The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Blame it on climate change
By Hosna J. Shewly, Md. Nadiruzzaman and Jeroen Warner
Floods, droughts, cyclones - these days, every time we experience a disaster, it is framed as a climate event, and climate labelling dominates coverage in all knowledge communication portals. Large swathes of state water managers and popular media have developed a dominant discourse of blaming climate change for everything, which Hulme (2011) defines as 'climate reductionism'. For example, in Bangladesh, a country that remains at the top of the list in global climate risk indexes and disaster rankings, reflecting on the dangers of climate change and disaster attribution is urgent – especially when they mask pre-existing fragilities and inequalities on the ground.
Without detracting from climate change risks in any way, a simplified climate story is misleading and deflects attention from many remediable root causes. The politics of framing holds climate change responsible for every negative event while obscuring human responsibilities and the need for reducing vulnerability. This applies with a vengeance to salinity intrusion on the southwestern coast of Bangladesh, the most popular climate case in any knowledge portal. This piece aims to debunk the 'climate victimhood' narrative.
About 63 million of the country's roughly 170 million people live in the coastal region, and most are at risk of salinity intruding into their land and water sources (Neumann et al., 2015; Mostafa et al., 2019). Salinity intrusion in Bangladesh began in the 1960s when engineer-led polderisation was introduced in coastal areas to protect the area from floods and cyclones. However, these were later found to be a reason for land subsidence and degradation (Paprocki & Huq, 2017). Further, upstream water withdrawal by India by building barrages at Farakka and implementing irrigation projects reduced downstream flows in dry seasons and triggered salinity intrusion in the coastal region (Mirza, 1998), affecting not only aquatic life but also livelihoods dependent on that aquatic life (Mostafa et al., 2019: 291). Due to salinity, traditional crops failed and were gradually replaced by shrimp farming. The transformation of agricultural land into shrimp culture brought profits for the landowners but affected the community because of reduced employment opportunities. High revenue from shrimp farming lured people with significant capital from outside to invest, creating a sharp rise in landlessness, displacement, and unemployment (Khan et al., 2021).
The discourse on the roots of increased salinity on the southern coast of Bangladesh has recently shifted towards climate change (see Mahmud, 1993; Vidal, 2003; Ahmed, 2022). Domestic and international media, development agencies, and popular discourses now highlight salinity intrusion and its myriad impacts as palpable evidence of climate change (for a critique, see Mostafa et al, 2019).
In reality, increasing salinity has resulted from successive changes in water management, large-scale engineering structures, land use, drainage, irrigation, land administration, and so on. Climate change has complicated and multiplied all associated risks but is not the root cause. The populist narrative of the epistemic community not only bypasses these complexities but also generalises the problem of salinity. For example, data from river salinity are often used to explain the magnitude of the problem, while the river salinity, soil salinity and groundwater salinity in the same geographic space may be significantly different, as is their salinisation process. For example, Mirza (1998) shows how the implementation of the Farakka Barrage spiked the river salinity in the southwest over a few years. This was further worsened by the coastal embankment project (Dewan, 2021). However, the soil salinity synchronised with the river salinity where shrimp farming intensified (Mostafa et al., 2019; Paprocki and Huq, 2017), as they breached the embankments and let the saltwater in. Over time, the embankments became so porous that they failed to withstand a weak cyclone like Aila in 2009, which inundated a large amount of land for some years and further increased soil salinity in those devastated areas immensely. Such an increase in soil salinity hugely impacted the harvest of traditional crops in those lands. However, neither river salinity nor soil salinity has much to do with groundwater salinity which is one of the major sources of drinking water. Rather, over-extraction of groundwater for irrigation allowed salt water to seep further inland. Recall in this context that Bangladesh is a floodplain, home to approximately 170 million inhabitants with rice, a highly irrigation-intensive crop, as their main staple food.
