Climate Crisis

4 ways to shore up South Asian coastal communities against climate change

Pakistan has been hit by unprecedented flooding, underlining its vulnerability to climate change.

Pakistan has been hit by unprecedented flooding, underlining its vulnerability to climate change. Image: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

Sikander Bizenjo
Manager - External Engagements, Engro
Eric Shahzar
Alumni, Global Shapers Community, Karachi Hub, World Economic Forum
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Climate Crisis

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  • Marginalized South Asian communities are at critical risk from climate change.
  • Notably, coastal dwellers in Pakistan, the Maldives and in Bangladesh's GBM delta region face upheaval in the future.
  • Mangrove restoration and raised homes are among the climate adaptation solutions.

Climate change is affecting the entire world, but certain communities are more vulnerable than others: Communities that are already living below the poverty line, where a small shock can push them into perpetual poverty. A broad spectrum of research shows that climate change disproportionately affects such marginalized places.

What’s alarming is how fast climate change is making South Asian coastal communities disappear. They face this calamity on two main fronts. First, from flash floods, which continually destroy farming activities and their livelihoods; and second, the rise in sea levels, which is making coastal islands in South Asia disappear rapidly.

Pakistan’s disappearing coastal belts

This year, Pakistan witnessed a monster monsoon season, causing unprecedented destruction. Two months of non-stop torrential rains have left swathes of the country underwater. Millions have been displaced, with uncertainty looming over their futures and their basic human right of living a life with dignity. The affected areas cover an estimated one-third of the country, which is the eighth most vulnerable in the world to climate change.

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The people with the worst vulnerability to the climate crisis are the ones that remain at Pakistan’s coastal belts. In Keti Bandar, a small village in the province of Sindh, people have been forced to change profession as rising sea levels convert once-prime fertile agricultural land into small, vulnerable islands. The already marginalized community, mainly reliant on agricultural work for their livelihood, has now been forced by the changing climate to switch to fishing due to the rising sea and soil erosion.

Children in Kharo Khan, a small island near south Pakistan’s coastal belt
Children in Kharo Khan, a small island near south Pakistan’s coastal belt. Image: Eric Shahzar

The world’s biggest delta in peril

In Bangladesh, the life-giving Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) delta faces the same fate. The world’s largest delta drains the Himalayas through those three rivers, supporting an ecological abundancy that sustains a huge local population. One central area is the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, covering 10,000 square kilometres that are shared between Bangladesh (60%) and India (40%). With sea levels rising, coastal residents have been forced to relocate to areas with habitable conditions, ending up mainly in urban slums. The capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, is accepting more than 2,000 climate refugees daily.

Maldives, the sinking archipelago

Located in the south-eastern Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives consist of more than 1,200 coral and sandbank islands. However, the country is expected to disappear due to climate-induced rising sea levels. The World Bank predicts that the sea will rise by up to 10 to 1,000 centimetres by 2100, threatening to make the island nation disappear entirely by the turn of the century. As the country’s environment minister Aminath Shauna puts it: “The future of our country, the future of our people, the future of our culture – it all depends on our action today."

But how can we protect South Asian coastal communities?

1. Mangrove restoration

Despite making up only 1% of global tropical forests, mangroves play a critical role in mitigating climate change near coastal belts. This nature-based solution not only acts as a carbon sink, but also helps stop rising sea levels; mangroves slow down water encroachment significantly, while soil building up around their roots reduces energy from waves and tidal currents. They also support marine life that provides coastal communities with a livelihood through shellfish-gathering and fishing.

Raised homes built by WWF in Keti Bundar, south Pakistan.
Raised homes built by WWF in Keti Bundar, south Pakistan. Image: Eric Shahzar

2. Higher homes

The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has stressed that building homes on raised platforms for coastal communities is one answer to the floods. In 2011, Pakistan government’s Sindh Coastal Community Development Project managed to protect more than 190,000 people by building planned roads, cyclone-resistant schools and smart infrastructure on higher ground near the Indus delta region in south Pakistan. Following the same progressive thinking, raised homes will minimize the chances of sea intrusion and flooding.

3. Relocate coastal communities

In order to provide shelter to vulnerable communities, Bangladesh's International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) is introducing a plan to tackle the climate displacement problem by diverting heavy population loads to climate-resilient cities. These secondary cities have an existing population of 500,000, with a potential capacity of more than 1,500,000 people. The 10-year programme aims to rehabilitate refugees to smaller urban centres with the capacity to expand, develop and, most importantly, provide jobs to sustain a rapidly growing workforce.

4. Building artificial islands

In 2005, threatened by fast-rising sea levels, the Maldives government decided to provide higher ground for civilians. Still under construction, the artificial island Hulhumalé is being created from sand pumped up from the seabed and has walls extending to three metres above sea level. Planning to accommodate more than 130,000 people to relieve overcrowding in the Maldives’ capital Malé, it has been declared “the City of Hope”.

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