Q&A: Navigating the Climate Crisis – Unraveling the Impact of Water Salinity on Maternal Health


Olivia Raso

Summer 2023 Intern

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Climate change, as so many of us recognize, implicates women disproportionately, and yet we understand so little about how climate related events will shape our new world. Women’s social, economic, and cultural standing means they are more vulnerable to the endless implications of the climate emergency. For instance, climate related weather events are creating high salinity in drinking water in India, creating especially dangerous conditions for pregnant women. While it is clear that high salinity in drinking water negatively effects all community members and we must strive for everyone to have access to clean drinking water, we do know that for pregnant women, consuming saline water leads to preeclampsia and gestational hypertension, leading to worsened maternal and fetal outcomes both during and post-delivery.

To learn more about this pressing issue and the ways, our summer intern and high school senior, Olivia Raso, sat down for an interview with Dr. Surashree Shome, Assistant Director of Gender and Climate at ICRW Asia.

How did you come across the issue and what sparked your interest in it?

I came across an article named “Drinking Water Salinity and Maternal Health in Coastal Bangladesh: Implications of Climate Change.” Published in 2011, the study discussed the increase of salt in drinking water sources in coastal Bangladesh linked to more climate related weather events. The researchers linked this to increased incidents of hypertension in pregnancy during the winter. This discussion raised my interest in the issue as India shares a long coastline and the Ganges delta with Bangladesh. This shared coastline suggests that Indians, and perhaps others around the world, face the same issues. I have not been able to find any more studies discussing the increased salt in water sources and its impact on pregnant woman, such as maternal hypertension and preeclampsia. There seems to be lack of data on this important issue.

Why is this research important?

The George Institute for Global Health notes that the populations in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India are amongst the most vulnerable to the threat of global environmental change. Salinity in drinking water across the coastal belts of these countries have been associated with increased blood pressure and urinary protein excretion, progressive kidney disease, pre-eclampsia, and gestational hypertension. Sundarbans, where I intend to do the research, is an economically fragile and poor area that is vulnerable to regular cyclones. The research will establish the relationship between these two factors and advocate for a program to provide adequate drinking water through the female participation in local democracy. I hope to also develop a program to ensure the local health centers have the medicines and required skills to address the issue.

Why do you think there has been a lack of research done on the effects of climate change and clean water access on women in particular?

Climate change is going to impact the Earth and all its residents, but the effects will vary from area to area. The ecologically fragile areas will be most impacted because the livelihood of people living in those areas are closely connected with local weather patterns. In the context of women, climate change has not only brought many new issues, but it has also aggravated old issues, including the issues of water and sanitation (for which women are responsible), girls’ education, early marriage, and gender-based violence. There are some new studies correlating gender issues and climate change, but the connection is not accepted by many. Because these impacts are often very local, studies have not covered these issues or let’s say not adequately covered these issues. We need to connect the many local stories to establish the global impact on women across the globe.

As their drinking water becomes more and more saline, how are women specifically pregnant woman more affected?

Pregnant women are at a higher risk for preeclampsia and hypertension when they ingest the salt levels that are in their drinking water. Pregnant mothers with hypertension and/or preeclampsia often have worse maternal and fetal outcomes, including both acute and long-term impaired liver function, low platelet count, and preterm birth. There is a proven link between high intakes of salt and a mother’s likelihood to develop gestational hypertension and the associated maternal and fetal issues.

Climate change is intensifying and exacerbating preexisting issues, such as child marriage, clean water access, health care, access, etc; How can we help mitigate the risks associated with those issues?

We can address climate change and women’s health at the same time. It’s important to incorporate these issues into the village development plan and community action together. This way the issues of gender, child marriage, clean water, and more are addressed more effectively.

ICRW has historically used our research to help the community design the improvement programs themselves. How are you planning to continue this inclusive approach?

It is important to figure out how this issue can be addressed in a sustainable way. Participation in local democracy is the only way to include climate action in local development plans. Women’s participation is critical.  If you look across the country, the participation of women in local democracy is very low. By centering women and local organizations in designing a program, the program and outcomes will sustainable and effective. This will also make sure that women and girl’s needs to address climate change are centered.

What does the future of this project look like? Would you like to expand its scope?

Certainly, I think that we should expand the scope of this study to many low-income countries, especially in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the coastal regions of India. So, what is the impact on people? Here we are talking about pregnant women in particular because pregnant women very vulnerable in these areas. Even though we are focusing on pregnant women, we should also look at the impact of hypertension among all people in these areas.

Through the research-based program described above by Dr. Shome, ICRW is committed to investing in this work, creating actionable evidence around the disproportionate effects of climate change that women face. To be successful, this work requires many hands; if you are interested in joining these efforts, please reach out.