Despite this complex chain of causalities, salinity has become overwhelmingly a synonym for climate change in Bangladesh. Yet there is no rigorous scientific evidence to support this view. The ways climate change could have a direct impact on river salinity is through (1) sea level rise, (2) coastal flooding by super cyclones, (3) climate change-induced weather variabilities in the upper basin that reduce the river flow, or (4) breach of embankments and inundation triggered by heavy rainfall.
Countries claiming to be vulnerable to climate change use the IPCC as a proxy instead of showcasing their scientific evidence of climate change impacts (Nadiruzzaman et al., 2022) and without even enquiring about other potential factors. This approach is highly problematic as it fails to appreciate the multiplicity and complexity of the problem. A holistic understanding investigates the historical accounts of climatic and non-climatic changes to critically reflect on the dominant causal strings. It also complicates finding a typical villain to whom all blame could be transferred. Such misleading and false premises can confuse the public and develop a false sense of vulnerability that little can be done locally to reduce the damage that natural hazards cause. Reflecting on the dangers of climate change and disaster attribution trends, a simplified climate story deflects attention from many remediable causes.
These examples underscore the importance of asking in-depth questions to understand the broader spectrum of different interfaces. A catastrophe only follows when vulnerable people are at risk (Kelman, 2022). Climate-centric disaster framing can contradict the experiences of those who suffer disasters because it erases from view—and, thus, from policy agendas—the socio-economic and political factors that actually cause their vulnerability and suffering. In addition, fatalism and depoliticisation already exist in people's minds (Zaman, 2021), and climate reductionism adds a layer to that by diverting local accountability to God. It not only masks a multitude of development and planning failures and maladaptive policies and practices that have created vulnerability to droughts or floods but also offers leverage to the politicians to get away with inaction or misguided actions.
Dr. Hosna Shewly is a senior researcher at the Fulda University of Applied Sciences, Germany. Her research interest lies in three interconnected areas- environmental governance, inequality, and activism in the global South.
Dr. Nadiruzzaman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health, Ethics and Society and Head of Research of the Sustainable 2030 initiative at Maastricht University, Netherlands. His interests are in climate change adaptation, environmental governance and health. Nadir obtained an MA (by research) and a PhD in Human Geography from Durham University, UK.
Dr. Jeroen Warner is a Senior Associate Professor of Crisis and Disaster Studies at Wageningen University, The Netherlands. Jeroen teaches, trains and publishes on domestic and transboundary water conflict, participatory resource management, and governance issues.
Ahmed, K. 2022. 'We live and die by it': climate crisis threatens Bangladesh's Sundarbans. The Guardian, January 18, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jan/18/live-and-die-by-bangladesh-sundarbans-mangrove-forest-climate-crisis-threat-resources-cyclones
Dewan, C. 2021. Misreading the Bengal Delta: Climate change, development, and Livelihoods in Coastal Bangladesh. Washington, USA: University of Washington Press. https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/50931
Hulme, M. 2011. Reducing the future to climate: A story of climate determinism and reductionism. Osiris 26 (1): 245-66. https://doi.org/10.1086/661274
Kelman, I. 2022. Pakistan's floods are a disaster – but they didn't have to be. The Conversation, 20 September. https://theconversation.com/pakistans-floods-are-a-disaster-but-they-didnt-have-to-be-190027
Khan, M.A.; Begum, R.; Nielsen, R. and Hoff, A. 2021. Production risk, technical efficiency, and input use nexus: lessons from Bangladesh aquaculture. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society 52: 57–72. http://doi.org/10.1111/jwas.12767
Mahmud, A. 1993. Dam dispute Spells man-made drought for Bangladeshis, The Guardian, December 06, 1993.
