How economic inequality acts as a barrier against climate change adaptation
Bangladesh experiences severe exposure to certain risks because of its geo-morphological, demographic, and socio-economic temperament. Agriculture in the haor and char region is also remarkably affected by climatic hazards. It has a tremendous negative effect on water security and food security as well.
SDG-10 calls for a reduction of economic inequality whilst SDG-13 calls for mitigation of climate change. It denotes that this relationship is characterized by a vicious cycle, whereby inequality makes disadvantaged groups suffer a disproportionate loss of their income and assets, resulting in greater subsequent inequality.
It functions in three ways, increased exposure of disadvantaged groups to climate hazards; increased susceptibility to damage caused by climate hazards; and decreased ability to cope with and recover from the spoil.
Setting the scene
A garment factory worker’s children have little hope of avoiding the fate of becoming garment factory workers themselves in the future. It is simply because the cost of standard education is well beyond their reach. They can dream of no luxury other than just sustaining their physical existence in an unfriendly and unsympathetic world.
Garment factory workers are deprived of a just salary because the owners want to pay only what would keep these unfortunate employees physically able to come back for more work tomorrow.
Along with poverty, rising inequalities have always been considered as a major policy issue in Bangladesh; such inequalities are not merely about disparities of outcomes, it is also about disparities in opportunities in terms of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or wealth.
In Bangladesh, where disparities in opportunities are so evident in every sphere of life, focusing only on economic inequalities provides a partial picture of the status and policy agendas of inequality.
One of the core objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to reduce inequalities within and across countries. The SDG framework identifies inequality as a key issue to tackle since reduced inequalities can ensure truly inclusive development and drive human progress towards sustainability and universal wellbeing.
Bangladesh was primarily an agrarian economy at independence, marked by largely subsistence farming. Agriculture has now largely become more commercialized and accounts for only 15% of gross domestic product (GDP). Manufacturing and services now account for the bulk of output.
Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen lauded Bangladesh’s social development in many fields, such as gender equity, women’s empowerment, mortality rate, life expectancy, and immunization.
Despite such significant improvements in Bangladesh’s economic performance, formidable economic challenges still lie ahead. With a per capita income of $2,000, the country still remains one of the least developed countries in the world. An estimated 63 million people live under the poverty line in a country of 163 million people.
Bangladesh has also witnessed rapid urbanization with more than a third of the population now living in urban areas and increasing. Despite the population growth rate coming down to 1.2% per annum, the country remains one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
This urbanization has been spurred by the structural changes in the rural economy resulting from the increased commercialization of the agriculture sector and widespread rural poverty. But this rapid urbanization has caused heightened urban poverty with extremely poor living conditions for these rural migrants and also serious urban congestion.
One good indicator for looking at the worst form of income inequality is the Palma ratio, which focuses on extremes of inequality -- the ratio of incomes at the very top to those at the bottom.
In Bangladesh, it is the changes in these extremes that are most noticeable; while the share of income in the middle is relatively stable. The Palma ratio at the national level has increased from 1.68 in 1964 to 2.93 in 2016; in urban areas, it rose from 2.00 to 2.96 while, in rural areas, it grew from 1.38 to 2.51 over the same period.
The share of the middle 50% has remained relatively stable; while the poorest 40% have generally lost in terms of income share, the richest 10% have gained. In the case of income, one of the targets of SDG10 is to progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average by 2030.
The national data since the 1980s show that the average per capita household income (at 2010 prices) during 1986-2016 grew at 1.43% while the same for the bottom 40% grew by only 0.28%. The form of inequality that is widespread in the country is the inequality of opportunities, which is both the cause and consequence of inequality of outcomes.
Reduced inequalities have both economic and social benefits. It strengthens people’s perception about fair society, improves social cohesion and mobility, and boosts employment and education with beneficial effects on human capital and development.
Without equal opportunities, systemic patterns of discrimination and exclusion prevent the poor and disadvantaged groups from accessing economic, political, and social resources, resulting in “inequality traps” and the persistence of inequality across generations.
