Although it is responsible for less than 0.47 percent of global emissions, Bangladesh is among the most climate-vulnerable countries and the tens of millions of young people here will grow up facing a number of environmental hazards.
Increasing coastal salinity has already put many children in the middle of a clean drinking water crisis.
Children from poor families displaced by erosion and struggling with food security face the dangers of being forced into labour or marriage at an early age.
Experts say climate change is disrupting the overall development of children by putting their health, nutrition and education at risk, while the safety of foetuses in the womb are also compromised.
Bangladesh's climate predicament was thrown into stark relief by a report published by UNICEF in August. The report identified Bangladesh as one of four South Asian countries, along with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where children are at 'extremely high risk' of the impacts of the climate crisis.
With the COP26 climate summit currently underway in Scotland's Glasgow, world leaders are trying to work out effective solutions to the bleak situation and make pivotal decisions on difficult issues like cutting carbon emissions worldwide.
A special focus of the summit will be to devise a plan to help children cope with climate change. So far, world leaders have questioned the steps taken thus far to control pollution and instructed cooperation and coordination with other countries to handle the global crisis.
At a programme on Oct 27, Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, speaker of the Bangladesh parliament, said it was crucial to include comments from children on climate change in the COP 26 global agenda. She believes Bangladesh can act as a leader on the international stage on this front.
THE RISKS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) organiser Dr Lelin Chowdhury believes climate change will have wide-ranging impacts on Bangladesh and a notable part of the country’s population will be displaced.
He fears the rising sea levels will immerse some coastal areas, including a part of the Sundarbans, while saltwater will encroach into the central areas of the country.
“This will disrupt the balance between our environment and ecology. As a result, environmental hazards and natural disasters will cause delicacies in public health.”
Lelin, also a joint general secretary of Poribesh Bachao Andolon or POBA, spoke about how these changes will disrupt the harmony between man and environment.
“Saltwater will hinder the production of paddy and wheat. We will have to turn to substitute foods that will cause nutritional diseases. Climate change will cause environmental decay, and also, affect public health in many ways.”
Shahriar Hossain, general secretary of Environment and Social Development Organization or ESDO, said global warming is causing winters to become warmer and impacting food security.
“This has been happening for five years. If this continues, something catastrophic may emerge within the next 15 years. Floods occur every three years naturally, but over the past four-five years, we’ve been experiencing it every year. The timing of the floods is also shifting.”
“There was flooding in the northern regions last month. Although the official word was that opening the sluice gate caused the inundation, the water actually came down from the Himalayas. It means ice is melting because of the temperature and is causing the untimely flooding.”
Shahriar said disasters like floods, cyclones and droughts have deep impacts on people’s lives, shatter their survival mechanism and cause migration to surge. For Bangladesh’s massive population, it is a cause for major concern.
“When someone loses the land they live on, they travel to another place. People are leaving the southern parts of the country for other regions every year. This, too, is migration, but we are not taking it into account.”
Highlighting the impact of climate change on the lives of children, Shahriar said, “Once displaced, a child has no option but to work as every member of the family lives off of the earnings. When a girl becomes a liability to the family, she is married off.”
According to UNICEF, almost every child in the world comes into contact with at least one climate or environmental hazard.
A 2019 study done by the organisation reported that disasters linked to climate change threaten the lives and futures of over 19 million children in Bangladesh.
"Climate change is deepening the environmental threat faced by families in Bangladesh’s poorest communities, leaving them unable to keep their children properly housed, fed, healthy and educated," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, who visited Bangladesh in March 2019.
Public health expert Dr Mushtuq Husain said the potential health and malnutrition risks posed by the crisis will be both direct and indirect.
“There is no doubt that the children will be most at risk due to this. For foetuses and pregnant women, the risks will be worse.”
“The rising salinity of water will trigger scarcity of drinking water - inducing fears of infectious diseases,” he said. “People will suffer from abdominal pain due to a lack of drinking water while foodborne diseases will emerge. Rising temperature will also cause mosquito-borne dengue, chikungunya and malaria.”
“Cool weather during the rainy season or vice-versa will bring about the spread of sickness from sneezing and coughing. These will be compounded by the contact of excreta and all sorts of health risks will increase.”
Dr MH Chowdhury, chairman of Health and Hope Hospital’s medicine department, mentioned the risks of high blood pressure accompanied by metabolic diseases involving kidney, skin and other complications due to increased sodium intake from food due to saltier water.
“The form of infectious diseases will also shift, meaning the germs that are not currently contagious will become so while the characteristics of the existing ones may change. So, the odds are diseases we currently have under control will be on the rise.”
Dr Chowdhury underscored how an unbalanced diet will affect women and children.
“The growth of children will be affected. Malnutrition issues will be accompanied by weight loss and [children will become] shorter. Both the mental and physical development of a child will be disrupted.”
Maleka Banu, general secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, said the impact of climate change will be harshest on women and children as they are the “most vulnerable” groups in society.
“Rescuing them [women] is the initial problem. They can’t be rescued unless assistance is provided. We saw during the Aila and the Sidr cyclones that they faced difficulties even after arriving at storm shelters.”
Noting that children are subject to the most shock due to climate change, Maleka Banu said, “As for girls, everything from security and health are prime concerns. During migrations, girls are often married off.”
“We’ve seen that children who are subject to labour are mostly displaced due to natural disasters or climate change. It is a violation of human rights,” she said, urging particular consideration for the safety of younger people who face the effects of climate change.
Mushtuq Husain, also an adviser to the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research or IEDCR, believes the safety of children can be ensured not through personal initiatives, but rather by taking meaningful steps at the national level.
ESDO’s Shahriar said no country in the world is capable of keeping a handle on the crisis on their own and advised collaboration with neighbouring nations.
“We can reduce the impact of climate change by taking measures through enabling regional organisations like SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation].”
“Air, soil and water pollution have to be curbed. Restricting the use of toxic chemicals will negate its impact on the environment. We also need to find ways to adapt to changes,” he said.
“We have to find a way to survive amidst this crisis. We need to focus on what kind of crops can be grown in a changing climate, figure out what we can harvest in water. Only then will food security be ensured.”
Health and Hope Hospital’s Dr Chowdhury prioritised actively looking for climate funds on global forums for countries at high risk like Bangladesh.
However, he thinks the government is not paying enough attention to climate actions, though it is the chief reason behind the public health crisis.
“Although our country makes many decisions on paper, little action is taken. That’s why trees are cut down. Bangladesh is one of the countries suffering the most due to air pollution. We need action to stop this, but none is being taken.”
“The court issued a nine-point demand in 2019 and a three-point one the next year on the matter, but authorities have not made any move to implement them. Those are still stuck in meetings.”
He stressed the need to implement in Bangladesh the plans that have been taken up across the world to fight global warming.
"We have to put a leash on air and water pollution."
“With the sediment flowing through nine of our rivers, coastal levels are rising. We have to work to control this. Or else it will trigger environmental calamities. Disasters like Aila and Sidr will happen again.”
[Written in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo; edited by Shoumik Hassin and Turaj Ahmad]