Mirza, M. 1998. Diversion of the Ganges water at Farakka and Its effects on salinity in Bangladesh. Environmental Management 22: 711–722. https://doi.org/10.1007/s002679900141
Mostafa, M.; Nasir, N.; Rahman, M.F. and Huq, S. 2019. The Delta in peril. American Scientist 107 (5): 288-295. https://doi.org/10.1511/2019.107.5.288
Nadiruzzaman, M.; Scheffran, J.; Shewly, H.J. and Kley, S. 2022. Conflict-sensitive climate change adaptation: A review. Sustainability 14 (13): 8060. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14138060
Neumann B.; Vafeidis, A.T.; Zimmermann, J.; Nicholls, R.J. 2015. Future coastal population growth and exposure to sea-level rise and coastal flooding - A global assessment. PLoS ONE 10 (3): e0118571. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118571.
Paprocki, K. and Huq, S. 2017. Shrimp and coastal adaptation: On the politics of climate justice. Climate and Development 10(1): 1–3. http://doi.org/10.1080/17565529.2017.130187
Vidal, J. 2003. Troubled waters for Bangladesh as India presses on with plan to divert major rivers. The Guardian, July 24. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2003/jul/24/water.india
Zaman, F. 2021. The role of popular discourse about climate change in disaster preparedness: A critical discourse analysis. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 60: 102270. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2021.102270
This is a great post. And there's lots more to say both on this case and the issue more broadly. Paprocki's more recent articles and 2021 book 'Threatening Dystopias' explore the consequences of these problematic climate framings in Bangladesh, where they have been seized on by external and internal interests to promote shrimp farming - with extremely negative environmental and social consequences. More broadly, I think there's a growing tendency for climate change by invoked as an alibi to legitimise water development projects, where these projects and the irrigated agriculture they are mainly for have actually been the primary cause of the problems now blamed on climate - dynamics I explore (with Daoust and Hoffmann) in our 2022 book 'Divided Environments'. I think there's both room and need for lots more work on these processes of 'climatisation' and their consequences.
Thanks for your opinion. Indeed, the utilisation of climate change as a pretext to justify water development initiatives is a notable phenomenon in Bangladesh but also several other nations. This trend came into sharp focus last year in the aftermath of the catastrophic flood in Pakistan. There is a pressing need for extensive research on the intricacies of 'climatisation' and the subsequent outcomes it entails. I look forward to reading your book.
Dear Jan, I couldn't agree more. Kasia and I conducted fieldwork almost at the same time, and I'm a great admirer of her work. I was thinking of writing a review of her book, 'Threatening Dystopias', but I couldn't manage time right after the book came out. We shared many ideas and cited one of her works with Prof. Saleemul Huq. I am currently supervising a student looking at 'datafication' of the problem around salinity. Being a Bangladeshi, I often feel that we are betrayed by a group of mainstream climate scientists who turn a blind eye to the complexity of the problem (probably because of their set agenda).
May I attract the author's attention to a brand new open access technical paper available in a journal " Sustainable Earth Reviews".
Salem, Hilmi S. Pudza, Musa Yahaya and Yihdego, Yohannes (2023), Harnessing the energy transition from total dependence on fossil to renewable energy in the Arabian Gulf region, considering population, climate change impacts, ecological and carbon footprints, and United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Sustainable Earth Reviews, 10 ( 6 ), https://doi.org/10.1186/s42055-023-00057-4, DO - 10.1186/s42055-023-00057-4
The aim of this research paper is to investigate various issues related to oil consumption and environmental impacts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, in relation to population, climate change impacts, United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN’s SDGs), and ecological and carbon footprints. The GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) are almost entirely dependent on fossil energy sources (oil and natural gas) domestically, industrially, commercially, economically, and transportation-wise. Although the total population of the GCC countries is around 60 million, making up only 0.76% of the world’s population (8 billion), they do consume 5.15 million barrels per day (bbl/d) of oil, forming nearly 5.8% of the world’s daily consumption, which is around 88.4 million bbl/d as of 2021. Moreover, the daily per capita consumption of oil in the GCC countries is about 0.09 barrels, while it is about 0.06 barrels in the USA. These figures indicate that the GCC’s countries combined and per capita, although not industrialized and small in population, consume large quantities of oil, compared to other countries of the world that are industrialized and/or densely populated, such as the USA, India, Japan, Russia, and Germany. The high rates of oil consumption in the GCC countries, associated with the highest per capita ecological and carbon footprints worldwide, have led to negative impacts on the environment, climate, and public health. The results of this work show that some of the GCC countries have the highest per capita ecological and carbon footprints. Thus, the GCC countries should effectively reduce their dependence on fossil energy sources and gradually replace them with renewable energy sources, especially photovoltaic (PV) solar energy. Furthermore, the statistics presented in this article and the outcomes reached uncover that the GCC countries lag behind with regard to various indicators of the UN’s SDGs. This implies the GCC countries are not taking adequate actions to encounter environmental problems, in order to fulfil some of the UN’s SDGs by 2030.
