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Resilience imperative for South Asia

07 November 2022


Martin Raiser :
In July, I became the new World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region. Just over two months later, I stood in the Khanpur tent city in the Dadu district of Pakistan, where tens of thousands of people whose homes had been destroyed by recent floods had taken refuge from the green, putrid water that had swallowed up their livelihoods.
The human suffering that I witnessed in Khanpur has become the new normal across many parts of South Asia. In our region, climate change is not an abstract concept; it is happening now, and fast.  This spring, record-breaking heatwaves brought India and neighboring Pakistan and northern Bangladesh to a standstill. In August, unusually intense monsoon rainfalls - exacerbated by melting glaciers - caused a super flood that submerged one-third of Pakistan, displacing millions and destroying critical infrastructure like hospitals, schools and bridges. More than half of all South Asians, or 750 million people, have been affected by one or more climate-related disasters in the past two decades.
As my World Bank Group colleagues and I prepare for COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, we know that climate change is a serious risk multiplier that hinders sustainable and inclusive development across South Asia and will do so more in the future. Without comprehensive, scaled-up climate action, gains in human development and poverty reduction across South Asia are at risk, and macro-economic fragility will grow.
For South Asia, whose per capita greenhouse gas emissions are well below the global average, climate action first and foremost means investing in climate resilience as an urgent priority . This requires strengthening the systemic resilience of rural landscapes including food, freshwater, and forest systems to boost adaptation to a changing climate, livelihoods, and food security. As South Asia continues to urbanize rapidly, it also requires building climate-resilient cities and infrastructure.  And it demands a people-centric approach to strengthen community resilience through early warning systems and shock-responsive safety nets. It is not that South Asia can afford to ignore greenhouse gas emissions altogether. But in prioritizing climate action, countries in the region should look for synergies between adaptation, mitigation and development, such as relying on nature-based solutions for water resource management or building more efficient cities to reduce the need for cooling.   
The World Bank Group has already ramped up our support for adaptation and mitigation efforts in the region through our South Asia Climate Roadmap. We recently completed in-depth Country Climate and Development Reports (CCDR) for Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan that have a clear message:  The urgent need to increase domestic and international investment in resilience across the region's roads, hydropower dams, coastal communities and agriculture, as well as its rapidly growing cities, which are full of informal settlements that are at highest risk. To do this, there are two important gaps that need to be addressed.
First, accessing financing for climate resilience projects remains a challenge for many countries.  Continuing high inflation, slow economic growth, and the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic have constrained the fiscal space of governments across South Asia. Unlocking private investment in climate resilience and adaptation has proven difficult.
A combination of measures is likely needed to fix this: regulation to incentivize private climate action and reduce climate risks on corporate and financial balance sheets, more concessional funding to complement insufficient revenue streams from investments in resilience, and new financial instruments that make use of markets to generate new, cost-effective solutions. Our CCDRs contain several practical suggestions, but let's be honest: none of us have ready-made solutions - our diagnostics are a way to begin the conversation.  One challenge in South Asia on which much is known already is the low revenue base of most governments. This is a constraint not just for climate action but for development more generally. Greater domestic resource mobilization must complement increased support from the international community to effectively leverage private sector finance.  
Secondly, investing in the well-being, education, and health of citizens can pay huge dividends in boosting the productivity, growth, and resilience of economies. Investments in human capital, increased availability of and access to productive jobs, and improving social protection systems can help communities better prepare for - and respond to - the increasing and inevitable climate shocks they will face.  Timely, equitable development can reduce people's vulnerability to climate change, potentially halving the number of people that will fall into poverty because of climate change by 2030.
The role of local communities and the partnership with civil society is key here. Across South Asia, the World Bank Group is helping countries to strengthen this critical 'soft' infrastructure through community resilience projects.  For example, thanks to decades of systematic investments in cyclone preparedness, Bangladesh has become a global leader in disaster risk reduction. In Nepal, the World Bank's Forests for Prosperity project works to increase community benefits from forests by including women and other socially excluded groups, thereby incentivizing sustainable forest management practices. Such solutions can be highly cost effective. For cash-strapped governments, investing in efficient delivery mechanisms could be the cheapest form of climate action.
As I write, the secondary impacts in Pakistan from the catastrophic flooding that I saw firsthand in the Khanpur tent city are only just beginning. With the flood waters stubbornly slow to recede, diseases such as malaria, typhoid, and dengue fever are taking hold while millions face food insecurity. With COP27 just around the corner, we need everyone to play their part to deliver increased finance for resilience and to ensure we are on a more equitable, prosperous, and cleaner development path in South Asia and across the globe.

(The writer is Vice President for the South Asia Region, World Bank Group).

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