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Preparing for Healthy Futures in Bangladesh in a World of Climate Change

Preparing for Healthy Futures in Bangladesh in a World of Climate Change


Dr. Byomkesh Talukder is the inaugural Planetary Health Fellow at the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, where he works at the intersection of health, sustainable development, climate change and food and agriculture systems. He is currently project co-director in four research projects: (1) Mapping Canada’s Imported Food Supply Chains to Identify Climate Change-Related Health Risks, (2) Ecological Footprint Health Indicators, (3) Complex Adaptive Modelling of Health Impacts of Climate Change in Malawi & Paraguay, and (4) Climate Change, Salinity & Public Health in Bangladesh. His past research applies a complexity science approach to designing sustainability assessment models of food and agricultural systems in Bangladesh. Dr. Talukder also has over 15 years of interdisciplinary field and training experience, including supervising more than 2,000 emerging leaders in sustainable development programs and policy design in Bangladesh. Since 2016, he has been a Mitacs Postdoctoral Fellow at Parmalat Canada and the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University. Dr. Talukdar holds a PhD in Geography and Environmental Studies (Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada), a MES in Environmental Studies (Queen’s University, Canada), a MSc in Development Science (Hiroshima University, Japan), and a MSc in Geography and Environment (Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh).

By Elaine Coburn, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research

In his seminar, “Climate Change, Sea Level Rise, and Community Planetary Health in Bangladesh”, Dr. Talukder observed that if traditional medicine is concerned with health within the human body, planetary systems are concerned with external systems, including the climate, that affect people’s health. This enables a more holistic, non-linear approach to understanding complex issues, including rising salinity associated with rising seas in Bangladesh due to climate change. 

Today, the coastal areas of Bangladesh are home to more than 40 million people. It is estimated that by 2050 about 27 million people will be immediately affected by climate change, including heavily populated areas along coastal rivers. If sea levels rise by just 1.5 metres, more than 80% of people in Bangladesh will be affected since the vast majority of the population lives in a flood plain. In addition, frequent cyclones originate in the Bay of Bengal. Annually, they bring water, now heavily salinated because of rising seas, that kills all vegetation, rendering previously fertile lands barren. Combined with more than 290 dams in India and more than 100 dams in China, which aggravate penuries of water during the dry season, and Himalayan ice melt due to climate change, Bangladesh suffers from significant water shortages and increased salinity. Not only water but soil is becoming increasingly saline.

Development projects along rivers in Bangladesh, including dams, have not worked well but create waterlogging that makes agriculture impossible. In response to changing conditions, farmers have shifted agriculture to saline-water crops, like shrimp, moving away from previous staple crops like rice. If shrimp farming has created economic benefits, the decreased agricultural diversity – in dramatic decline from the 1970s to about 2014 – because of the concentration on the monoculture of shrimp, has created attendant health problems, due to food insecurity and diminished biodiversity. Shrimp feed has aggravated problems by interfering with the natural ecosystems. As mangrove forests decline, water is no longer retained by trees, making communities more vulnerable to the devastating effects of floods. 

Primary negative health impacts include the scarcity of freshwater. This is especially burdensome for women who must travel 5 to 10 km to search out fresh water. Many communities are using rainwater or open pond water for their daily household water needs. This creates communicable diseases, including skin infections, cholera, diarrhea, dysentery and ocular diseases. Hypertension increases due to salt in water and in food systems. 

Secondary negative health impacts include high rates of miscarriage among women who live close to coastal areas. Women stand in saline water for many hours a day, creating problems for women’s reproductive health, an under-investigated health concern observed by many local community groups. A lack of a diversified food given the concentration in the shrimp, creates vitamin D deficiencies, including rickets. 

Tertiary negative health impacts include the increase in breast and ovarian cancers in women. Women are harvesting drinking water in plastic containers and since plastics are unregulated, some are contaminated, which may be the cause of the increase in these cancers among women. There is increased mental health stress, especially among women, given the long distances they must travel to obtain basic needs, like water for the households. Internal migration often means a concentration of formerly rural people in urban slums, creating attendant health problems given the conditions in these slums which have weak sanitation systems. 

