My research tries to understand the connections between climate change, vulnerability and complex notions of risk. For the past nine years, I’ve been working on those issues in the context of Bangladesh, currently in Dhaka and previously in more rural settings. All of my research since my PhD has looked at local priorities and realities of climate change, trying to understand how communities perceive climate change, what impact climate change has, how that impact varies between different vulnerable groups within the community, and finally, what are the various response strategies they have developed.
More broadly, I’m trying to answer why people act the way they act. Why do they make particular decisions? So a lot of my work involves having in-depth conversations and using a storytelling approach to try to understand motivations. From there, I’m interested in why the impact and responses are so different – the differential can give us a huge insight into why some people and groups are more vulnerable than others.
Why did you decide to do research at the local level?
I’m passionate about communities! Meeting people in the field is what I enjoy the most. When I’m thinking about a theoretical issue, I can think of a participant who illustrated that issue with their story and it’s not just number 55 in my interview sheet – it’s someone with a name, someone I’ve shared a cup of tea with. The personal connection translates to teaching as well: it helps students understand the theories better because they have something more human to relate to.
Why is it important to study climate change at the local level?
If you look at any given international or national intervention, whether it’s going to be accepted, modified or completely rejected by the locals depends on its fit within their understandings of climate change and their everyday realities. So to create effective climate resilience strategies, it’s crucial to really understand how the community works, which requires a lot of fieldwork and examining gender histories as well as cultural and power dynamics. And this applies to all interventions at the local level, not just those seeking to address climate change.
What frustrates you as a researcher?
Being asked, “do the urban poor in Bangladesh understand what climate change is?” It always shocks me: it implies that they (and urban poor in other developing countries) may not know what climate change is, and that climate change or development experts somehow know better. The slum dwellers I work with in Dhaka may not use the same scientific terminology, but of course they know what climate change is. More broadly, the question frustrates me because it implies that the people suffering from climate change in developing countries have to learn something, when in fact they have so much to teach us, the researchers and experts, about climate change and resilience in their local context. I sometimes feel there has been too much focus on the flow of knowledge from experts into communities and not from communities to experts. One is not more important than the other, and there is a need to consider: how can we better integrate these different forms of knowledge?
What do you like about working as a researcher at GDI?
GDI has given me great flexibility to conduct fieldwork. I’ve been able to go to Bangladesh for three or four months in a year and be in a community every day from 6am to 6pm or even longer. That has given me crucial space to challenge any pre-existing notions or opinions, to immerse myself in the community and be open and reflective, which is key in allowing others to teach you something. Even experts can become entrenched.
How does your work address global inequalities which is one of the University of Manchester’s five research beacons?
Currently, mainstream work on reducing inequality doesn’t take into account the different risks that people face as a result of climate change, so the interventions that are aimed at reducing inequality are likely to be less effective. And inequality affects how people respond to climate change – my research looks at how those responses differ and why, and that can point to what kinds of interventions will help even out the playing field. The majority of those affected by climate change are already poor and are likely to become poorer as a result of climate change.
What research project(s) have been highlights for you?
The Pot Gan, which is not a research project itself, but a traditional Bangladeshi folk performance that I developed in cooperation with the University of Dhaka to explore the findings of my latest research on climate change and land tenure.
It came about because you can have an impact as a researcher if you analyse data, publish papers, disseminate your work and teach students, but I always wanted to go a step further. The Pot Gan is my attempt to give something back to the community I studied rather than parachute in, get my data and run back.
What research is the Pot Gan based on?
My ongoing work on urban climate change resilience and vulnerability. Most of the research is forthcoming, but broadly looks at how climate change and its impact influence land tenure and how land tenure may influence the impact of climate change.
It’s fascinating to me how climate change is so closely linked to other risks the urban poor face: imagine you are renting a house in a slum in Dhaka for £20 per month. The landlord decides to undertake a really positive intervention: upgrading the house to make it more resistant to climate change, namely flooding. Your rent may go up to £25-30. That might only sound like a few pints in the pub for us, but in Dhaka it may mean that the renter can no longer afford to live in that house and has to move to other housing that is even more prone to flooding. Or they endure the rent increase, but that exacerbates a different vulnerability by raising the economic pressures they are under. The intervention was positive and lowered one risk, but the renter either hasn’t escaped it at all, or has found another risk is increased.
If I went to visit Dhaka, what’s the one thing I should do or see?
My best days in Dhaka have always involved getting up at sunrise armed with my camera and wandering around the streets in Old Dhaka: the most captivating thing about Dhaka is simply watching life unfold in front of you. You don’t have to look hard! Everyone should definitely go on a walking tour with the Urban Study Group; they are a nonprofit organisation campaigning for the conservation of architectural heritage in Old Dhaka. I’d also take you to a restaurant in the slum I work in; I think it makes the best singara in all of Dhaka and a few streets down you can get the most amazing fresh coconut water! In the evening I’d recommend Jatra Biroti for some live folk music and amazing vegetarian food.