Study shows impact of climate hazards on women, children

A study by M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation says children exposed to climate hazards are more likely to be stunted, underweight, and more vulnerable to early pregnancies

Updated - May 11, 2024 08:56 pm IST

Published - May 11, 2024 08:43 pm IST - New Delhi

The issue of climate-change impact on women and children is under-researched and often overlooked in policy formulation.

The issue of climate-change impact on women and children is under-researched and often overlooked in policy formulation. | Photo Credit: KVS Giri

Women and children in Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Telangana are particularly vulnerable to climate change-related disasters, reveals an internal study commissioned by Ministry of Women and Child Development. Children exposed to climate hazards are more likely to be stunted, underweight, and more vulnerable to early pregnancies, it further says.

The study exclusively accessed by The Hindu identifies climate and health hotspots in order to specifically understand the impact of floods, cyclones and droughts on health of women and children. Titled “How does climate change impact women and children across agro-ecological zones in India - A scoping study”, it was conducted by the non-profit M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).

“The issue of climate-change impact on women and children is under-researched and often overlooked in policy formulation. In our scoping study we realised that up to 70% of Indian districts are at very high risk of floods, droughts, and cyclones. Women and children’s undernutrition, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence indicators in these hotspots are also very stark,” Soumya Swaminathan, chairperson, MSSRF and former chief scientist of World Health Organization told The Hindu on the sidelines of the WomenLift Health Global Conference 2024 at Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in April earlier this year.

Overall, 183 districts were vulnerable to hydro-meteorological disasters such as cyclones and floods while 349 districts witnessed drought. The study was able to generate certain spatial hotspots where high exposure to hydro-met hazards such as floods, cyclones and droughts significantly co-exists with a higher prevalence of poor health variables such as underweight women and child marriage.

In northern areas of Bihar and Gujarat, the geospatial maps show hotspots where exposure to drought, flood, and cyclone co-exists with stunting and underweight children. In terms of women’s nutritional indicators too, these States need immediate attention, the study says. The northern parts of both States are flood-prone areas battered by heavy rainfall.

Also read: Fixing India’s malnutrition problem

The study also points out that the northern plains, including parts of Uttar Pradesh, have hotspots for stunting, while parts of north Maharashtra and south Madhya Pradesh are hotspots for underweight children. Children are 6% more likely to be stunted, 24% more likely to be underweight, experience 35% reduction in minimum diet diversity, and there is a 12% increase in likelihood of deaths if they are under five years of age and exposed to drought, the report said.

“Also, it should be noted that southern India and parts of coastal belts in Odisha have high exposure scores to hydro-met hazards but perform better in terms of child stunting and underweight, highlighting the role of stronger health systems,” the study points out.

The study further goes on to identify major hotspots in terms of impact on women and young girls in areas exposed to drought, floods and cyclones - northern Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh, southern West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Telangana, eastern Maharashtra, parts of northern Madhya Pradesh and southern Uttar Pradesh.

“Exposure to drought events increases the likelihood of prevalence of underweight women by 35%, child marriage by 37%, teenage pregnancy by 17% and intimate partner violence by up to 50%,” the study states.

The climate change hotspots have been identified by spatio-temporal analysis encompassing 50 years of data on frequency and intensity of floods, cyclones and droughts and by using district-level climate vulnerability exposure scores published in 2021 by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

For health indicators of women and children, mapping and statistical analysis had been conducted by using the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) which cites data of 2019-21.

The study recognises that each hazard has different implication and it is difficult to attribute effects of sudden and short-term hazards like flood and cyclone on various parameters. Contrarily, slow and long-term hazards like droughts are likely to have more chronic and long-lasting effects.

The document submitted to Ministry states that the study’s limitations include reliance on secondary data sources, with limited empirical insights into the health aspects of women affected by climate change.

The recommendation to Ministry also states that there is a key gap in evidence, in order to understand differential factors behind children’s vulnerability to heatwaves and develop a systematic method to measure children’s exposure to heatwaves, and relatively less research attention has been paid to this area of inquiry, particularly in India.

“Excess deaths due to heat are not recognised and every State and city should make a heat action plan to tackle the effects of heatwaves. There should be accountability for who is responsible for co-ordination, who will finance, how will messages be disseminated in case of heat stroke and so on. It is a multi-sectoral effort. For instance, the labour department should enforce laws to give a break to construction labour from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.,” Dr. Swaminathan said.

There is also an absence of national-level data on climate vulnerability considering all hazards. There is a need to study the extent of exposure of women and children at the individual, household, and community levels to seven types of hazards - floods, cyclones, droughts, rainfall variability, heatwaves, air pollution, and cold waves, the recommendation to Ministry points out.

“To identify statistically significant hotspots highlighting the prevalence of heatwaves or prolonged heat and poor health variables, there is a need to generate detailed district-wise monthly temperature data that is currently lacking,” the study document states.

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