The climate change blame can be appropriately incorporated considering the Arabian Gulf region.
Dear Dr Soni, thanks very much for your opinion! I'm not sure I understood your point right. I don't think it will be appropriate to blame the GCC countries only for extracting fossil fuels because there is a huge demand for fossil fuels from across the globe. I also feel it is more of a fossil fuel corporation that uses its financial power to influence state apparatus in bending things to their favour. Growing economies like China and India are also part of their supply chain. They are enjoying the blessings of this liquid gold and twisting their earlier promise to the Paris target. The UK's PM has recently been baptised to that philosophy and is pushing for 2035 as the new net zero target. If the states, particularly the significant emitters (including the emerging one) do not stop using fossil fuel, this will be a neverending saga until we are extinct (like, Don't look up). Climate change is a global problem, and we need to address it together. I believe we borrowed this earth from our future generations, and we need to do justice to them. As Homo Sapiens, I think, we are selfish enough not to care about others. That's in our DNA.
The above is just an anecdote and our discussion was not to accuse anyone or any country for causing climate change. Neither we are climate deniers. Our point was about understanding local problems instead of climate-washing them.
Great post. Totally agree that CC is being blamed (100%) when management and other human actions deserve a share.
The Netherlands and Bangladesh are both low lying delta countries. But their water management (resources but also political discourses) regimes are quite different.
In my experience, managers and politicians like to deflect blame and CC is a perfect boogie man.
We need to maintain pressure on decision makers.
Hi David, yes, you are right! Bangladesh and the Netherlands are fluviomorphological twins with histories of sharing knowledge on flood and river management. A very good friend of mine, Dr Brian Cook, defended his PhD at Durham University (UK) back in 2010 and he looked into 'knowledge controversies' of flood management in Bangladesh. Interestingly, importing northern technologies to Bangladeshi coastal areas back in the 1970s without understanding the local socio-ecological environment and the rhythm of tidal rivers caused massive environmental fallout in recent decades (which many people label as climate change). There are some brilliant works by Kasia Paprocki, Danielle Falzon, Camelia Dewan and many others. I am truly inspired by seeing this new group of critical thinkers.
Climate change is the biggest threat to life on earth. For this reason, it is undoubtedly one of the most popular agenda items of recent times. It is understood that the rapid increase in climate change, especially in recent years, has reached the level of a global threat. It is certain that this problem will make itself felt significantly in the coming years.
It is imperative to take global measures against climate change affecting the world's ecosystems. Human beings cannot be expected to remain insensitive to this danger. On the contrary, globalization of awareness on this issue must be ensured and preventive measures must be taken urgently according to the results of scientific research. In this context, individuals, local administrations, governments and non-governmental organizations working on environmental issues each have important duties.
None of the authors in this article are denying climate change, but making a cautious note that climate change must not be used as a shield to justify maladaptation, development failure and misappropriation of resources.
In 1976, Phil O'Keefe and colleagues wrote a piece in Nature, titled, 'taking natureness out of disasters'. The paper argues that an extreme event does not kill people, but a faulty infrastructure or a poorly governed entity does. Eminent scholars like Ian Burton, Ben Wisner, Ilan Kelman and others stand by this argument.
