In southwestern Bangladesh, fiercer cyclones and rising sea levels have broken down natural barriers that keep salt water at bay. BenarNews looks at how salt is eroding lives and livelihoods in the coastal district of Satkhira, where local people are living with the daily consequences of climate change.

Salt water upends lives

Child marriage on the rise

Women’s reproductive health ravaged


Salt water intrudes, upends lives in coastal Bangladesh

Because of climate change, salinity from seawater encroaches on freshwater sources crucial to people’s livelihoods.

Jesmin Papri – Satkhira, Bangladesh

“The salt water has damaged everything,” Saleha Khatun says as she stands in front of her dry, dead farm where she used to grow pumpkin, bitter gourd, okra, spinach, and other vegetables.

Khatun lives in Boishkhali village in Satkhira, a district situated along Bangladesh’s low-lying southwestern coast, where fresh water should be abundant. But these days, she has to buy 30 liters of drinking water a week for about 30 taka (U.S. 35 cents).

“The situation is very tough ... How long can a person survive under these circumstances?” Khatun, 45, says.

She is among residents that BenarNews interviewed during a recent visit to the area, one of the places in this South Asian nation that suffers the most from the ravages of climate change.

The encroachment of seawater – a problem known as salinity intrusion – has killed crops and turned the lives of people in coastal Bangladesh upside down, the villagers say.

Fiercer storms and rising sea levels spawned by climate change have eroded wetlands and underground sources of fresh water, such as aquifers, causing salt water to seep in, researchers say. In turn, this threatens the lives of people who rely on the land for their livelihoods.

Over the past 25 years, salinity intrusion in Bangladesh has increased by about 26 percent, with the affected areas along the coast expanding each year, a study published in 2019 by WaterAid showed.

Rawshan Ara Begum gathers vegetables from her yard in Paranpur, a village in Satkhira district, Bangladesh, Sept. 18, 2021. She can only grow vegetables during the rainy season. The rest of the year, high salinity levels in the local water supply prevent her from planting vegetables. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]

Khatun and many other local residents face an acute freshwater crisis, even for their essential daily needs such as drinking and cooking. At the same time, food and local sources of income are growing scarcer because of the damage to the farmlands and a lack of water suitable for irrigation.

“We have been buying drinking water for six months,” Romesa Begum, 40, another resident of Boishkhali village, told BenarNews.

She used to collect fresh water for drinking and cooking from the next village a few kilometers away. But nowadays, the villagers there refuse to give her water, saying they need it to irrigate paddy.

“They have asked us to purchase the water. But my husband is a hawker and earns only 300 taka ($3.50) a day. We have to spend it to buy water, rice, and firewood for our survival,” she said.

Around 70 percent of residents in Satkhira depend on water in faraway ponds, according to a survey conducted in 2013 by BRAC, a Bangladeshi NGO, and Jahangirnagar University.

Local women told BenarNews that they have to walk two to five kilometers every day to collect and bring back fresh water for the families’ daily uses.

It’s a common sight in the coastal districts to see women carrying jugs of fresh water as they walk from the nearest well through a brown and bone-dry landscape littered with dead trees. Ironically, the area is not far from the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Climate change will dramatically increase river and groundwater salinity by 2050 in Bangladesh, the World Bank warned in a study published in 2014. It also said that shortages of water for drinking and irrigation would become worse and harm the livelihoods of at least 2.9 million people already struggling with a lack of fresh water.

Fisheries compound problem

Meanwhile, the cascading effects of migration induced by climate change will ultimately affect 13 million people across Bangladesh by 2050, according to a study published last year by Advancing Earth and Space Science, an international non-profit organization.

Bangladesh is especially susceptible to sea-level rise because it is a low-lying country, the report said.

“Most of the capable men go to other districts to work … There is no work in our villages because salinity has killed all the scope for earning here,” Sheikh Abdul Bari, a resident of Gabura village who works at a local brick kiln, told BenarNews.

Those who have stayed work in agriculture or fisheries to earn their living.

Still, the rising levels of salinity in the water supply has also impacted that economic activity, especially because some villagers are resorting to seafood farming.

