concept. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the transport sector is “a leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission,”and accounts for 12-70% of particulate matter (PM) emission towards the total air pollution.

Moreover, online meetings,video conferences, online business platforms, and online education and courses can be promoted to facilitate the low carbon footprint modalities. Along with personal hygiene practices, maintaining social distancing can provide health benefits. The same level of concern for Covid-19 and climate change is necessary among the general population and the government to combat both the emergencies.

In any case, proper planning, financing, implementation and monitoring of long-term, inclusive adaptation strategies and action plans a necessary, along with the solidarity of the community, in order to build back better from unanticipated calamities like Covid-19, dengue, cyclone, flood,and other extreme events.

We have previous experiences of tackling such catastrophes, which have made us more adaptive and learned about how to deal with them.With a holistic approach, previous experiences, and considering the aforementioned options, we can become a more resilient nation in the near future.

Md Bodrud-Doza works at the Climate Change Programme, BRAC. Email: [email protected] Juel Mahmud works at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). Email: [email protected]

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