The status of biodiversity and the integration of flora and fauna have made the haors one of the most beautiful places in Bangladesh. As the haor region is a marginalized area of the country, women and farmers face enormous challenges in the daily struggle of survival.
In the haor constituency, the highest number of people live in Sylhet (3.36 million) and the lowest in Maulvibazar (2.10 million). Although a little more than half of the population (53.67%) depends on agriculture, the corresponding figures for Sylhet and Netrokona district are not similar. Only 35% of haor dwellers depend of agriculture, while the rate is 71% in Netrokona.
However, instead of limiting themselves to agriculture, the haor inhabitants depend on a variety of occupations for their livelihood. A great portion (12.52%) of haor people make their living through business.
Others are work as non-farm labor (6.13%), and in service (5.65%), fishery (2.59%), and transport (2.39%). A noteworthy percentage (3.41%) of the population depends on remittances sent by family members working abroad.
Socio-economic and environmental losses
50% of the crops in haor were lost, which consisted mainly of Boro rice. However, the community reports their damage to be much higher -- close to 90% in many areas.
For example, Kishoreganj lost 90% of its rice crops according to the community; which, however, was 31.8 % on average according to the official statement. An immediate impact on fishery was ponds being washed away.
This was reported in Sunamganj, Kishoreganj, Netrokona, Moulvibazar, and Sylhet. In Koshoreganj, it was mostly culture fishery. An estimated 903 metric tons of fish loss was reported.
According to the fisheries office of Sunamganj, fish of 20 haors from 11 upazilas suffered from murrain. Among the upazilas are Sadar, South Sunamganj, Jagannathpur, Dharmapasha, Dirai, Tahirpur, Jamalganj, etc. Among the Haors are Dekhar, Dharam, Dhankuniya, Cheptir Haor, Chayar Haor, etc.
Haor floods not only damaged human food, but also drowned animal food. It means a loss of fodder (straw) which in total is estimated to be 452,189 metric tons for all seven affected districts. This made the environmental bio-diversity of the region vulnerable to an extreme food crisis.
Farmers and the local cattle industry not only suffered from a shortage of their own food but also fodder for their cattle. They are reportedly selling away their cattle at low rates. In addition, poor water quality and disease have killed ducks in a number of areas, further adding to the damage.
The overriding challenge of the inhabitants of haor is perhaps the fact that they have limited livelihood options if their existing livelihoods were to be disrupted by natural calamities. The complexity of this challenge restricts their livelihood options, holding them back from joining the journey towards national progress.
The haor inhabitants mainly rely on Boro crops and fishing, while a smaller section depends on livestock rearing and small businesses.
Hence, enhancing the climate-resilient livelihood of haor inhabitants is of the utmost necessity. Their livelihoods can sustain its key functions (food, income, poverty reduction) and absorb the impacts of disasters and shocks without causing major disruption in day-to-day functions, in line with the priority of the SDGs and 7th Five Year Plan (FYP) of Bangladesh.
Apart from that, the underdeveloped state of communication infrastructure leads to various challenges, insufficient amount of private sector investment, and small-scale entrepreneurship.
We always debate on how climate change exacerbates economic inequality, but rarely do we think the opposite -- that inequality itself can be a driver of climate change. What’s missing from the conversation is what our inequality crisis is doing to our planet, how unequal societies inflict more environmental damage than more economically even societies.
Environmental degradation and climate change are themselves the toxic by-products of our inequality problem. Many people who live in low-income communities, for example, cannot afford to retrofit their homes to make them more energy-efficient, meaning they use more power than necessary, generating more pollution.
We are talking about the way inequality functions in our society, which has changed since the global financial crisis. People assume that raising incomes will increase personal consumption and, as a result, also increase carbon emissions, which would do little to alleviate climate change.
But there are so many more mechanisms at play, including how power disparities hobble communities from protecting, for example, their air or their water. To protect nature, we need good jobs a solid tax base, a good healthcare system, and criminal justice.
Shishir Reza is an Environmental Analyst and Associate Member, Bangladesh Economic Association.