The women of Kunderpara village are used to having water all around them. They live on an island in the middle of one of Bangladesh’s many large rivers. The women are even used to the occasional seasonal flood.
But lately when the river floods, it takes on new, terrifying meaning. The women do all they can to prepare, but more and more often the water comes without warning.
When it comes, there is little to do but gather their children and climb up on raised beds, out of its reach. The water brings stress. It brings sickness. Children cannot go to school, and pregnant women cannot access health care.
When the water comes, they must wait, sometimes for weeks, until it subsides again.
As the climate changes, floods in the northwest corner of Bangladesh are becoming more unpredictable, and lasting longer than they did in the past. And the women of Kunderpara are doing their best to adapt to this changing reality.
With the help of a local organization, Ganna Unnayan Kendra (GUK), the residents of Kunderpara are learning how to prepare for the unpredictability of flooding. They have formed a disaster preparedness committee, and constructed a flood shelter on the highest ground in the area. Since the community recognizes that women are heavily affected by floods, women occupy important roles in the committee. They take the lead in activities like early-warning communication plans, support for pregnant or nursing mothers, and longer-term strategies like growing and selling vegetables to set aside cash for emergencies.
But the program doesn’t include one aspect of these women’s lives, an aspect that could be just as important to the livelihoods of their families as disaster preparedness and income generation: the ability to plan their families.
Most people working on climate change do not automatically think about reproductive health, but the women they’re working with probably do. Nearly 20 percent of married women in Bangladesh want to avoid pregnancy, but don’t have contraception.
Hearing their stories, it’s clear the women of Kunderpara have enough uncertainty and stress in their lives without having to worry about an unplanned pregnancy. In their roles as providers of food, water, and fuel, these women are crucial to their families’ abilities to survive and effectively cope with the impacts of climate change. When they are empowered to manage the timing of their own childbearing and the size of their families, they can better respond to unpredictable impacts of climate change.
Women with access to family planning are healthier and have healthier children. They also have greater opportunities to complete their own education and earn money in new ways, which can be critical in areas where climate change undermines traditional farming or fishing.
On a larger scale, slowing population growth would ease pressure on ecosystems that are already vulnerable to climate stresses, and result in fewer people exposed to climate risk. People in Bangladesh live on these islands, which occasionally disappear under a river’s floodwaters, because there is nowhere else for them to go. Its population density — more than 1,000 residents per square kilometer — is twice that of New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the U.S.
For the past 10 years, United States foreign assistance has supported integrated programs addressing the linked challenges of population, health, and environment. These programs meet the health and development needs of underserved communities while sustaining natural resources, environmental services, and biodiversity. They get results, but are chronically under-funded.
It’s time to ask why. Climate change impacts are difficult to predict. Pregnancy doesn’t have to be. Helping a woman to gain access to family planning means a healthier life for her, and a healthier planet for all of us. Mothers around the world — including Mother Earth — deserve nothing less.
Get Grist in your inbox