Six Stories Reveal How the Climate Crisis Impacts the Health of Women and Children in the Bay of Bengal Region

aerial photo of fish market in West Bengal
Six Stories Reveal How the Climate Crisis Impacts the Health of Women and Children in the Bay of Bengal Region

Home to roughly 1.4 billion people, the Bay of Bengal region is one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change: Sea level rise, storms, cyclones, drought, erosion, landslides, flooding and salinization are already displacing large numbers of people.  

For the past four years, the Climate Justice Resilience Fund (CJRF) has funded Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) to carry out the Bay of Bengal Climate Resiliency Initiative, a media development project to bring climate impacts to the attention of policymakers and residents in the coastal regions of Bangladesh and India. During the last six months, that assistance has been augmented through a small grant that supported six additional stories in the local media. 

During EJN’s project, we found that one of the most serious and underreported impacts is on human health. Agricultural fields and coastal drinking water supplies have been contaminated with salt water from rising seas, leaving millions who rely on such resources vulnerable to health problems. Stories by EJN grantees began to highlight how women, in particular, bear the brunt of the climate crisis, but overall, little attention is paid to the toll climate change extracts on women’s reproductive and mental health. 

Thanks to the additional funding, in August 2021, EJN offered story grants for journalists to improve coverage of the impacts of climate change on human health in the Bay of Bengal. This opportunity was extended to journalists from the coastal areas of Bangladesh and four Indian states—Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. 

EJN awarded grants to six journalists to produce – with EJN mentorship – stories that highlight these issues and address how vulnerable communities are responding to the challenges they face, with the potential to inform solutions-driven policies.  

Dola Mitra, India (Wire Science)   

Dola Mitra’s story focuses on healthcare systems in the delta islands of the Bay of Bengal, which are inadequately equipped to deal with the myriad health crises worsened by climate change. Water ambulances are a lifeline for island communities, Mitra reports, but delays are common in bad weather and when the tide begins to ebb, boats often get stuck on the riverbed. This story was published in November 2021.  

two women stepping onto a boat
Doctors sometimes refer sick people of the islands to the mainland for advanced treatments. They have to travel by boat / Credit: Dola Mitra.

Pawanjot Kaur, India (The Wire)   

Pawanjot and her team reported from villages in the western and eastern parts of the Sundarbans along the West Bengal coast. They explored how women’s health issues are multiplying with increasing water salinity and frequent storm surges. The Tridib Nagar fisherwomen they spoke to said unanimously: if there ever was a woman doctor in their vicinity, all their “life’s troubles would be solved.” This multimedia story was published in January 2022.  

Aishwarya Mohanty, India (Indian Express)   

Aishwarya Mohanty’s story focused on the gynecological health of women in Odisha's coastal belt, especially those from marginalized communities. In the aftermath of disasters such as cyclones and floods, women’s health invariably suffers – exacerbated by poor sanitation facilities, scant menstrual health management and taboos around menstruation. After “Fani”, India’s most severe summer-time cyclone in 43 years, “the accessibility to washrooms was a distant dream” for many Dalit women, Mohanty reports. This story was published in December 2021.  

Banani Mallick, Bangladesh (The Daily Observer)   

Banani Mallick investigated the link between extreme salinity and women’s reproductive health in the southwest of Bangladesh. Doctors and public health officials in the region have observed an uptick in miscarriages and have embarked on a study to examine the consequences of hyper-salinity on maternal and fetal health. Dr Jahangir Alam, civil surgeon of Patuakhali, told Mallick: "We have conducted several workshops with different stakeholders including local people, doctors, local bodies and they all concluded that there is a link between climate change and extreme salinity that leads to various health hazards.” This story was published in December 2021. 

Gowthami Subramaniam, India (BS Value)  

Gowthami Subramaniam is producing a documentary on maternal and neo-natal health impacts caused by the climate crisis in Tamil Nadu – with a special focus on how floods and other natural disasters impact mental health. “When you look at rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder… there are measurable increases in all of these mental health mood disorders after climate disasters. This has been also shown to persist even after birth of the child,” Dr Santosh Pandipati, a Maternal-Fetal Medicine Physician from California told Subramaniam, whose documentary will be released in early February. 

Najifa Farhat, Bangladesh (Dhaka Tribune) 

Najifa Farhat’s story is about malnutrition in children induced by climate change in coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal. In Bangladesh, malnutrition among children is not uncommon, but it is more prevalent among children living in coastal regions. “The misery was immense, just because of malnutrition,” said one mother, who was unable to breastfeed her newborn baby. Farhat’s short documentary was published in December 2021. Farhat has also produced a report on this situation, published this January. 

These stories represent a small but important sample of the many thousands of stories on climate change resilience that EJN has supported over the last 17 years. Although this Bay of Bengal project has ended, EJN is starting up a new Coastal Resilience Reporting project that will pick up the lessons learned from this most vulnerable region and will spread them, along with more reporting and learning opportunities, to journalists around the world. 

Banner image: The fishing dock at the mouth of the Hooghly and Rasulpur rivers in West Bengal's Nijkasba village / Credit: Sourav Kundu and Ryan Rozario. 

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