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Bangladesh ?climate-proofs? to protect health

Five kerosene lamps once provided the only light in Kawsar Mia’s home and shop in Muradnagar, Comilla, Bangladesh. Every night the lamps burned, Kawsar and his family inhaled toxic fumes, including carbon monoxide.

But, in 2010 he was introduced to a solar home system by Bangladesh’s Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) – a government owned company which improved his family’s health and allowed him to grow his business.

“The solar home systems have brought significant changes to rural communities who were not able to be reached by electricity due to Bangladesh’s landscape, which is surrounded by many rivers,” says Muhammad Wahidur Rahman, Unit Head (technical) of Renewable Energy at IDCOL. “Since 2003, more than 3.9 million solar home systems have been installed.”

Because only 73 percent of the country has access to electricity, many Bangladeshis use high polluting energy sources for cooking, heating and lighting. Every year, approximately 83 000 premature deaths are attributable to household air pollution, according to WHO’s new Climate and Health Country Profile, which summarizes the current and future impacts of climate change on human health in Bangladesh and ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The country profile provides policy-makers and experts information on gaps and opportunities for action so they can make informed decisions about climate change,” says Dr N. Paranietharan WHO Representative to Bangladesh.

The solar home project is just one the actions the Government of Bangladesh is taking to “climate proof” the country through its Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan. Launched in 2009, the plan calls for low carbon development, disaster risk reduction through adaptation, food security and social protection, to safeguard the population from climate change.

Climate change’s impact on health

Due to a vast coastline, low-lying land and abundance of rivers, Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to climate change. Yearly floods, tropical cyclones, storm surges and droughts impact the country’s crops, drinking water supply and homes – putting people’s health and lives at risk.

Currently, 8.3 million Bangladeshis live in cyclone high risk areas. However, by 2050 this is expected to grow to 20.3 million people, if actions are not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

“The climate change challenge in Bangladesh threatens to undermine the significant achievements made over more than 2 decades of development,” says Dr Paranietharan.

An estimated 7.2 million Bangladeshis are also projected to be affected by flooding annually due to sea-level rise between 2070 and 2100, and high salinity will further reduce fresh water supplies. Scaling up protection measures, such as continued construction or rising of dikes according to need, could reduce the number of people impacted to 14 100 people.

Actions to combat climate change

The Government of Bangladesh has installed warning systems; built shelters to protect people from extreme weather events, and planted saltwater-tolerant crops to protect food supplies. But more work will be required to further reduce climate risks.

Working with the Government of Bangladesh, WHO is implementing water safety plans to ensure water remains safe during extreme weather events; developing a Health National Adaptation Plan and a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) strategy; and launched a surveillance system to track and combat climate-sensitive diseases, like diarrhoea, dengue and malaria.

“Having extensive experience with facing natural disasters, Bangladesh has developed a successful adaptation programme, which led to a significant reduction in casualties from extreme weather events,” says Dr Tanveer Ahmed Choudhury, Program Manager Noncommunicable Disease Control Program, Bangladesh Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

“This programme has given the nation enough courage to face its challenges,” he adds.

Reducing the risks worldwide

WHO’s support to Bangladesh is part of the Organization’s effort to increase health resilience to climate risks and to promote the health benefits of lower carbon development choices worldwide. In 2008, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution on climate change and health, which calls on countries to strengthen their health systems to prepare for and respond to natural disasters and to promote health sector engagement with other sectors to reduce risks.

 In order to empower the health community to contribute to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, WHO and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, published the first Climate and Health Country Profiles, which includes Bangladesh. These profiles will be updated and expanded over time to further support and track country progress in confronting climate change—the defining public health issue for the 21st century.

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