Muhammad Mahbubur Rahman, 50, from Sora village, said that most of the ponds that local people used for everything from bathing to farming were destroyed after Cyclone Aila in 2008.

“Previously, we cultivated paddy in our lands, but now it is not possible because the water is too salty,” he said.

Muhammad Alimuddin Gazi, a 58-year-old farmer from Joyakhali village, is adversely affected by a relatively new form of fish and shrimp farming, called cage culture. The sea products are grown in mesh enclosures by damming up salt water in the agricultural lands.

“The cage culture is increasing the salinity on the coast. The trees are also dying because of the salinity. The whole area looks like a desert now,” Gazi told BenarNews. “If it is stopped, maybe the trees will revive, and the farming of cattle and goats will be possible again. It would help us with our poverty.”

Children return home with their mother after playing in a field in Jadabpur, a village in Satkhira, Bangladesh. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]

A study from 2014 said that shrimp aquaculture in the southern coast was causing severe threats to local ecological systems, including “deterioration of soil and water quality ... saline water intrusion in groundwater, local water pollution, and change of local hydrology.”

“Saline water intrusion in the study area has caused colossal negative effects to the local vegetation and particularly to the production of rice and vegetables,” said the study by the Geography and Environment Department at Dhaka University.

It also said that an estimated 41 percent of the country’s population live at elevations under 10 meters (about 32 feet) above sea level in Bangladesh, whose coastline is about 580 km (360 miles) long.

An official in Dhaka said the government was addressing the coastal salinity issue.

“We have become the role model of disaster management because of our capacity to fight it. The salinity intrusion has increased the drinking water crisis in the coastal area. But we are working to address it,” Md Mohsin, secretary at the Department of Disaster Management and Relief, told BenarNews.

Mohsin said the government has projects in place to make salt water drinkable but, he added, it may not be enough to meet the demand.

“We are preparing to undertake some mega-projects to provide necessary fresh water to people hit hard by climate change in the coastal region,” he added.

Adolescent mother Anna Khatun stands with her baby outside her in-laws’ home in Satkhira, Bangladesh. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]

Child marriage is on the rise in Bangladesh’s coastal belt

When schools reopened after COVID-related closures, many teen girls did not come back.

Jesmin Papri - Satkhira, Bangladesh

Anna Khatun was playing with friends outside when her parents interrupted the children and ushered the girl to her relatives’ house.

They had arranged for Anna to be married. She was only 13 years old.

“Everything happened so suddenly. I was not prepared for it,” Khatun, from Satkhira district in southwestern Bangladesh, recalled.

“Now I am fourteen and a mother of a child,” she told BenarNews.

The number of child marriages is increasing in Bangladesh’s disaster-prone southwestern coastal belt as a result of poverty and a worsening economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Satkhira, one of the areas in the country hardest hit by climate change, is seeing many marriages among children.

Official data shows that 1,214 child marriages were recorded in Shyamnagar, a sub-district of Satkhira, when schools were closed during the first year of the viral outbreak in 2020, but human rights activists say the actual number was much higher.

Local children play in their village because school was closed due to COVID-19. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]

According to the local education office, those married were grade 6 to 10 students, aged 12 to 16. As many as 703 were from public schools, and the remaining 511 were from Islamic schools, or madrassas.

At the local Paranpur A. Rauf Memorial School and College, there were no records of child marriages on the government’s list.

But one teacher there, who asked to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to talk to reporters, told BenarNews that 24 students below the age of 16 were married off during the campus closure.

“After our school reopened, ten of our classmates were absent because they were married off during the pandemic. But I want to continue with my studies,” said Prema Mondol, a tenth-grader from Koyra, a sub-district in neighboring Khulna district.

In Bangladesh, it is illegal for girls to marry before 18 and boys to marry before 21.

However, the South Asian country is among the top 10 in the world for child marriage. Fifty-one percent of girls get married before the age of 18, while nearly 18 percent are wed before they turn 15, a 2019 survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics found.

Early marriage is not new

Anna’s wedding at 13 was not a new experience for her family.

All three of her sisters were also married off at a very young age.

