A mature tree produces oxygen for 10 people in a year. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and release the oxygen we breathe in. Well-established forests and tree plantations reduce the impacts of natural disasters by saving lives and properties. In a nutshell, we need trees for our survival, not the other way round. The theme of this year's World Environment Day (WED)—"Time for Nature"—allows us to look back at this "common knowledge" and evaluate our contributions to nature. Now, the question is why I am talking about such "common" or "ordinary" stuff which we learn at school. I can only say that it is time to acknowledge the impact of nature and bring back the greenery to save lives.
WED 2020 theme and its relevance in managing disasters
"To care for ourselves, we must care for nature"—this message is particularly important for countries like Bangladesh, which largely depends on the mercy of nature. The country lies on Asia's largest, and the world's most populated, delta. In the face of climate change, Bangladesh is seen as one of the most disaster and climate vulnerable countries of the world. Efforts like constructing embankments and polders, improving early warning system, and mobilising volunteers have been successful in keeping disaster death toll down to a great extent; however, saving lives as well as protecting livelihood are becoming more difficult as the frequency and severity of disasters are on the rise due to global warming.
Climate-related disasters have tripled in the last three years and the rate of global sea-level rise was 2.5 faster from 2006-16 than that of the 20th century. Two cyclones struck Bangladesh in less than 6 months—cyclone Bulbul in November 2019 and cyclone Amphan in May 2020—battering the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. The Sundarbans lost a great portion of its vegetation cover in saving local communities, while the mangrove on India's side was the worst hit. Bangladesh is already suffering from severe environmental degradation having a coverage of only less than 11.2 percent of forest area in the country (it needs at least 25 percent forest coverage to ensure ecological balance). All these realities have a profound impact on human development. Less vegetation cover means more vulnerabilities for human settlements. Hence, the concept of nature-based solutions has gained attention in risk management in recent years.
Time-tested nature-based solutions in reducing risks
We need to increase our capacity to offset the negative impacts of cyclones, storm surges, floods, river erosion and landslides. Bangladesh can benefit from nature-based disaster management initiatives already practised at different parts of the country, in addition to using modern approaches (i.e. constructing embankments, polders) to manage disasters. One of the main benefits of such nature or ecosystem-based localised practices is that they not only protect life and livelihood but also provide the dependent communities with food, water, fuel and building materials. For example, the Sundarbans provides its communities with livelihood and the mangroves have been successfully offsetting surface waves and high winds and defending banks against erosion. The coastal communities plant coconut and palm trees which are excellent windbreakers. Forested slopes reduce the risks of land or mudslide. Bamboo palisade has long been used as a protection against riverbank erosion on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra. Research and assessments are thus needed to examine whether these ecosystem-based initiatives can replace embankments and polders.
However, there is no denying that modern and traditional practices can complement each other. Furthermore, natural forests provide an effective, immediate and low-cost method for removing and storing atmospheric carbon—by working as a "carbon sink".
Multi-stakeholder engagement to promote nature-based solutions
Bangladesh needs to strengthen its disaster management capacity, and tree plantation, afforestation and reforestation are time-tested methods to facilitate this process. The country's Forest Development has been implementing coastal afforestation projects as part of its annual development plan, but engaging the wider stakeholders (other government agencies, community-based organisations, national and local NGOs, volunteers) is vital to bring about a tangible change. There have been some isolated initiatives to plant trees: for example, the Department of Disaster Management planted 3.8 million palm trees in 2019 as an effort to prevent South Asia's one of the fastest-growing disasters—lightning strike—and the same year, nearly half a million tree seedlings were planted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and World Food Programme (WFP) to restore degraded forests and watersheds in Cox's Bazar. However, it is important to have a coordinated approach to tree plantation, afforestation and reforestation activities as unplanned projects along with embankments and polderisation had negatively impacted coastal zones by contributing to waterlogging.
Impacts of Covid-19
Thanks to Covid-19 which has wrecked economies in recent months, the funding landscape has already been altered, making it difficult for Bangladesh to get aid or loans to pursue high-cost and -maintenance disaster management projects in the coming days. The United Nations has called for 2.5 trillion dollars' coronavirus crisis package for the developing countries. Responding to Covid-19 has become the prime necessity as donors are rerouting their funds to meet this health crisis and postponing other development agendas. For example, COP15 on Biological Diversity and the UN climate convention have been postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic. Pursuing the Delta Plan 2100 was already difficult and raising funds will be more difficult in the future as developed nations and donors of foreign aid themselves might suffer from an economic downturn. Therefore, economic and cost-effective nature-based solutions need to be promoted and practised to combat disasters and climate change as the communities already have the skill, capacity and even resources for it. For example, planting trees is inexpensive and the skill is available to almost everyone, unlike the modern approaches.
Bangladesh has lost more than 2,000 hectares of forests while sheltering around 1 million Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar in the last two years. Frequent cyclones are weakening the natural barriers along the country's coastline, further deteriorating coastal zones. Illicit logging, agriculture expansion and unplanned construction have been degrading the coastal environment for a long time now. Bangladesh needs to double its efforts in improving its vegetation coverage for two reasons: initially, to recover the forest areas lost to human settlements and economic activities, meaning greening one-fourth of its areas, and then to ensure that well-established and mature ecosystems protect the people's lives and livelihood from disasters. It is difficult to say if we are too late to secure the multiple benefits of nature-based solutions; however, at the risk of sounding cliché, "better late than never"—we can immediately start connecting ourselves to nature. Bangladesh's vulnerability to disaster and climate change will only increase in the future if we fail to do so.
Nushrat Rahman Chowdhury is a development professional who has worked with various international NGOs including Islamic Relief International, CARE International and Save the Children International in their climate and disaster management departments.