This article was originally published on Asian Development Blog and is republished with permission.
Farmers worldwide have well-known coping mechanisms to deal with seasonal uncertainties, variable weather, and natural hazards. To sustain consumption, they may switch crops, work longer hours, or sell land or other productive assets. Some even migrate to less disaster-prone areas to avoid chronic poverty.
However, a recent study by ADB found that such centuries-old strategies may fail when weather shocks cannot be anticipated or when they are so powerful that they create complete devastation. Indeed, there is growing evidence that climate change is amplifying the occurrence and severity of calamitous weather, especially in developing Asia.
A global team of scientists who investigated extreme weather events worldwide in 2014 confirmed that human-caused changes in climate played a role in half of them. Such intense weather changes are not only happening in developing Asia more often than any other region of the world, but over time their numbers have also been rising more rapidly in this region (see chart).
The likelihood of catastrophic events resulting from climate change is growing. Rising greenhouse gas emissions intensify the cycles of droughts and floods, while elevated sea levels make coastal flooding more severe after a storm. The effects of disasters are further amplified by poverty in low-income countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Low-lying Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. 70% of its population lives in flood-prone regions, and one-fourth is affected by cyclones, which produce storm surges up to 10 meters high every three years. Pakistan, on the other hand, is highly vulnerable to natural disasters due to its diverse terrain, ranging from mountains in the north to floodplains and deserts in the south.
Climate shocks affect both farm, non-farm workers
From 2000 to 2015, Bangladesh suffered 29 major floods and 40 storms, resulting in nearly 8,000 deaths and $5.6 billion in losses from damage to property, crops, and livestock. During the same period, Pakistan experienced 45 floods and 5 storms from 2000 to 2015, which caused 6,000 fatalities and $20.7 billion in economic losses.
Agriculture is the economic sector most at risk from climate. Over 40% of Bangladeshis work in agriculture, which accounts for one-fifth of the country’s GDP. In Pakistan, agriculture employs about half of the labor force, and contributes a quarter of GDP.
In both countries, exposure to more frequent and intense floods and storms leaves long-lasting impacts on peoples’ income and cash. For poor farmers, who rely totally on agriculture for their livelihood, recovery takes much longer.
Natural disasters particularly harm the rural poor. By destroying productive assets acquired only after years of hard work, climate events push poor farmers into even deeper poverty, making it harder to recover their pre-disaster consumption levels and rebuild assets. Rural non-agricultural workers are also hit, because the sector usually revolves around agricultural production: food processing, making manure from plant waste or handicrafts from byproducts. Affected households stand to lose their livelihoods, savings, and creditworthiness.
Farmers in Bangladesh, Pakistan respond differently to climate shocks
Climate change has made it much more difficult to predict extreme weather shocks. Using two unique datasets covering 800 families in Bangladesh and 2,000 families in Pakistan, we found evidence that affected villagers do change their employment strategies and savings behavior in response to these shocks.
Facing a sudden loss in income from floods or storms, Bangladeshi farmers take up work outside of agriculture whereas off-farm laborers put in more hours at work to earn a few extra takas, while in Pakistan farmers move away from agriculture as an immediate response but then return to their fields about a year later. Instead of stashing away some cash as savings, farmers in both countries invest in livestock to revive their post-disaster agricultural activities and sustain future consumption.
These strategies help villagers overcome the immediate losses from disaster exposure. It is a good example of how farmers finance the reconstruction process on their own in addition to the post-disaster recovery funds they may receive from the government.
Although lack of access to cash may be responsible for farmers’ reluctance—or inability—to migrate permanently, the evidence shows that guaranteed availability of humanitarian aid in response to natural disasters slows down migration and helps farmers return to their fields.
Post-disaster recovery aid, however, is not enough for farmers living in high-risk areas. Public policies in Bangladesh and Pakistan should thus consider financing farmers’ migration to safer locations to reduce their income vulnerability, and creating non-farm jobs in rural areas to boost the overall climate resiliency of the rural poor.