“We are very poor. Continuing the studies for our child is not possible for us. We arranged the wedding as we got a proposal from a financially solvent family,” their mother, Hasina Begum, told BenarNews.

The pandemic, which created 2.45 million new poor people in the country, according to government data, has increased the likelihood of child marriage and child labor due to worsened economic insecurity and prolonged school closures.

“There are no unmarried girls aged over 14 in my localities as most parents are arranging marriages for their girls for various reasons,” said G.M. Masud Alam, chairman of the Gabura Union Council of Shyamnagar Upazila.

The local administration and public representatives are working to stop child marriage, he said.

Babita Parvin, a health worker in the village, said many child marriages were taking place in the area.

“Girls become mothers at a young age. They suffer from malnutrition and face various crises due to early pregnancy,” she said.

According to data from a Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2007, the rate of early marriage is highest at 75 percent in Khulna, the division that encompasses Satkhira.

A child takes care of a younger sibling while their parents are away at work as day laborers, in Shyamnagar, a sub-district of Satkhira. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]

One of the main reasons for increasing early marriages in the coastal belt is the fear that girls lose their “reproductive capacity” later in life, specifically in Satkhira and the neighboring Khulna district, community health workers and villagers said.

“Most of the dropout girls of our schools are due to child marriage. Most girls are not allowed to continue their studies after marriage,” said Abdur Rahman, a teacher at Gabura APG Alim Madrassa.

‘A burden’

According to villagers and local leaders, impacts from the changing climate and natural disasters are playing a role in child marriages because parents want to free themselves of having to take care of their daughters during times of crisis.

“Cyclone Amphan [2020] damaged many properties and land in this area. People here are normally poor, and the impact of climate change made them poorer,” said Gopal Chandra, a teacher at the Shailokhali Madinatul Ulum Kamil Madrassa.

“Parents treat their girls as a burden. As a result, the number of child marriages is increasing.”

Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, an expert on the impact of climate change on social issues, accused the government of failing to prevent child marriage, especially among “the poor families who consider girls as a burden.”

The government should provide financial support for poor families under the social safety-net programs, he said, so that they are not considered a burden and married off early.

Christine Klauth of UNICEF Bangladesh said climate change “has pushed families deeper into poverty.”

“Climate change worsens storms and floods and undermines livelihoods. It also makes it harder to get safe water, food, or school. Unfortunately, one of the negative coping mechanisms we see is families arranging marriages for their young daughters,” she added.

Muhammad Humayun Kabir, the chief administrator of Sathkira district, agreed, saying, “they think marrying off their girls will save them from various social and economic problems.”

“Though we have no specific data, our observation is that the number of child marriages is increasing as the vulnerability of climate change victims are increasing,” he told BenarNews.

“We are working to prevent child marriages by building awareness and implementing the law in this regard.”

Nazmun Nahar Smriti, a 13-year-old Bangladeshi girl, catches minnows by pulling a net in the Kopotaksh River in Shyamnagar, Bangladesh. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]

Women’s reproductive health ravaged by salt water in coastal Bangladesh

Salinity intrusion has led to a host of health problems – and many women are having their uterus removed.

Jesmin Papri - Satkhira, Bangladesh

After suffering from abdominal pain and irregular periods for a long time, Feroza Begum had her uterus removed when she was 26 years old.

She had been diagnosed with leukorrhea, a medical condition where women experience thick whitish vaginal discharge. According to health experts, the ailment is caused primarily by fungal or bacterial infections and poor hygiene, and is exacerbated by a deficient diet.

“Initially, I was suffering from problems like leukorrhea. But I never considered it as an illness because it is very common in our community,” said Feroza, a 30-year-old resident of Boishkhali village in Satkhira, a coastal district in southwestern Bangladesh.

Many women in coastal areas such as Satkhira that are impacted by climate change are resorting to having their uteruses surgically removed because of severe infections and illnesses, including skin-related diseases, local residents, health workers, and experts say. They say these medical problems are occuring as a result of excessive exposure to saline water - a by-product of climate change in this part of Bangladesh.

