Author(s): Mahadi Al Hasnat

As climate disasters claim their children, Bangladeshi mothers seek safety in bigger families

Source(s): Mongabay
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Bangladeshi woman washing clothes in a flooded house
Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock

Jhinuk recalls screaming as water rushed into her hut in northeastern Bangladesh last August. 

“Four children clung, two stumbling toddlers. Fear choked me, air like ice, but I held them high, defying the hungry tide,” she says. But it wasn’t to last: “One tiny hand slipped from my grasp.”

In another account from Jamalpur district, Ranu Akter remembers being so busy with housework that she didn’t notice her 7-year-old son playing in floodwater. 

“I didn’t notice him, and the floodwaters carried him away.” She adds, “Fear of losing children is a constant here,” noting that children also succumb to post-flood disease outbreaks arising from unhealthy environments.

Now, citing heavy hearts and a desire for security, Jhinuk and Ranu say they dream of growing their families, hoping for strength in the face of an uncertain future.

Research published in the journal Nature this past January suggests that Bangladeshi women in climate-sensitive regions, women like Jhinuk and Ranu, may be having larger families as insurance against increasingly deadly extreme weather events. Citing the threat of losing children to climate disasters, mothers in cyclone- and flood-prone areas are defying traditional family-planning trends, choosing to have more children as a shield against hardship, the study says.

“Having more children, especially sons, gives them a sense of security,” says study co-author Shah Md. 

Atiqul Haq, a professor of sociology at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) in the city of Sylhet.

“They see larger families as a form of insurance against the impacts of climate disasters. Women who have already lost children or worry about child mortality due to climate factors are particularly likely to have bigger families,” he says.

Flood victims in north-central Bangladesh in 2019.

Flood victims in north-central Bangladesh in 2019. Image by UN Women/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). 

The study found a significant difference in family size and gender preferences: In vulnerable areas, more women have four or more children (46.9%, compared to 36.1% in non-vulnerable areas) and two sons (39.5%, compared to 27.8% in non-vulnerable areas).

It also found that in flood-prone areas, 55.8% of women prefer to have children, while in cyclone-prone areas, it’s 48.6%. Those stating a preference not to have any children amounted to 44.2% in flood-prone regions and 51.4% in cyclone-prone areas.

According to the latest Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) survey, the nation observed a marginal increase in infant mortality, reaching 24 per 1,000 live births in 2022, compared to 22 in 2021. The overall mortality rate of children under the age of 5 years also increased, from 28 to 31 per 1,000, in the same period. Boys in this age group faced a higher mortality rate (33 per 1,000) than girls (29 per 1,000).

Bangladesh, home to more than 160 million people, is on the frontlines of climate change. Cyclones, floods, droughts, saltwater intrusion, and rising sea levels are all having an impact on its flatlands, which are crisscrossed by powerful rivers and encircled by a vulnerable coastline.

According to the BBS’s Disaster Related Statistics 2021, between 2015 and 2020, nearly 55% of the 7.5 million households affected by disaster during that period were hit by floods, while 34% were struck by cyclones, and nearly 18% endured hailstorms.

Over the same period, a total of 1.53 million children were affected by various disasters.

Woman rowing a makeshift boat with child in the floods.

Citing the threat of losing children to climate disasters, mothers in cyclone- and flood-prone areas are defying traditional family-planning trends, choosing to have more children as a shield against hardship. Image by Moniruzzaman Sazal / Climate Visuals Countdown via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

High infant mortality in flood zones

While most of Bangladesh has experienced a declining infant mortality, babies in flood-prone areas are more likely to die before their first birthday.

A 2023 study indicates that living in these areas increases the that risk by 8%, resulting in five extra deaths per 1,000 births. This translates to more than 150,000 lives lost in the 30 years from 1988-2017.

Study co-author François Rerolle, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, said there’s a systematic impact on infant mortality in areas prone to frequent flooding, not necessarily annually or throughout the entire year.

“This means that the effects on infant mortality are not just due to actual exposure to a flood [e.g at a time of pregnancy] but also due to living in a zone that gets exposed,” he said.