This study is a timely one, climate-change blame narrative drives our planning and policy development, particularly our National Adaptation plan and action. Though the NAP, 2022 addresses the salinity issue from both human and nature perspectives, actions are designed targeting mega plan and projects for climate resilient Bangladesh. In NAP Bangladesh (2023-50), about 113 interventions are planned to be implemented investing $230 billion for CCA. This paper offers window to review the NAP and its investment plan.
Brilliant piece! Thanks!
Even though I am one of the earliest Nepalis to start studying climate change, of late I have become somewhat skeptical of its mainstream agenda within development agencies. Climate change has become a convenient scapegoat for politicians and development barons North and South that allows them:
a) too look good voicing concerns without having to do anything about it during their (compared to climate change time scale) term in office;
b) to completely ignore the impact of mal-development (which this essay captures so well) on the voiceless and marginalized poor which in the future climate change will make much worse.
While countries like Nepal and Bangladesh that contributed next to nothing in increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases can do little in terms of mitigation to reverse the trend, mal-development is something we can do something to rectify. But, those efforts get sidelined by donor-pushed (often with tenuous links to climate change) agenda with no impact monitoring standards. Normal apt-development projects for health or education or drinking water etc. find little funding support unless tied with climate change through often contorted acrobatics. And most recipient development agencies know that and go to great lengths to make wildly unfounded claims just to secure funding. As a wag has it: "My buffalo did not give milk this morning - it must be climate change!" How about your not forgetting to give it water and grass? Coming to terms with climate change reality means reverting back to more meaningful activism across a wide swathe of public and private life, which, unlike the 1990s, most Northern and Southern NGOs seem to have lost the taste for. My take on this:
Dear Dipal Ji, thanks very much for sharing your piece. Very enlightening! In 2013, I was on a trip to Pachkhal with a group of scientists from ANU. Our local partner was a Geography professor from Tribhuvan University. We were taken to Pachkhal to observe the water scarcity caused by climate change. Speaking to local people, I learned that the population of Pachkhal has increased by severalfold over a decade. So is there agricultural intensity. Being in close proximity to Kathmandu, this place became the backyard supplier for the city. Therefore, the increasing population pressure and highly intensive agricultural farming have mounted pressure on the major water sources. The local experts did not inform the foreign experts of any of these. Instead, they explained the growing water scarcity as an impact of climate change (without any data on moisture and precipitation).
This post provides valuable evidence concerning salinity issues, particularly in the southwestern part of Bangladesh. The authors' focus on how the mismanagement of water resources has contributed to the salinity problem highlights the need for a comprehensive approach to addressing its impact on both the natural and human systems in this region. Given that human activities initiated the salinity problem here, climate-related factors have only worsened the situation. Therefore, in my opinion, it would not be wise to shift the discussion away from climate change when addressing the impacts of salinity. Additionally, solutions (i.e., nature-based solutions) aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change could prove to be useful in this context.
The salinity problem we see in southwestern Bangladesh does not necessarily affect all coastal areas in the same way. For instance, in the southeastern coastal regions, residents do not engage in shrimp cultivation and lack grey infrastructure like embankments. However, they do contend with a different challenge: cyclone-driven tidal surges that bring saline water from the river onto their land, causing soil salinity to rise. This increase in soil salinity becomes particularly severe during the dry season (November to March), when the salinity levels of the river rise significantly, leading to high salinity levels in the land as well. This soil salinity is closely tied to rainfall. Adequate and timely rainfall helps reduce soil salinity and supports crop cultivation. Unfortunately, the rainfall patterns in this region are changing, resulting in increased production costs and reduced crop yields. Additionally, the intrusion of saline water from the river damages freshwater fish production, lowers land values, hampers crop growth, and inhibits the growth of other vegetation like vascular trees and local fruit production on the island.
As you mentioned, it is important to start gathering evidence on factors like river salinity, changes in precipitation, regional sea-level rise, and cyclones connected to global warming. This data will help us determine when climate change is the main cause of these issues and when it plays a secondary role. This distinction is vital for designing effective solutions and approaching the problem from a climate justice perspective.