BenarNews interviewed more than 75 women in remote villages of Shyamnagar, a subdistrict of Satkhira. Of them, 30 women said they had their uteruses removed following severe infections, while the rest complained of problems related to reproductive health.

Romesa Begum, a 40-year-old relative of Feroza who lives in the same area, had her uterus removed after suffering in almost the same manner. Both women blamed their issue on using salty water for bathing and other daily needs.

Because grass does not grow in her village in the Koyra sub-district due to groundwater salinity, Subala Rani must walk to another village to collect grass to feed her goats. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]

Global warming has caused sea-level rise and more intense storms, resulting in a decline of fresh water and the intrusion of salt water into village waterways in coastal Bangladesh, according to experts.

Health experts say women exposed to water with excessive saline content - whether during bathing, washing clothes, or fishing - are prone to inflammation and ulcers, leading to vaginal infections and even cancer of the uterus.

More than 80 percent of women and girls in Bangladesh use rags to manage menstruation, researchers say. The rags often become unhygienic, especially when washed in salty water, according to a study published in 2019.

“This repeated saline water washing of menstrual rags and their frequent use puts them under the threat of different kinds of hygiene issues. These sometimes lead to skin diseases and other sexual problems,” said the study conducted by three Bangladeshi organizations.

“Almost every woman suffers from leukorrhea and uterus-related diseases in this locality because they are taking their baths in salty water,” said Reshma Akter, a medical officer at Burigoalini Union Health and Family Welfare Center.

“The excessive use of saline water is damaging tissues in vaginal areas of women, which later infect the uterus and become the reason for other diseases.”

Dr. Hussain Shafayet, the public health chief in Satkhira, agreed.

“[U]terus-related waterborne diseases were due to the intrusion of salinity” in water that villagers were using daily, he said. Even teen girls were suffering from leukorrhea, “which is uncommon,” he said.

Complications after uterus removal

According to surgery registration books at three private clinics in Shyamnagar, at least ten percent of all surgery patients in 2019 underwent operations to have their uterus removed.

Dr. Tasnuva Afrin, who now lives in Sweden, worked at the Friendship Hospital in Shyamnagar for several years. She said most uterus patients were from the villages near a local river. This indicates that excessive salinity intrusion is one of the significant reasons for uterus-related illnesses, she said.

It can also “become a cause for infertility,” she said.

Women in Munshiganj walk home with pitchers filled with water after collecting drinking water from a tube-well more than a mile away. [Megh Monir/BenarNews]

Dr. Ishrat Jahan, a gynecologist of Mymensingh Medical College Hospital, said that many women are suffering from other related complications, impacting their family and social lives because of uterus removal at an early age.

“A unique hormonal system controls the mental health, brain memory, and menstrual cycle of women. Removal of the uterus badly affects a woman’s total health system because it is destroying the hormonal source,” she said.

Several doctors told BenarNews that the health of women in the coastal area was notably worse than in other parts of Bangladesh, and they linked salinity to a host of health problems.

Dr. Rita Rani Paul, an assistant surgeon at the Shyamnagar Upazila Health Complex, said that more than 50 percent of women who took part in a screening for cervical cancer in 2020 showed pre-cervical cancer symptoms.

Dr. Nazrul Islam, medical officer of the Iswaripur Union Health Welfare Center, said that teen girls and mothers were suffering from other ailments, including but not limited to anemia, malnutrition, dermatitis, diarrhea, and dysentery.

The source of most of those diseases is a lack of fresh water because available water is high in salt, and they are drinking much less water than they should, Islam said.

In a report in 2012, Bangladesh’s Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) said that women are among the worst sufferers from lack of fresh water because they are likely to drink less water, which increases the likelihood of high blood pressure and heart and kidney diseases among adult women.

Sharmind Neelormi, an academic and climate-change activist, said women in Satkhira district also have endometrial cancer, a form of uterus cancer that “destroys the menstrual cycle.”

“Excessive salinity in coastal water results from climate change, which leads to these physical difficulties,” Neelormi said.

Reported by Jesmin Papri
Photographs by Jesmin Papri and Megh Monir
Video shot by Jesmin Papri and Shelaz Mahmood
Video edited by Ashif Entaz Rabi
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