Overall, health inequities are increasing, especially in coastal areas.

Resolving these health impacts demands complex solutions from multiple stakeholders, everything from weather predictor systems to public health expertise. We need to listen to different stakeholders and the connections among the different challenges that they face to develop complex models that can help us understand the links among climate change, extreme weather events, internal migration and conflicts and public health, all of which are, in addition, gendered. This means taking into account biodiversity, vector-borne disease and the causal relationships among these different factors to create data beyond current tendencies to work in silos. Dynamic modelling is required if we are to develop scenarios, forecasting and support local communities and other stakeholders in developing community-based interventions to salinity and to enable monitoring to understand the present and better predict future health impacts. 

But modeling is not enough. We need interventions that take into account complex systems to support the government of Bangladesh’s 100-year delta plan, as the state seeks to ensure the sustainability of ecosystems for better livelihoods and intergenerational health in Bangladesh. We must prepare for different futures, knowing that if we do not take action now on climate change we will not be able to adapt to climate change in the future. We need to adapt today and we need to do this for many reasons, including for the health of people like those living in coastal areas of Bangladesh who are already being affected in their everyday life by climate change, especially rising sea levels and increasing salinity of coastal waters. 

Related Work

Talukder, B., Ganguli, N. & VanLoon, G. W., (2022). Climate Change Related Foodborne Zoonotic Diseases and Pathogens Modelling. The Journal of Climate Change and Health, 100111.

Talukder, B., Ganguli, N., Matthew, R., VanLoon, G. W., Hipel, K. W., & Orbinski, J. (2022). Climate Change-Accelerated Ocean Biodiversity Loss & Associated Planetary Health Impacts. The Journal of Climate Change and Health, 100114

Matthew, R., Chiotha, S., Orbinski, J. & Talukder, B. (2021). Research note: Climate change, peri-urban space and emerging infectious disease. Landscape and Urban Planning, 218, 104298.

Talukder, B., Ganguli, N., Matthew, R., VanLoon, G. W., Hipel, K. W., & Orbinski, J. (2021). Climate change‐triggered land degradation and planetary health: A review. Land Degradation & Development 32 (16), 4509-4522.

Talukder, B., vanLoon, G. W., Hipel, K. W., Chiotha, S. & Orbinski, J. (2021). Health Impacts of Climate Change on Smallholder Farmers. One Health, 100258.

Talukder, B., Matthew, R., Bunch, J. M., vanLoon, G. W., Hipel, K. W. & Orbinski, J. (2021). Melting of Himalayan Glaciers and Planetary Health. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 50, 98-108.

Talukder, B., van Loon, G., Hipel, K. W., & Orbinski, J. (2021). COVID-19's Implications on Agri-food Systems and Human Health in Bangladesh. Current Research in Environmental Sustainability, 100033.

Talukder, B., Blay-Palmer, A., & Hipel, K. W. (2020). Towards Complexity of Agricultural Sustainability Assessment: Main Issues and Concerns. Environmental and Sustainability Indicators, 100038.

Talukder, B., & Hipel, K. W. (2019). Diagnosis of Sustainability of Trans-Boundary Water Governance in the Great Lakes Basin. World Development, 129, 1-12.

Talukder, B., vanLoon, G. W., & Hipel, K. W. (2018). Energy Efficiency of Agricultural Systems in the Southwest Coastal Zone of Bangladesh. Ecological Indicators, 98, 641-648.

Talukder, B., Hipel, K. W., & vanLoon, G. W. (2017). Developing Composite Indicators for Agricultural Sustainability Assessment: Effect of Normalization and Aggregation Techniques. Resources, 6(4), 66.

Talukder, B., Saifuzzaman, M., & vanLoon, G. W. (2016). Sustainability of Changing Agricultural Systems in the Coastal Zone of Bangladesh. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 31(2) 148-165.

Talukder, B., Nakagoshi, N., & Shahedur, R. M. (2009). State and Management of Wetlands in Bangladesh. Landscape and Ecological Engineering, 5(1), 81-90.