How Displacement and Poverty Create Health Risks in Bangladesh

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SEATTLE — Bangladesh is the tenth most densely populated country in the world, with a population of 166 million people living in a land area of approximately 147,560 square kilometers. Between 2010 and 2016, urban poverty rates declined from 21.3 percent to 18.9 percent, and rural poverty rates declined from 35.2 percent to 26.4 percent. However, in recent years the rate of poverty reduction in Bangladesh has slowed. Today, approximately one in four Bangladeshis (24.3 percent of the population) remain in poverty and 12.9 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. The poverty rates and health risks in Bangladesh are directly affected by the country’s high number of internally displaced persons, refugees and migrants.

Natural Disasters a Major Cause of Poverty in Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s physical location in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, population density, economic environment and 600-kilometer coastline contribute to its high susceptibility to various natural hazards, such as floods, cyclones, droughts, heat waves, landslides, fires and earthquakes. Described by Oxfam as “one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world,” Bangladesh is home to approximately 614,000 people internally displaced due to natural disasters, ranking sixth among Asian countries for people displaced in their own country.

Within the last year, approximately eight million people in 32 districts were affected by floods, which destroyed 103,855 homes and forced 307,000 people to stay in emergency shelters. Each year, more than 80 percent of the population is exposed to floods, droughts and earthquakes. Every three years, the country experiences a severe tropical cyclone, flooding 25 percent of the land. Every four to five years, severe flooding covers 60 percent of the land. Currently, 8.3 million Bangladeshis live in high-risk areas for cyclones. An Environmental Justice Foundation report states that the number of Bangladeshis living in slums has increased by 60 percent over the last 17 years due to flooding of their homes, and that tens of millions of people are at risk becoming “climate refugees” in their own country.

Conflict and Violence Contribute to Displacement

In addition to the internal displacement caused by natural disasters, Bangladesh is also home to nearly one million Rohingya refugees who have fled the Myanmar military counter-insurgency offensive that the United Nations has deemed “ethnic cleansing.” Prior to August 2017, there were approximately 300,000 Rohingya refugees already living in Bangladesh. Military attacks on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar in August 2017 caused an influx of another 700,000 refugees, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that has increased health risks in Bangladesh.

Other Health Risks in Bangladesh Include Malnutrition and Disease

The large number of displaced people (either from natural disasters or external violence) has led to severe health risks in Bangladesh. Roughly half of Bangladeshis are unable to access enough food to meet their dietary needs and 36 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

There are high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition among the refugee camps and the climate migrant slums. The majority of the Rohingya refugees reside in temporary settlements near Cox’s Bazar, where the concentration of refugees is the highest in the world, and the population places a heavy strain on the host communities.

The rise in Rohingya refugees residing in Bangladesh has caused the pre-existing refugee settlements to merge into one massive “mega-settlement”, with more than half a million people crowded along a narrow peninsula. According to The Lancet, it has become “a massive rural slum” devoid of outhouses. The same stream is used for defecation and to collect drinking water; the genesis of a major public health emergency. Though some have used clothes to form shelters, two days of torrential rain and thunderstorms had washed away whole communities’ few belongings.

Strategies and Solutions to Reduce Health Risks and Poverty

Though Bangladesh’s poverty rate has been threatened by the large numbers of climate migrants and refugees, there have been numerous responses and efforts to alleviate poverty issues in Bangladesh.

On July 6, 2018, the Asian Development Bank approved a grant of $100 million, the first of a $200 million package dedicated to helping the Bangladesh government develop basic infrastructure and services for displaced persons. This grant project will support displaced people in camps in the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts of Cox’s Bazar, focusing on disaster risk management, energy, roads, water supplies and sanitation.

Regarding Bangladesh’s natural disasters, the Bangladesh government has installed warning systems, built shelters to protect the people from extreme weather and planted saltwater-tolerant crops to protect the food supply. The World Health Organization has worked with the government to implement water safety plans, developed a water, sanitation and hygiene strategy and launched a surveillance system to track and combat climate-sensitive diseases, such as diarrhea, dengue fever and malaria.

There have been numerous projects undertaken over the last 10 years, which have dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to helping Bangladesh mitigate the impact of natural disasters, strengthen emergency preparedness and facilitate the recovery of infrastructure. Such projects include the Coastal Embankment Improvement Project in 2013, the Multipurpose Disaster Shelter Project in 2015, the Urban Resilience Project in 2015, the Emergency 2007 Cyclone Recovery and Restoration Project and the Weather and Climate Services Regional Project for Bangladesh in 2016.

Regarding food insecurity and related health risks in Bangladesh, USAID’s Office of Food for Peace partners with Helen Keller International, CARE International, and World Vision to implement multi-year developmental programs, which improve agriculture, maternal and child health, availability and access to food, economic growth and disaster risk reduction throughout Bangladesh. Despite stagnating poverty rates, large numbers of internally displaced climate migrants and external refugees and major public health emergencies, Bangladesh has a wide range of strategies, responses and solutions in place to aid in its poverty reduction efforts.

– Kara Roberts
Photo: Flickr

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