Understanding non-economic effects of climate change

S. M. Saify Iqbal

10th July, 2019 04:32:57 printer

Understanding non-economic effects of climate change

Due to the funnel-shaped northern part of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh experiences tropical cyclone each year which results in the unbearable sufferings of the people living in the coastal region. This country has been experiencing deadly cyclones since the last century. From 1970 to1998, about 38 severe cyclones hit the coastal belt of the country of which 1971 Bhola cyclone and 1991 Gorky cyclone snatched away life of 500,000 and 138,000 people respectively and made million people homeless.

In addition, the south-west coast of the country was stuck by a category 4 cyclone named SIDR on the 15th November in 2007, that took the life of 3,406 people aside over 55,882 physical injuries and destruction of 2.06 million households, death of 1.8 million livestock and poultry and damage to 1 million ha of crops that cumulatively caused total loss and damages worth of 1.7 billion USD.


Back in 2017, the north-western part of this country was hit by flash flood due to excessive rainfall and sudden onrush of water from the upstream hills of Himalaya which destroyed around 1.58 million tons of nearly ready for harvesting Boro rice. Our country never experienced such type of devastating flash flood before.

Whatever, the above-mentioned stats are basically climate induced economic losses which we can quantify or measure and which are widely reported but there are also such type of losses that can’t be expressed by any economic value or can’t be measured; it is called non-economic losses (NELs).


Generally, it is possible to quantify how much crops have been destroyed and how many lives have been lost but what about psychological trauma a family have to go through after losing their dear ones, identical and cultural loss a fisherman or a farmer faces after being displaced away from their homesteads by involving them in other professions which they are not accustomed to do, and mental stress after losing ancestral land where their near and dear ones are buried forever.


In this article, in order to better understand the concept of NELs, at first I will discuss how it got momentum in UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiation and then some ground realities.

Discourse of NELs in UNFCCC Negotiation

The concept of NELs became the focus of the UNFCCC climate change negotiation at COP 18 held in Doha in 2012 after the decision of publishing a technical report by the end of 2013 in order to have a better understanding of the main types of NELs, its conceptual framework, possible assessment methods, and techniques of managing all the non-economic risks resulting from climate change.


About eight types of NELs such as loss of life, loss of health, displacement, loss of territory, cultural transition, loss of indigenous knowledge, loss of biodiversity and loss of ecosystem were mentioned in the technical report based on the recommendations prepared by analyzing some ground evidence. In the same year, the issue of loss and damage was institutionalized at COP 19 (Conference of Parties) with the establishment of an international mechanism under the Cancun Adaptation Framework named Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) to address loss and damage resulted from both sudden onset (cyclone, flood etc.) and slow onset events (sea level rising, salinity intrusion etc.).

To further the progress of WIM, an interim Executive Committee (consisting of 10 members from developed nations and 10 members from developing nations) was formed to prepare a two-year work plan which was ratified at COP 20. The work plan was divided into nine action areas where the objective of Action Area 4 was set to enhance data on and knowledge of non-economic losses, identify ways forward for reducing the risk, and addressing non-economic losses with a specific focus on potential impacts within regions.

Later, NELs was mandated in the Paris Agreement (PA) in 2015 and next year, a side event on non-economic losses titled “Shining the Light on Non-Economic Losses” was organised for the first time under the 44th sessions of the Subsidiary Bodies in Bonn, Germany on 18th may to discuss about the challenges and approaches to address NELs. Also, an expert group was formed, comprising of 11 members from WIM Executive Committee (ExCom), United Nations organisations, academic institutions and International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests(IAITPTF). The first expert group meeting was held in Bonn on 15-16 September, 2016 before COP 22 where they planned to develop narratives for raising awareness on NELs, enhance knowledge & data and mainstream knowledge into planning both locally and globally to address and minimise NELs.

 After few months at COP 22, it was included in the five-year rolling work plan of WIM (which was planned to be implemented from 2017 to 2021)under the strategic work stream (b) titled ‘Enhanced cooperation and facilitation in relation to non-economic losses’. Several activities were set by the executive committee which is currently in progress such as strengthening strategy of raising awareness, developing relevant knowledge products, collecting ground evidence, and disseminating the results both locally and globally.

As addressing NELs became a stand-alone action area in the WIM and got mandated by PA, it can be the one of the top priorities in the international policy arena in the upcoming years by mainstreaming it in development planning, short term and long-term strategies, country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs), implementation plans of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and disaster risk management from the local to the international level.

Ground Realities of NELs

Last year I had a visit to the Gabura union of Shyamnagar upazila under Satkhira district of Bangladesh for three days as a part of the fieldwork for a research project where I discussed with local people about their sufferings due to cyclone each year. I met a woman named Sharabana Khatun who described her tales of sorrows after losing her husband. She said that her husband was used to work as a farmer before cyclone Aila hit their village, but after the ingression of saline water in their village he started to work as a honey and crab collector in Sundarbans. Ironically, one day he was attacked by tiger that took away his life.

“Maybe my husband would have been alive today if Aila wouldn’t have hit our village and he wouldn’t have to go to the Sundarbans” she told us wiping out her uncontrollable tears. Besides this, her relatives started to think her a witch as they thought she was responsible for her husband’s demise. Based on this superstition, they drive her away from their house, even beat her brutally and abandoned her completely.

I also met Mozid Sheikh from the same village who described the difficulties of working in a brick kiln field as he had to migrate to Tala upazila for livelihood because salinity gripped most of the areas of the village that made its land unfertile for agriculture. According to him, he wakes up at 3 am and works till 7 pm without getting enough rest. He uttered that they have been given to eat only smashed potato and dal (pulse curry) with steamed rice three times a day which is not sufficient for their good health and also unhygienic as he along some of his colleagues had suffered from diarrhoea and couldn’t work for several days. He also stated with sorrow that he never thought that he would have to work as a labour in a brick kiln field as he prefers to give his identity as a farmer.

I came to know another interesting fact about cultural transition on my last day at Gabura Union while sipping tea at a local tea stall during sunset.

 I asked the shopkeeper named Narayan Das living in Chadnimukho village about the impacts of disaster on his life. He illustrated how natural disaster has changed the culture of their village over the years. He told that when they were small their parents used to feed them cow’s milk every day for better health which they enjoyed most but now they couldn’t do the same thing for their children because of the absence of grazing field. He added that after harvesting crops his parents made Payesh (Rice pudding) using Darshel, Paizaan, and Chinighani rice but now this is beyond their imagination.

He also reported that there was a time when all people of a family gather once a year especially after the harvest period to celebrate the happiness of new rice. People used to make rice cakes and share among their neighbours but this type of social ties started to vanish after saline water gripped all the agricultural lands which eventually made their village a wasteland.

To conclude, in order to understand the overall loss and damage, non-economic losses must be assessed and quantified. Still, there is not any methodology proposed neither by the global community nor by the government of Bangladesh to valuate NELSs. So a specific set of tools and methodologies is required to assess NELs by identifying the right set of corrective measures.

NELs must be acknowledged as one of the core aspects of climate change negotiation and policy regime as this is the most neglected and forgettable side of climate change negotiation under the UNFCCC. More ethnographic study should be conducted to better understand the existing tradition, culture and indigenous knowledge of a community for future conservation.


The writer is a Senior Research Assistant at Centre for Participatory Research and Development – CPRD.