Bangladesh Gets a New Climate Academy

by |January 9, 2019

Bangladesh takes new step to integrate climate services into planning around food security

During a recent training in Dhaka, Imran Nizami recalled his “aha” moment.

“In (the city) of Barisal, heavy rains and floods destroyed the inventories and businesses of many of our entrepreneurs in 2018,” he said. “If I knew at the beginning of last year all that I’ve learned in the last five days, I could have helped them avoid these losses.

Nizami works on a project called Sanitation Marketing Systems, which trains and supports local entrepreneurs to provide improved and affordable services to poor and disadvantaged communities in Bangladesh. The availability of safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in the world’s poorest areas is a key component of many sustainable development goals, including food security.

Nizami was among twenty professionals who participated in a weeklong course on climate services. It was the first in-country training organized by the new Bangladesh Academy for Climate Services. The academy, known as ‘BACS’, is the first of its kind in the country and aims to incorporate climate thinking in decision-making processes across all sectors and all branches of government.

Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) is one of the founding partners of the new academy, along with the International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, and the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.

BACS is also one of the early outputs of the IRI-led Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow (ACToday) project, part of Columbia World Projects. ACToday is building connections among scientists, government, humanitarian agencies and the food security sector in Bangladesh and five other countries. It aims for decision makers to have the best and most useful climate information they need to grow more nutritious food and feed more people.

Because of its geographic location, Bangladesh faces a number of recurring climate-related risks, and the country has made significant strides over the decades to reduce people’s vulnerabilities to some of these risks.

In 1970, for example, Cyclone Bhola killed more than 500,000 people in a week’s time. Three and half decades later, when Cyclone Sidr, a storm of similar strength, tore through the country, the casualties numbered in the low thousands.

“Bangladesh is a leading example when it comes to cyclone preparedness,” says Mélody Braun, who is leading ACToday activities in the country and is coordinating with national and international partners there.

Besides cyclones, Bangladeshis must also contend with risks that come from both short- and near-term climate variability. Periodic killer heat waves that greatly impact urban areas, for example, or a temperamental monsoon system that can leave farming communities at the mercy of droughts in some years, and excessive flooding in others. Both extremes can ruin harvests and cause widespread malnourishment and famine. Long-term climate change is expected to make the situation worse.

“Bangladesh may be one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, but it is also a country where almost everyone–all the way to the smallest communities–is aware of climate change, thanks to the massive awareness-raising campaigns on these issues and numerous adaptation initiatives,” says Saleemul Huq, director of ICCCAD. “Now we have to move further into mainstreaming of climate into all sectors of the economy.”

In order to do this, the country has to better integrate climate information at all time scales into its government planning and preparedness work. In Bangladesh, there are many agencies across multiple ministries responsible for data collection, forecasting and dissemination, but they’re not set up to share information in a useful, efficient way.

“Before this training, I didn’t have any experience with climate information and yet I work with experts to implement resilience planning and agrometeorological services.”

“There is a gap in understanding and communication between climate scientists, policy planners, development and extension organizations, and downstream users of climate information,” says Ziaul Islam, who works in the Ministry of Planning. “In this regard, the new Bangladesh Academy for Climate Services can be a powerful platform to promote cross-sectoral dialogue on climate.”

For example, the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, which is under the Ministry of Defense, has a mandate to produce weather and seasonal forecasts and other climate information. The Flood Forecasting and Warning Center, under the Ministry of Water Resources, produces flood-related information. Guidance on disaster preparedness is provided under yet a different government body–the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.

For key potential users of all this information, such as the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, navigating the current setup is complicated. The recent training, as well as previous meetings, showed that there is a strong interest to change things.

A measure of success would be if reliable and practical climate services are able to make it down to decision makers like Imran Nizami, who have little or no background in climate science, but who nonetheless are making decisions that could be improved by climate information.

“This is IRI’s strength,” says IRI director Lisa Goddard. “We bring together both the providers and users of climate information to help them co-design effective climate services. Part of this is to allow them to identify their information needs at different timescales, and then align those needs with what already exists and how well it has been working.”

Goddard says IRI’s aim is to help build decision-support systems that use climate information translated into the most relevant variables, formats and timescales for the decisions at play. Different stakeholders have different needs, and this is why the recent BACS training in Dhaka was so critical.

“Before this training, I didn’t have any experience with climate information and yet I work with experts to implement resilience planning and agrometeorological services,” says Hossain Ish-rath Adib, who works in the Bangladesh office of the UK-based nonprofit, Practical Action.

Adib especially valued the sessions on using forecasts of different time scales and understanding the uncertainties to consider in each.

“When we’re dealing with probabilistic forecasts, we should always have a ‘Plan B’,” he says, “because if we take a decision based on a 99 percent probability, what will we do if the 1 percent event turns out to be true? The communities we work in are depending on us. We have responsibilities, we have skin in the game.”

The course will hopefully be the first of many that BACS will offer to early-to-mid-level professionals and students like Adib and Nazimi who are working in fields related to agriculture and food systems, disaster preparedness and response and public health.

Below, scenes from the first in-country training of the Bangladesh Academy for Climate Services in Dhaka. Photographs by Dannie Dinh/IRI and Ashraf Haque/ICCCAD.

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