Adapt or die: Bangladesh joins the race to climate-proof cities

Bangladesh’s congested capital Dhaka joins the ranks of South Asian cities drawing up plans to prepare for a hotter, wetter future.

With around 704 million people living in urban areas in South Asia, the race is on to equip cities for a hotter, more dangerous future. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Lashed by torrential rains and scorched by brutal heatwaves, Dhaka’s workers - from rickshaw drivers to those working in clothes factories - are exposed more than most to the reality of the climate emergency.

Bangladesh’s capital, one of the world’s most congested and polluted mega-cities, is home to around 10 million people, including thousands who have fled floods and droughts in other parts of a country that is on the frontline of climate change.

Managing these huge numbers while also climate-proofing the riverside city is a huge challenge but it is an urgent one that city authorities are hoping to address with their first climate action plan, which was launched in May.

“Transforming Dhaka was critical towards making Bangladesh green and climate-resilient,” said Environment Minister Saber Hossain Chowdhury at the launch.

The plan will serve as a roadmap to enable the city to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and includes strategies to help it cope with ever more frequent floods and heatwaves.

It includes proposals to switch to renewable energy sources, introduce electric vehicles, increase green spaces, restore natural drainage systems, establish early flood warning systems and ensure a secure water supply by 2030.

Dhaka is just the latest city in the region to seek to face the climate challenge head-on.

Asia was the world’s most disaster-hit region from climate hazards in 2023, including floods, storms and heatwaves, and the region is also warming faster than other areas, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

With around 704 million people living in urban areas in South Asia, the race is on to equip cities for a hotter, more dangerous future.

First of all, cities must set baselines for greenhouse gas emissions and risks so that they can measure progress over time, said Shruti Narayan, managing director at the C40 Cities network, a global network of cities working on climate action.

“Data-driven targets and monitoring is critical to turning the plans into reality,” Narayan told Context.

The C40 platform helps cities align their climate plans with the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

More than 60 cities have announced such plans under the platform so far, including some of Asia’s biggest urban areas.

The place we got ourselves into is not created by the climate crisis alone but the city climate plan provides us a hitch to shift away from a predatory pattern of building cities to protecting our ecology as we imagine a different future.

Mehedi Ahsan, campaigner, International Union for Conservation of Nature

The Indian cities of MumbaiChennai and Bengaluru have already adopted climate plans and Karachi in Pakistan is drawing up its own blueprint.

The stakes are high: the Asian Development Bank says that unless planet-heating emissions are cut, the collective economy of six countries - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka - could shrink by up to 1.8 per cent every year by 2050 and 8.8 per cent by 2100, on average.

Already, the livelihoods of more than 200 million people in these countries are threatened by the rapid loss of snow cover in the Himalayas and rising sea levels, according to the ADB.

Financing green ambitions

Cities consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and house 50 per cent of the global population. More than 10,000 cities have committed to cutting emissions and adapting to climate hazards.

As part of its climate plan, Dhaka’s twin municipalities - north and south - established emissions inventories for 2021-22 by identifying most polluting sectors, and then set a target of cutting 70 per cent of emissions by 2050.

One challenge is financing the required changes; cities in the Global South have long complained about richer countries not paying their fair share to cover the costs of climate change.

This year’s COP29 climate summit in Azerbaijan is expected to focus on setting a goal for the levels of climate finance that will be needed from 2025 onwards to help poorer nations curb emissions, adapt to worsening extreme weather and higher seas, and respond to unavoidable climate “loss and damage”.

In the meantime, some cities in the Global South have invested in innovative digital tools, like digital twins, to build climate resilience, while others scramble for resources.

Mumbai - the richest municipality in India with an annual budget of nearly 600 billion Indian rupees (US$7.2 billion) in 2024-25 - was able to allocate around 100 billion Indian rupees (US$1.2 billion) for various climate actions like expanding tree cover, reviving urban parks, and managing floods.    

Mumbai’s climate allocation dwarfs the entire budget of northern Dhaka - 53 billion taka (US$450.3 million) in 2023-24 - which means the resource-strapped city must prioritise cheaper actions, said Md Sirajul Islam, chief town planner of Dhaka South City Corporation.

Jaya Dhindaw, executive program director on sustainable cities at WRI India, that developed the climate plans for several Indian cities, said realistic, achievable actions help set the pace for progress.

For example, in early June, Bengaluru’s deputy chief minister announced extended opening hours for urban parks to provide shade for the city’s people.

“With low-hanging actions like these, you can drive cities’ confidence that climate actions are doable projects,” Dhindaw said.

However, Dhaka will need funding to raise the share of renewable power to 85 per cent, treat a massive amount of organic waste to stem methane emissions, and ensure that 95 per cent of vehicles are electric.

The city might need to call on global donors, said Jubaer Rashid, the Bangladesh country representative of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, a global network of local and national governments.

“We will work closely with city officials to help them develop proposals for fundraising,” said Rashid, who worked with Dhaka’s municipalities on their climate plans.

Cities reimagined

Urban planners and environmental activists said that another priority must be pushing back against the poor planning that has exacerbated problems caused by the changing climate.

For example, in the northern part of Dhaka, green cover has shrunk by 66 per cent in last three decades alone with canals and fields destroyed to make space for densely populated residential zones.

The city’s rapid, unplanned growth has choked rivers like the Buriganga and blocked drains causing worse flooding, said urban planner Mehedi Ahsan, who represents the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Bangladesh.

The climate action plan aims to restore the canals and expand green spaces to cover 25 per cent of the city by 2050.

But with up to 2,000 people arriving in northern Dhaka every day, including many fleeing floods and droughts in other parts of the country, time is not on the authorities’ side.

“The place we got ourselves into is not created by the climate crisis alone but the city climate plan provides us a hitch to shift away from a predatory pattern of building cities to protecting our ecology as we imagine a different future,” said Ahsan.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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