The Bangladesh coastal zone: Improvements in human well-being have come at an unsustainable environmental cost at one of the world's most climate vulnerable regions

Md Sarwar Hossain - ESPA Deltas Project
February 26, 2015
Humanity is facing a new phase of sustainability challenges because over the past two centuries human activities have influenced both earth’s climate and ecosystems. At a global scale climate change has received most of the attention, but in order to tackle sustainability challenges at a regional scale we have to consider all human influences on the environment. Our new study (Hossain et al., 2015) shows how we can address sustainability challenges at a regional scale by applying a co-evolutionary approach to the study of human wellbeing and a range of ‘ecosystem services’, such as food and fresh water, in the south-west coastal area of Bangladesh - one of the most climate vulnerable regions in the world.  Time series data for the coupled social-ecological system were analysed to identify the range of trends, drivers of change and presence of tipping points.
The study reveals that, since the 1980s, increasing GDP and per capita income mirror rising levels of food and inland fish production. As a result, the size of population below the poverty line has reduced by ~10%.  However, non-food ecosystem services such as water availability, water quality and land stability have deteriorated. Although the shrimp industry is contributing to GDP, this is almost certainly a factor in increasing soil and surface water salinity in this region. Further statistical analysis suggest that most of these services experienced change points between 1975 and 1980, and among them, water availability, shrimp farming and maintenance of biodiversity appear to have passed tipping points, beyond which recovery is uncertain. These services are probably reinforcing the trends as a result of positive feedback mechanisms. Furthermore, improvements in human wellbeing even while there is environmental degradation suggests that the Bangladesh delta is possibly at an adaptation stage and is in danger of exceeding it’s ‘safe operating space’ in the near future. 
Therefore, a very important question to answer is ‘will Bangladesh experience tipping points in near future?’ This is the fundamental question that I am hoping to answer at the end of my PhD. I am working with an interdisciplinary project funded by an ESRC/NERC interdisciplinary studentship in the Geography and Environment department at the University of Southampton. Interdisciplinary expertise is one of the major skills that I am developing through this doctoral training. An interdisciplinary supervisory team from Geography (Professor John Dearing), Biological Sciences (Dr Felix Eigenbrod) and Social Sciences (Dr Fiifi Amoako Johnson) is the major strength of my project – although there are challenges in bridging these three disciplines. Besides the conceptual understanding of the complexity science theories, I have developed statistical skills both for physical and social science. Moreover, an overseas institutional visit at Bergen University, Norway allowed me to develop skills in system dynamic modelling. I was also the joint organizer of the NRG BESS conference 2014 which was a really rewarding experience and successful in all respects. 
These results have contributed to the ESPA Deltas project. Working in parallel with this large project and having interaction with the project partners has been an additional experience which I have valued, especially while working on the ESPA Fast Track Paper (Hossain and Dearing 2013). 
Sarwar is an early career researcher in the field of interdisciplinary science. Currently, he is a doctoral researcher in the Geography and Environment department at the University of Southampton. His research interests include ecosystem services, climate change and sustainability science. 
Hossain, M.S., Dearing, J.A., Rahman, M.M., and Salehin, M. 2015. Recent changes in ecosystem services and human wellbeing in the Bangladesh coastal zone. Regional Environmental Change. DOI 10.1007/s10113-014-0748-z (Open access)  
Hossain, M.D. and Dearing, John A. 2013. Recent trends of ecosystem services and human wellbeing in the Bangladesh delta. Southampton, GB, University of Southampton, 64pp. (Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) Deltas Fast Track Reports, 3).