When Climate Becomes a Health Issue: How Vulnerable is Bangladesh?

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Photo by Mahfuzul Hasan Bhuiyan

Life for people living in the Jalekhali village of the Sathkira District in Bangladesh has not been the same since Cyclone Aila made landfull in 2009. In this coastal village, not only did people suffer in the aftermath of the cyclone, but health effects still linger from salinity intrusion into their ponds and other bodies of water. In addition to an increase incidence of water borne diseases among women and children, the increased intake of salt has resulted in increased prevalence of high blood pressure among pregnant women. The issue not only affects Jalekhali but is prevalent across coastal towns and villages in Bangladesh.  In many of these villages the ground well water is also contaminated with arsenic leaving the people with acute shortage of safe drinking water. 

Bangladesh is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world. It is already facing enormous challenges due to extreme events such as droughts, land and coastal flooding, and other unusual weather events. Added to these challenges are the demographic and socio-economic shifts, such as rapid population growth and fast uneven urbanization.  While Bangladesh has made great strides in health indicators – increased life expectancy at birth, continued decline in child and maternal mortalities - climate change could become a hurdle in achieving the desired health outcomes- as it is expected to increase the burden of diseases both, in terms of increased morbidity and mortality.

We recently completed a study, “Climate Change and Health Impacts: How Vulnerable Is Bangladesh and What Needs to be done?”  The study assesses the national vulnerability and impact on major diseases of increased climate variability and extreme events in Bangladesh.  The study also looked at the existing institutional and implementation capacity, the financial resources at the national and local levels, and existing public programs targeted at climate sensitive diseases.

The innovation in the study is that it looks at the effects of climate change on health after accounting for confounding factors such as location, economic wellbeing and access to electricity, water, healthcare, and sanitation. It allows us to identify the most vulnerable populations and the effects that different climatic factors have on their health. 

Three key messages emerge from this study:

• First, the health impacts of increased climate variability and extreme weather events are projected to be significant by 2050, but well-targeted development investments to where they are most needed and the ones that are most cost efficient can mitigate the excess health burden and related economic  costs attributable to climate change.

• Second, rapid urbanization, migration and a growing urban slum population are quickly changing the population dynamics in Bangladesh and this has implications for climate-induced health risks.
• Third, different climatic factors  create different effects and confounding factors such as where someone lives, their economic well-being along with access to water, electricity, sanitation, and healthcare all impact vulnerability. The allocation of public resources to deal with climate health risks in the future should therefore be optimally targeted to reach the most vulnerable locations that are likely to be climate-health hotspots with high climate and health risks—in the most cost-effective manner.

Overall, climate change could impose a considerable additional health burden on the society, which will fall disproportionately on the vulnerable poorer groups of population having lower abilities to adapt to the health risks of climate change. The study furthers the understanding of the health impacts of climate change Bangladesh and proposes ideas to help the most vulnerable. 


Muthukumara Mani

Lead Environmental and Climate Change Economist

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