Bangladesh, a South Asian country slightly smaller than the state of Iowa, is home to approximately 50 times as many people and lies almost entirely at or below sea level. Today, it stands at the forefront of debates about global climate change, water security and increasing salinity of water resources. A case study for scientists and environmentalists, the coastal nation is one of the first places to feel the effects of melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Seawater intrusion causes a rise in the salinity of coastal drinking water, causing unique health consequences for the Bangladeshi people.
Supporting 156,000,000 people is a difficult task, and with a population density of almost 3,000 people per square mile, and 40% of its population living below the poverty line, Bangladesh routinely faces public health challenges typical of overpopulated and poor regions. However, more unique to Bangladesh are the challenges associated with advancing sea levels. Scientific studies show that fresh water resources are critically endangered by climate change. High tidal waves, storm surges and tidal flooding increases the salinity of fresh water in low-lying areas. In Bangladesh, salinity levels have already increased in domestic ponds, groundwater supplies and agricultural land, through the various estuaries and water inlets intertwined with major river. The effect is that the average Bangladeshi’s consumption of salt has reached to unhealthy levels. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s allowable water salinity level for human consumption is less than ½ gram per kilogram of water, but river salinity in some coastal regions of Bangladesh ranges from 4 grams during the monsoon season to 13 grams per kilogram in the dry season (Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services 2000). Approximately 20 million of the 37 million Bangladeshis living on the coast are susceptible to the problem of excessive salinity.
What happens when humans consume too much salt? A common result is hypertension, or high blood pressure, a precursor to stroke, heart failure and other heart diseases. Another potential danger is the effect on expecting mothers and their children, including pre-eclampsia, a multi-organ disorder which causes swelling and convulsions in the body. Other results from this salinity exposure include, skin disease, the common cold and diarrheal dysfunction.
Perhaps the most unsettling part of this picture is that the trends causing increasing salinity of coastal fresh water resources are not local to Bangladesh, and furthermore cannot be contained. Climate change is a global issue – Bangladesh is merely one of the first regions of the world to experience encroaching sea levels to such an extreme degree. The public health concerns in Bangladesh should serve as an important wake-up call for the international community as to the effects of rising sea levels and climate change in general so that we can begin to prepare for the endangerment of our water resources before it is too late.
Elaine Colligan is a freshman in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and an editorial assistant for the Georgetown Journal’s Forum Section