In Deep Waters: Is climate change impacting the reproductive health of women in coastal Bangladesh?

The adverse consequences of climate change is being felt, directly and indirectly, on the health and wellbeing of rural women living along the western coast of Bangladesh. Surveys and studies indicate a link between increased salinity in the water sources and the reproductive health of these women.

Rafiqul Islam Montu
| Updated: March 15th, 2021

Impact of climate change has affected the reproductive health of women in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Dakop Upazila, Bangladesh

Early this year, 42-year-old Buli Begum went into labour, but before she could be taken from her village Nalian in Sutrakhali Union to reach the Dakop upazila (sub-district) Health Complex, 20 kilometres (km) away, her baby was born. Dakop lies 290 km south west of the national capital Dhaka.

The baby survived, but Buli Begum died due to excessive bleeding. “Had there been medical help available closer home, she may have survived,” Moniruzzaman Ghazi, her husband, told Gaon Connection, despondently.

Thirty one kilometres away from Buli Begum’s home, something similar happened, at Pratapnagar village, Asashuni upazila. Halima Begum also went into labour but she was luckier. The 23-year-old survived child birth, but only just. Her labour pains began shortly after Cyclone Amphan hit her village last May. Her husband, Nur Islam Tuku, a day labourer, had to row her to a clinic at Nawabeki Bazar in Shyamnagar upazila, 35 kms away, on the other side of the Sibsha river. The roads were submerged for more than nine months in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan. Halima Begum’s baby survived too, but was underweight and suffered other health complications.

Adding to the woes of the women, their villages are frequently hit by natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

It is not uncommon for women in low lying coastal areas in Khulna district of Bangladesh where Nalian and Pratapnagar are located, to be forced to travel considerable distances to reach their closest sub-district health centres. The community health facilities at Nalian and Pratapnagar villages in Sutrakhali union were dysfunctional, and both Buli Begum and Halima Begum had to make the excruciating journey to the upazila health centres, for help.

Adding to the woes of the women, their villages are frequently hit by natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. Global warming and climate change are exacerbating these disasters. A number of research studies show how the warming of oceans is leading to more intense tropical cyclones. Also, as sea levels rise, coastal areas in Bangladesh lose land and face salinity ingress. Sufferings of coastal women have multiplied manifold.

Also Read: The Hungry Tide: As the river swallows their land, villagers in Bangladesh turn environmental refugees

“Before, we could go to the upazila headquarters by road. Now we have to row half the way,” Kartik Mandal of Hajatkhali village in Uttar Bedkashi union of Koyra upazila, told Gaon Connection. He recounted how Cyclone Amphan had turned the road into a canal and communication was almost entirely cut off.  The local health facilities either completely collapsed in the aftermath of the cyclone or were hopelessly under equipped to deal with emergencies, he said.

Sufferings of coastal women have multiplied manifold. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

“As most roads in the area have been damaged in the cyclone and floods, reaching the disaster hit areas quickly enough is difficult,” SK Tohirul Haque, medical officer of Koyra upazila Health Complex in Khulna district, told Gaon Connection. Similarly, it is not easy for patients to reach the hospital. “There is no X-ray machine here, nor is there a facility for ultrasonography,” Haque said.

“There are many problems in reaching health services to people in marginalised areas. Natural disasters disconnect them even further,” Sujat Ahmed, civil surgeon at Khulna Medical College, told Gaon Connection.

Climate change worsening the health crisis 

It is no secret anymore that global warming and climate change are leading to warming of the oceans and rise in sea levels. As a direct consequence of the sea waters rising and flooding the coastal villages, saline content in the water sources and soil in coastal areas of Bangladesh have gone up alarmingly, Atiq Rahman, executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2007 along with Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told Gaon Connection. He pointed out how, in the west coast of the country, the villages are located in low lying areas and their water sources are often inundated by rising sea water, resulting in increased salinity in the groundwater.

These women have to collect water from far away. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

According to a study last year, Impact of Salinity on Women’s Health in Coastal Bangladesh, undertaken by a non-profit Leaders-Bangladesh, women who used water with excessive saline content in it were prone to uterine inflammation and uterine ulcers, which in turn could lead to cancer. Women in coastal areas spend long hours fishing in salty waters. The water they bathe and wash their clothes in is also high in salt content, that, among other things also invariably leads to vaginal infections. 

The reproductive health of these women is seriously compromised as the water they use to drink, wash and bathe is causing serious health problems. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Researchers from the Imperial College, London undertook a survey on salinity and maternal health titled Climate Change and the Environment recently on how salt water entering drinking water sources in low lying coastal areas could impact health and increase the risk of high blood pressure especially in pregnant women. And one of the worst affected countries in the world was Bangladesh.

Health services do not reach these women and kids. They cannot go to the doctor unless there is an emergency. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

According to Asma Begum Shilpi, project manager of the survey, “Tests revealed that the salt levels in the system of some of the women surveyed in Dakop was seven times more than what was permissible.”

“About sixty per cent of the people in the region drink salt water, which is particularly harmful to pregnant mothers,” Santosh Kumar Majumder, gynecology consultant, Dakop upazila Health Complex, told Gaon Connection. It causes high blood pressure which in turn may cause eclampsia, or seizures during pregnancy. These may lead to miscarriages or an underweight and malnourished baby, Majumder explained.

According to Environmental Health Perspective, a journal published with the support of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, too, the salt intake from potable water in the coastal villages of Bangladesh exceeded recommended limits, and it could be aggravated further by climate change-induced sea-level rise.

There is no proper sanitation and drainage system for these people. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Sea-level rise, salinity ingress and miscarriages

In 2003 and again in 2011, Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services, a government agency in Bangladesh, found that people in the Dakop region, especially women, consumed 18 to 20 times more salt than what WHO prescribed.

As a result, the number of pregnancy crises and premature deaths in this region is much higher than other parts of the country, Hassan Mehdi, chief executive of the Coastal Livelihoods and Environment Action Network (CLEAN), a non-government research organisation, pointed out.

Between 2012 and 2016, the International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, monitored 12,867 women from conceiving to childbirth. Among them were women from coastal and hilly areas. The study found that women living in coastal areas (within 20 kilometres of the sea) were more likely to miscarry than women living in the highlands.

Children grow up in areas affected by natural disasters. Many are afflicted with various diseases. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Also Read: The ‘hanging village’ of Bangladesh: A glaring reminder of climate change refugees

According to Mehdi, embankment management, so that the water sources in the villages do not get flooded with salt water, is key to ensuring well being  in the area. The Bangladesh government has taken an initiative to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment in the region. “Efforts have to be made for economic and social development there. Resolving the water crisis will go a long way in reducing the health risks in this area,” he reiterated.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.