Dear Joy, Thanks very much for caring and supporting our opinion. We spoke so many times about this issue. We, the new cohort of researchers, have a much more critical (and less 'diplomatic') take on climate change and its impacts than populist 'victimhood' narratives. Our voices are less echoed in the big media. During the 2021 flood in northeastern Bangladesh, one of the top global media portals branded that event as an attribution of climate change. I spoke with one of the Bangladeshi journalists who was a coauthor in that report, and he confessed to not having any knowledge of climate change. He just provided flood data, and someone from the North, who led the report, has made up a lovely climate change story. Terry Cannon (IDS) and I wrote to an editor with data and the complexity of the problem and asked them to tell us where they could draw a link to climate change. They responded to us with an unconvincing story and suggested that we write for their portal in the future. This is so unfortunate how the sufferings of people are capitalised on by the privileged ones!
We must speak up together and defend our cause!
I like your objective, data-driven approach--very much needed. But you write that you wrote to an (un-named) portal from the North with data contradicting one of their stories, and they invited you to write for them in the future. Is there a reason you declined? I do not know what portal you are referring to, but I would have thought it would be an opportunity to inject more balance into the discussion. Currently, in the USA, climate change as a driver dominates discussions, but the right wing is increasingly effective in inserting alternative interpretations that are totally fact-free.
Terry and I developed our counter-narratives backed up with upstream precipitation and river flow data. We also sent information on unplanned infrastructural development and risk communication to substantiate our argument. Our email has not been replied to. We followed up a couple of times and received complete silence from the other end. This piece hosted on this blog resonates with our arguments which we wanted to make.
Besides Nadir's viewpoint, we are not approaching the issue in a binary manner – where climate change is either seen as the sole primary cause or a mere secondary factor. Instead, we advocate for a cautious approach, urging us to avoid subscribing to populist narratives and encouraging a thorough examination of the fundamental causes behind disasters.
I find this post truly insightful. While it touches on many relevant points concerning disasters in the context of climate change in Bangladesh, I appreciate how it emphasizes the significance of our interpretations and their fundamental role in shaping our decisions and guiding action plans. Blaming climate change can be convenient and trendy in today's world (and I don't deny its necessity), but as this post clearly illustrates, real-life situations are far more complex. I believe that addressing this complexity should involve recognizing and holding individuals and institutions accountable for what is going on.
Thank you for this post and discussion.
Indeed, it is also a matter of responsibility and accountability rather than merely attributing issues to climate change. The same happens with urban floods and waterlogging in the capital, Dhaka.
Dear Marcela, thanks very much for echoing our voices! I personally think that "blaming climate change" never helps make our collective voices stronger to raise concerns about the future of this earth. Instead, this could be a deviation from our cause of environmental justice. A couple of years ago I organized a public event where I had two IPCC lead coordinating authors among the panelists, one was representing the UNFCCC, and the other was the CVF. My question to both of them was, "Had there been a financial contribution from the major emitters to the GCF or Loss and Damage fund, would that guarantee that the money is going to address the extremely vulnerable poor communities?" The response from the UNFCCC-branded expert was, "This is very unfortunate that there are huge issues with the distribution of climate funds to many countries who are extremely vulnerable to climate change, but UNFCCC does not have any jurisdiction inside national boundaries". The other expert from the CVF side completely bypassed the main question and described how Loss Damage and adaptation are making their spaces in the global climate change debate with the help of the CVF. Having been a member of the global south and growing up in that setting, I see "blaming climate change" allows the vested interest groups from the South to have control of climate finance to address the problem that was caused by them in the first place. The vulnerable living in climate hotspots suffer first from their local oppressors and later that will be multiplied by climate change impacts.
Dear Readers, should you be interested, please read our extended version in the International Development Planning Review (https://doi.org/10.3828/idpr.2023.17), titled, "Causal connections between climate change and disaster: the politics of ‘victimhood’ framing and blaming". Happy to discuss further your thoughts! Nadir