Climate change is threatening the reproductive health of women in Sundarbans, a cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal where the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers converge. Women in the reproductive age groups are suffering from a myriad of complications resulting from long hours of exposure to saline water where they go fishing for livelihood.
“About 250 women in our project area have reported uterus-related infections and other complications,” says Dipanwita Sarkar, Programme Manager of ASHA, an NGO working in the deltaic region of the Sundarbans in West Bengal.
These cases were reported from just five blocks of Minakhan, Sandeshkhali -I, Basirhat-II, Hasnabad, and Hingalgunj. "All these women fall within the reproductive age bracket of 23 to 40 years,” Dipanwita says.
Cyclones and climate change
While the Sundarbans has always been highly susceptible to tropical cyclones, their rate and intensity have increased in recent years following climate change. The region has witnessed over 13 supercyclones since the year 2000. Their occurrence increased by 26 percent between 1881 and 2001. Scientists project around 50 percent increase in the frequency of post-monsoon cyclones by 2041.
Rising temperatures due to climate change are leading to rising sea levels.
As the seas swallow up the coasts and inundate the land, salinity reduces the quality of groundwater, the fertility of the soil for farming, and even ponds for washing and bathing.
The two super cyclones -- Aila in 2009 and Amphan in 2009 - ravaged agriculture in the region as fields were filled with saline water from the sea. This rendered the soil unfit for cultivation. Unable to make ends meet, the men from Sundarbans began to migrate to other states for work.
The health cost of fishing in salty waters
It compelled the women, who stayed back to look after the families, to take up fishing for financial support. They started collecting hatchlings, which sell for a pittance.
For catching 1000 hatchlings, they spend the day in the salinized water and earn Rs150 to Rs200.
As a result, women who gather ‘meen’ or fish larvae in West Bengal's Sundarbans riverine region are suffering from ovarian issues. They stand in waist-deep river water for six-to-eight hours during tide to catch hatchlings with their fishing nets or mosquito nets. The saline water that comes into contact with their reproductive organs creates infections.
At the health centre in Minakhan, Dr. Arno Brickenkamp from Germany has treated two women with uterus complications, pain, and irregular bleeding. “Both of them needed surgery to save their ovaries,” informs Dr Brickenkamp.
While climate change-induced salinity impacts everyone, women and girls are particularly vulnerable. High levels of salinity in drinking increases sodium intake, resulting in elevated blood pressure and an increased likelihood of hypertension and preeclampsia in pregnant women.
Prolonged exposure to saline water like standing in waist-deep water while fishing heightens the risk of reproductive tract infections in women and disrupts regular menstruation.
Additionally, extended contact with salt water has been linked to skin diseases, diarrheal illnesses, and the occurrence of cholera outbreaks.
Dr Nicola Enders from Germany has also treated some women between 20 and 24 years of age, who had menstrual problems and severe abdominal pain. “We did scan and saw their cysts. Since we don’t have any treatment facility in Minakhan right now, we referred them to the city’s gynaecologists. Their ovaries can be cured with timely intervention,” says Dr. Nicola.
Sundarbans is a region of mixed community societies. It is home to Muslims, scheduled tribes such as Sardar and Munda and scheduled castes from the Hingalgunj, Sandeshkhali and Hasnabad areas. Mostly illiterate or semi-literate, these community members are financially and socially underprivileged.
In the Sundarbans, quacks constitute a big threat. They run impostor nursing facilities and take advantage of the residents.
Most patients choose not to travel a great distance to the hospital due to high transportation costs, reluctance to share their menstrual problems with doctors, improper prescription readings, etc.
It creates the ideal environment for the proliferation of quacks.
Sanjeev Kumar Singh, secretary and field observer for ASHA, says “We have involved women of 25 villages in Minakhan and Hasnabad for kitchen gardening. They have been trained to grow eight types of vegetables and over 250 kitchen gardens are in operation. Their family is the first consumer and they save the money they would spend in buying it from the market."
While the state government and local NGOs are taking numerous steps to ease the suffering of vulnerable people, the long-term solution lies in climate change mitigation.
More pictures from Sundarbans here:
(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)