Global climate change research
Saturday, 09 February 2008

By Mahtab Haider

A letter published in the latest (02/02/08) issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, makes for interesting reading. According to researchers at the Imperial College in the United Kingdom, rising sea levels and deeper inland encroachment of seawater, mostly induced by man-made climate change, are now emerging as a major public health threat alongside its severe and well-documented impacts on food-grain production.

According to preliminary findings, the researchers have found that increased salinity of drinking water is likely to have a range of health effects, including increased hypertension rates. Large numbers of pregnant women in the coastal areas are being diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, eclampsia, and hyper tension.

While the link between the impacts climate change will have on water be they shortages, rising salinity or increased rainfall have pointed to a potentially higher incidence of waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and dysentery, the evidence on reported cases of involuntary foetus abortion due to rising salinity in coastal areas has at best been anecdotal. Imperial College researcher Aneire Khan and her colleagues write in The Lancet:

We reviewed hospital records of antenatal check-ups between January and September, 2007, from the Department of Gynaecology in Chalna Upazilla Health Complex a clinic based in one of the ports in the southwestern region of Bangladesh. Of 561 women undergoing antenatal check-ups, 118 (21%) between the ages of 16 and 40 years were diagnosed with some kind of hypertensive disorder. This rate is strikingly higher than the 2.65% seen in Matuail a non-coastal area, and the prevalences of pregnancy-induced systolic and diastolic hypertension of 6.8% and 5.4%, respectively, in another non-coastal rural community of Bangladesh.

With both perinatal and maternal mortality remaining persistently high in Bangladesh, an urgent assessment of this situation is warranted, Aneire and her colleagues have written. The understanding of how human-induced climate change affects the spectrum of public health issues that confront Bangladesh as well as scores of other least developed nations is only now beginning to be unravelled through a series of fractured data sets, and not nearly at the pace at which it will have a meaningful impact on our ability to deal with changing weather cycles.

One of the principal pathways through which climate change is likely to affect human health in the least-developed countries in general is through its impact on food-grain production and consumption. Bangladesh already loses over 50,000 hectares of land to river erosion every year during the monsoon months.

This coupled with the higher intensity and frequency of floods and tropical cyclones are expected to have a disastrous impact on total food-grain production. Given that over 50 per cent of the total labour force is dependent on agricultural employment as a source of livelihood, the combined effects of these phenomena are likely to push hundreds of thousands of families beyond the margins of minimal sustenance. While the government might be able to offset food-grain output shortages with higher levels of imports, the per capita absorption of food-grain is likely to decline through what is known in as entitlement failures which imply that even though food-grain may be available in the markets, sections of the population do not have the means to purchase them.

Given that in rural Bangladesh, income in kind traditionally outstrips money income, and even well-off families are asset rich rather than money-rich and given that the bulk of the farming families are either sharecroppers or subsistence farmers, the impact of lower food-grain production has the potential to be disastrous.

As the authors of the Bangladesh s National Adaptation Plan of Action have pointed out, deteriorating health and nutrition, higher morbidity and susceptibility to disease will result in lower levels of employment, losses in productivity and consequently in output and income further accentuating [the] adverse impacts [of climate change] .

The action plan identifies heat stress, increased pathogenic activity, water pollution, salinity of water and water shortages as the major impacts of climate change in the health sector in the country. It also points out that medical expenses will emerge as an added burden to rural communities, lowering their available budgetary resources for other necessary expenditures. In Bangladesh, coastal areas account for over 30 per cent of the net available cultivable land.

One of the principal reasons that large swathes of coastal land remain un- or under-utilised is because of growing levels of salinity which limits the growth of standing crops. While rising sea levels and saltwater encroachment are the major causal factor behind the impoverishment of countless numbers of farming families, the new threat that has emerged in the past decade is that of shrimp farms along the coast. The rising popularity of shrimp farms may be seen as an adaptation technique that seeks to find a productive use for land rendered non-arable by high salinity, but it is also having a multiplier effect in rendering further tracts of land unsuitable for agriculture.

Climate change researchers increasingly point to growing numbers of farming families forced to sell their agricultural land to shrimp farmers in the coastal belt because the prevalence of saline water in neighboring shrimp farms are causing their land to lose productivity. Needless to say, it is not the marginal farmer who is the prime beneficiary of shrimp farming. A 1997 study by the Bangladesh Ministry of Environment and Forests draws out a series of land-salinity projections based on scenarios that assume moderate to severe climate change.

According to that study, in the case of moderate climate change, by 2030, 10 per cent of the present non-saline land in the country will become slightly saline and a similar amount of slightly saline land will move to a higher salinity class. In the case of severe climate change however, by 2075, over 45 per cent of the present non-saline areas will become slightly saline, and a similar amount of saline land will move further upward in terms of salinity. It was projected at the time that about 196,000 tones of rice is lost annually due to salinity. That figure can be assumed to have grown considerably since.

Under the circumstances, the National Adaptation Plan of Action reveals that productivity of land has grow at an annual rate of 2.8 per cent per annum, to offset the losses of crop due to rising salinity, a near impossible target that the maximum that the country has ever experienced is an annual productivity growth of 1.5 per cent.

While it is only now that the importance that human-induced climate change is getting in the global platform is fuelling a flux of studies that look into the socio-economic phenomena it has set into motion, the data and analysis on these phenomena are still scant, making it near impossible to piece together a cohesive projection for the country s climate change outlook.

One the one hand, adaptations projects need to increase in size and scope to help marginal communities deal with climate change, but at the heart of adaptations strategies will have to be a comprehensive agenda that seeks to identify problems before money is thrown at developing PR-friendly solutions.

In Bangladesh, which has become the veritable poster child for the worst excesses of global climate change, what we don t know about the complex socio-economic factors that are rapidly changing with fluctuating rainfall or increased floods, affecting the lives and livelihood of the country s 140 million people, easily dwarfs what little we do know about it. 

Authors email: mahtabhaider(at the rate of)gmail.com

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