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Climate change affecting health in Sundarbans: Experts

Sundarbans: Frequent climatic shocks in the form of cyclones and floods in Sundarbans is playing havoc with the health of 4.5 million villagers staying in the fragile islands, experts say.

As a result of climate change induced sea level rise, instances of coastal erosion, flooding and cyclone incidences have increased manifold in the Sundarban swamps putting the villagers at greater health risks.

Forest guards conduct a tiger census in the sundarbans. AFP

Forest guards conduct a tiger census in the sundarbans. AFP

Almost all types of communicable diseases primarily related to respiratory and gastro-intestinal systems are highly prevalent in Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site located few kms away from Kolkata.

Prof Barun Kanjilal of The Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR), who has been studying the region, told PTI that children are the worst affected with chronic malnutrition, diarrhea and other common childhood illness highly prevalent among them.

"Transient climatic shocks have made the child health worse through the pathway of chronic poverty, low resilience, physical and social barriers to health seeking as well as ineffective service delivery system," he said.

When climate events destroy crops, lands or houses, it affects the food security of the people ultimately causing undernutrition through reduction in calorie intake.

In addition to this, disease outbreaks causes additional suffering.

During heavy rains, the low-lying villages get inundated and tubewells go under water. When the water recedes, it leaves behind a trail of impurities, most of it having also entered the tubewells.

A survey by international NGO Save The Children showed that about 25 percent of students are forced to occasionally drink pond water during disasters.

Males, both adults and adolescents, use the river bank for defecation during disasters. In addition to lack of privacy and discomfort, open defecation serves to further pollute the waterlogged surroundings leading to widescale water borne ailments.

Dr Samiran Panda of the city-based National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) said climatic shocks make people more vulnerable to water-borne diseases due to water contamination.

"Water and sanitation hygiene infrastructure is usually the first to break down during disasters and remain out of reach for extended periods of time," he said.

Dr Kanjilal said in such a scenario, frequent climatic shocks aggravate health and nutritional deterioration of the people.

According to a study by IIHMR, almost 3 out of 5 children among vulnerable groups in the Sundarbans are stunted.

Besides climatic hazards, islanders are exposed to diseases and malnutrition also due to remoteness of the place, chronic poverty and poor health service delivery system.

"It is clear that climatic shock and its interaction with chronic shocks against which inhabitants struggling for years are bringing health shocks to aggravate undernutrition-morbidity vicious circle among children living in blocks even with better service delivery system," Dr Kanjilal said.

PTI