Impact of climate change on diseases in rural and urban Bangladesh
Chris Wright and Heather Bruer

Bangladesh has become one of the world’s leaders in climate change adaptation. Thanks to advances in our ability to confront big storms that are being amplified by climate change, the number of people dying has decreased dramatically. The collaborations between the government and non-governmental organisations have positively contributed to this achievement.

One of the difficulties of dealing with climate change is that it also devastatingly amplifies health risks to diseases like malaria, dengue, and diahorrea. According to the World Health Organisation, even if continued economic growth and advancements in health are assumed around the world, the world will still have to deal with at least 250,000 additional deaths per year by 2030. This is a chilling number, especially since the “strongest mortality impacts are expected in South Asia.” They also predict that “the burden of disease from climate change in the future will continue to fall mainly on children.”

A woman who lives in Dumuria village in Gabura union in Southern Bangladesh suffers from a skin infection from using water from a deep tube well which has high levels of salinity and arsenic. Photo: Stephanie Andrei

According to Dr Iqbal Kabir, currently studying the impacts of climate change in Bangladesh at the University of Newcastle in Australia, slower acting health impacts is a major threat to Bangladesh’s ability to develop in the future. Bangladesh has been placed on top of the risk index of climate vulnerable countries by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They predict that the lives and livelihoods of 36 million people in the southern coast are already directly affected by climate change. Dr Kabir notes that for across Bangladesh, “there is a knowledge gap regarding climate change and public health which is putting multitudes at risk.” This knowledge gap exists not just for everyday people, but for administrators and government representatives as well.

Believe it or not, Bangladesh became one of the first countries in the world to establish a specific Climate Change and Health Promotion Unit (CCHPU) under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This was a big step in the right direction. In 2009, the Bangladesh Climate Change Action Plan also began to address the health risks of climate change, including surveillance systems for existing and new disease risks

It is going to take much more than a good plan and a government department to deal with the health impacts in rural and urban areas. The increasing number of migrants into the city who are unable to find jobs or adequate housing are putting pressure on the city’s infrastructure like never before. The city is getting hotter and more crowded. When combined with the informal settlements that continue to expand around the city, it creates a breeding ground for mosquitos that may carry Dengue and Malaria.

Dr Kabir warns that “global warming will worsen many everyday health problems in Bangladesh, including malaria, dengue and diahorrea.” This isn’t just a problem for people living in rural areas either. “Both urban and rural dwellers are equally affected by the risk of contacting climate sensitive diseases.”

According to Mansur Ali Jisan, a Research Associate at the Institute of Water and Flood Management (IWFM), “people in Dhaka are now suffering from different types of skin diseases. If we look at statistics, we also find this increasing temperature is leading to other problems like diarrhoea and dehydration.”

Jisan also notes that recent migrations into Dhaka, may also be directly linked to climate change. “In the coastal regions, people are shifting themselves to other areas due to the increasing height of sea level. This is causing other health related issues including Cholera, diarrhoea, and other skin related diseases as people move to urban areas.” When people are exposed to poor, congested, urban environments, this can often lead to poverty-related diseases that are further amplified by heat and other climate related stresses. Jishan also notes that “changes in rainfall patterns and unseasonal flooding have also meant that the number of patients suffering from Malaria is increasing day by day in the hospitals”.

The United Nations predicts that about 3.4% of Bangladesh’s GDP will be spent on dealing with the health impacts of climate change by 2050. This could mean upwards of $2.8bn will be needed to address the added burden of climate change on the health each year. The impact of climate change on health will be a perfect storm of multiple hazards, which if unaddressed will deter growth and human well being. 

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Chris Wright and Heather Bruer

Chris Wright is the Project Manager of Adoptanegotiator.org and a climate change consultant. Heather Bruer is a climate analyst and activist from Australia working with the Australian Greens and Australian Youth Climate Coalition.