Climate Change: Encroaching saltwater threatens coastal residents

Rising sea levels, frequent storms leading to increasing salinity in many parts of Bangladesh

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One of the more insidious effects of climate change that plagues many parts of Bangladesh is saltwater encroachment. 

As climate change leads to rising sea levels and more frequent storms, saltwater has been invading freshwater aquifers across the country. Drinking saltwater can lead to severe health complications, including diarrhoea and heart disease, while excessive soil salinity levels make it near impossible to grow anything.

One part of the country that has been heavily affected by salinity encroachment is Gabura union of Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira. The 32,000 strong population of the area is dependent on only two designated ponds for drinking water, and saltwater invaded both following Cyclone Amphan in May 2020.

Irani Khatun, a 26-year-old mother of three, said she was concerned about the effect drinking the saltwater may be having on her and her children.

“My son has started getting rashes and blotches on his skin, and I fear that it may be from the water,” she said. 

According to Unicef’s Global Climate Risk Index 2021, Bangladesh is the 15th most risky nation for children to face climate change.

‘We can’t even grow grass for the cows’

Shuruj Miah, a 56-year-old farmer turned muezzin, reminisced about his younger days, when his father had 10-15 cows that gave fresh milk each day.

“Forget about my grandson, my own son never drank milk the way we did. In the evening, my mother used to call all the children of the neighbourhood and we used to each drink a fresh glass of cow milk. Now, you will barely see any cows as grass does not grow here anymore,” he said. 

Several other farmers agreed with him that increasing salinity levels had made it near impossible to grow anything in the soil.

Sundarbans, the world’s biggest mangrove forest, which works as a shield from cyclones for the people of coastal areas Dhaka Tribune

“Even a few years ago we had a dozen cows, but now we have just three as every passing cyclone makes it so that we can grow less and less. We can’t even grow grass anymore,” said Mojibor, a second-generation farmer at Gabura.  

As food becomes scarcer, malnutrition is increasing in the area.

“Mothers are the first victims of malnutrition. At first, the female children are married off, then they themselves start bearing children, despite not being of proper age. On top of that, lack of nutritious food affects the health of these mothers and their children. As a result, children of this area are frequently being born with pneumonia, jaundice, diarrhoea, and various skin diseases,” said Dr Musarrat Yeasmin, Child Specialist at Shyamnagar Upazila Health Complex. 

Saltwater encroachment driving climate migration 

A large number of climate migrants to Dhaka are being driven towards the capital as encroaching saltwater is making their home districts uninhabitable, said Ismail Hossain, district coordinator of NGO Shushilan in Barguna.

“Crisis of freshwater and nutritious food is not something new, especially for people in Patharghata or Kalapari, which are adjacent to the sea. Most of the people of these areas live within poverty. In the past few years, I have seen children suffering from malnutrition,” he said. 

Many people migrate from Barguna to Dhaka in search of employment every year, and a significant portion are women, he added. 

Union health complex of Gabura, the only medical facility for 30,000 people of this union, mostly remains closed or unattended by doctors Dhaka Tribune

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, nearly 700,000 Bangladeshis have been displaced each year by natural disasters in the last decade.

Dr Atiq Rahman, executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, stated that loss of livelihoods, especially in agriculture, due to climate change was the main driver of this displacement.  

A grim future?

The coastal zone of Bangladesh covers 32% of the country and hosts nearly 35 million people. Climate change driven events like sea level rise, cyclones, storm surges, coastal inundation, salinity intrusion and land erosion are the main natural disasters affecting the coast. 

According to a World Bank report in 2018, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar are two areas of the country most vulnerable to climate change. People of these areas could suffer a decline in living standards of more than 18% by 2050.

“Temperature rise is a slow and gradual process. We might not sense it today, but very soon our children will bear the brunt of it. With rising temperatures, they will suffer from various respiratory diseases along with existing waterborne diseases,” said Dr Atiq. 

Ghatibhanga river of Kutubjom Dhaka Tribune

Accepting the fact that a specialized program is needed to address the climate-induced food crisis in various areas, Director General of Bangladesh National Nutrition Council Khalilur Rahman said such plans were currently not a priority.

“Central level planning doesn’t work to tackle the nutrition crisis of different regions. Under our umbrella program, we try to accommodate each region according to its unique characteristics, but we don’t have any plan to launch separate initiatives.”

This story was published with the support of Bay of Bengal Story Grants 2021 project of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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