Salt Water Diary

Climate Change refugees & miscarriages in Bangladesh

By: Maruf Hasan

In the eastern coast of Bangladesh, Salt producers and farmers was worried due to failure to meet the production target in last few years. Eventually which may lead the government may have to import salt in future. But this year the hot summer came as a blessing as the production target is satisfactory so far. Some of the locals believe the salinity of water has increased, which is scientifically proven as well.

This increasing salinity is increasing as the side effect of global warming leading to increasing amount of salt as well as the coastal lands. In those villages along the eastern coast of Bangladesh, researchers from different institution have noticed high rate of miscarriage. As the outcome was unexpected, they investigated further. The conclusion was that climate change might be to blame.

During our conversation with the villagers of small village on the east coast of Bangladesh we revealed, Kulsum Biwi, has two sons and a daughter but wished for a another child last year. The outcome of the pregnancy did not go as per expectation and she miscarried the baby. Moreover she is having high blood pressure. She is among several women who have lost a baby in her village. The possibilities of miscarriages are not unlikely but when scientists who follow the community have noticed an unusual changes with geographical distribution, caught their attraction. Like others they also believe that the climate change is playing as the key factor.

Our trip to those villages was arduous. The visible narrow track leads into a swamp in the dry season, which turns to the sea in rainy season. From a distance the village itself looks like a mound of mud with a few shacks. Villagers were saying that now days they are unable to grow anything here. But before 90’s these swamp lands were paddy fields. Rice production back then was not profitable as it was at least viable. Due to climate change rising waters and increasing salinity have forced the villagers to change to shrimp farming or salt harvesting. It is hard to find paddy field now days.

A scientist from the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Bangladesh (ICDDRB), a research institute mentions this phenomenon as climate change in action. He mentioned the important thing about the effects. On the land the effects are visible, but the effect on the body: that we are unaware.

ICDDRB for the last thirty years have been running a health and demographic surveillance site in and around the coastal areas.  Their study related to pregnant women revealed surprising information, particularly, women inland are less likely to miscarry. Between 2012 and 2017, the ICDDRB scientists registered 12,867 pregnancies in the area they monitor, which encompasses both the hill area and the plains. That’s team also kept the cohort of the pregnant women under surveillance. The Geographic information system based mapping showed, pregnant women living within 20km (12mi) of the coastline and 7m above sea level were 1.3 times more likely to miscarry than women who live inland. The variation may be small but the difference is increasing with time.

In addition, the comparison between the pregnant women living near to salt water (Chakaria) and fresh water (Matlab), the scientists also saw a noticeable difference. In Chakaria, 11% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. In Matlab it is 8%. As miscarriage is related to events induced by effect of extra salt intake, this difference is believed to be occurred due to the amount of salt in the water the women drink – the increase of which is caused by climate change.

Bangladesh, home to some of the world’s first climate change refugees. In last few years, many families have left the coastal plain and moved inland, into the forest hill area. Considering the health conditions of the younger members of the family. These environmental migrants are doing relatively well as they are facing fewer difficulties. In addition they are also in better health than those they left behind.

The rising sea level and the effects due to it has become more prominent now days. Melting of ice in the poles and rising temperature of the planet affecting weather very much. A small change in this causes an inverse effect on the sea level. With a one millibar decrease in atmosphere pressure, the sea level rises by ten millimeters. The coastal areas of Bangladesh facing the effect very much as, series of depressions in atmospheric pressure can cause a considerable rise in water levels in shallow ocean basins.

Rising sea level cause salty water to flow into fresh water rivers and streams, and eventually into the soil. Significantly, it also goes into underground water stores, known as aquifers – where it mixes contaminates the fresh water. Villages of those areas depend of underground source of water via tube wells.

In Chakaria, those living in the coastal zone consume up to 16g per day. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that people consume no more than 5g of salt per day. The tube wells are marked red which have higher concentration of salt. Excessive salt consumption for years causing hypertension, increasing the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Among pregnant women this is causing miscarriages, preeclampsia and eclampsia for those who could move forward with the pregnancy.

To tackle climate change interventions, a lot of money is being thrown. World have seen  Bangladesh, and first climate change refugees here. Everyone is thinking about environmental disasters and the public health issues are being ignored. Across the Indian Ocean, the destruction caused by the 2005 tsunami caused saltwater to contaminate agricultural lands and freshwater drinking sources. They say climate change has a taste in Bangladesh – it tastes of salt. 

Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to changes caused by global warming as it is a low-lying country, full of flood plain land. Today Bangladesh is facing this effect of climate change at first point but other countries elsewhere, are also likely to experience similar repercussions from rising sea levels sooner.

Writer is Dhaka, Bangladesh based health practitioner and member of International AIDS Society