“The distinction between 1988-1997 and 2008-2017 is the most enlightening. In the first decade, the effect is mostly seen in the rainy season when floods are happening, suggesting a strong short-term effect of flooding. In the last decade, on the other hand, the effects exist both in the rainy and the dry season, whereas floods still only happen during the rainy season.”

Rerolle suggested a shift has occurred, meaning the heightened risk of mortality is no longer a short-term threat associated with the rainy season, but one that spans across seasons.

Nearly 60% of Bangladeshis live with the constant threat of floods, the highest risk in the world outside the Netherlands, according to the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

Researchers identified several factors linked to climate change that are raising the country’s flood risk, including the increasing frequency of extreme precipitation events and more erratic rainfall. They project that the magnitude of peak river flow could increase by 36% on average under a high-carbon-emissions scenario and by 16% under a low-emissions scenario by 2070-2099 relative to 1971-2000.

According to World Bank data, mean temperatures across Bangladesh will increase by 1.4° Celsius (2.5° Fahrenheit) by 2050 and 2.4°C (4.3°F) by 2100. Annual rainfall will increase by 74 millimeters (3 inches) by 2040-2059.

These signals point to more challenges ahead for children and mothers living in flood-prone regions of Bangladesh. Climate experts say the looming threat of increased floods may jeopardize the lives of children, putting past progress in peril.

Floodwaters surrounding houses in Dakha, Bangladesh.

Floodwaters surrounding houses in Dakha, Bangladesh. Image by Stockbyte / World Bank via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). 

Cyclone deaths down, but new threats emerge

Bangladesh has made positive strides in protecting its people from tropical cyclones. This is showcased in the notable decline in casualties from cyclones: from 147,000 deaths due to Cyclone Gorky in 1991, to 4,500 from Cyclone Sidr in 2007, and six deaths from Cyclone Mora in 2017. Improved warning systems, sturdy shelters and better housing have been credited with saving lives.

“People-focused efforts, backed by the combined work of the government, NGOs and private sector, played a big role in significantly lowering cyclone-related deaths in coastal areas,” said Edris Alam, a professor at the Faculty of Resilience at Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

According to a government brochure, 4,200 cyclone shelters have been constructed across the coast, and 320 flood shelters have been constructed across the country, with an additional 393 flood shelters in the works.

“In the past, the lack of strong infrastructure, durable residential buildings and public cyclone shelters led to casualties as people attempted to endure storm surges by clinging to trees or residing in fragile houses,” Alam said.

But he also noted that coastal communities lacking proper embankments or experiencing failures in existing barriers remain highly vulnerable.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate these impacts, with a warming atmosphere and ocean making tropical cyclones more powerful. This in turn will lead to stronger winds, heavier rainfall, and higher storm surges, causing increased flooding and devastation.

While the total number of cyclones is expected to remain stable or even decrease slightly, according to most climate models, the proportion of tropical cyclones considered severe is expected to increase due to climate change.

As highlighted by the Grantham Research Institute, Bangladesh has achieved notable progress in public health, particularly for mothers and infants. However, climate change is undermining these health advancements, posing obstacles to poverty reduction, prosperity enhancement and sustainable growth.

Mirza Shawkat Ali, director of climate change and international conventions at the Bangladesh Department of Environment, said the country is confronting diverse challenges stemming from climate change.

“Climate change is not only affecting floods or cyclones, it is also affecting crop production, altering annual rainfall patterns, and leading to river dryness during the dry season,” he told Mongabay.

Bangladesh has unveiled a 27-year National Adaptation Plan (NAP), to run until 2050, that emphasizes regional and local solutions to combating climate change. Key measures include conserving water bodies, fortifying embankments, constructing shelters, creating livelihood opportunities, and enhancing agriculture.

However, implementing the NAP effectively will mean overcoming longstanding hurdles such as poor coordination, transparency issues, and capacity gaps in government institutions, according to the Grantham Research Institute.

Executing the planned adaptation actions calls for significant investments from both the government and the international community. Meanwhile, accessing global funds and ensuring their effective utilization presents additional challenges.

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Hazards Flood
Country and region Bangladesh
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