How the water crisis is haunting the people of the Sundarbans
Climate change and local politics are draining people’s choices.
Karuna, 65, ran through the narrow streets of her village just before noon, shouting to other women on the streets, “Water coming?” She adjusted the empty metal jug at her hip and moved to the other plumbing to ask the same question.
Karuna and more than 200 families in her village have been waiting for water since 7 am. A winding line of plastic cans, buckets and jugs lined up in front of government-installed drinking water taps.
“They are supposed to come three times a day,” explained Debasis Sarkar, another resident of No. 1.4 settlement, also known as Malpara, in the Gosaba block in the Sundarbans. “Two hours early in the morning, two in the afternoon and another two hours in the evening,” he said. This hasn’t happened in weeks.
The Sundarbans, partly in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal and partly in Bangladesh, is the largest mangrove forest in the world. In the delta between the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna and the Bay of Bengal, 30% of the forest is covered with water bodies. However, much of the region is experiencing a severe water crisis exacerbated by climate change and local politics.
The pipelines have been out of service for months, and the groundwater on most of the islands is either too deep or too salty. Thousands of families in the delta are now forced to buy drinking water. This is especially problematic given that the population is economically weak and has little opportunity to escape their circumstances. “We can barely afford two meals a day, and now we have to pay for water. This is torture,” Sarkar said.
Storms, sea and salt
The mangrove forests of the Sundarbans have historically protected the hinterland from cyclonic storms that originate in the Bay of Bengal. But climate change has led to stronger and more frequent storms, and the deforestation of mangroves has weakened their ability to withstand them.
In 2009, Cyclone Islay, classified as a Category 1 storm, the lowest on a scale of five, devastated the region in 2009, affecting about 2.3 million people, according to the Associated Press. Although classified as a lower category storm, it resulted in widespread flooding that washed away adobe houses, crops and livestock in a matter of hours.
In recent years, the region has been hit by one severe cyclone after another: Fani (category 5) and Bulbul (category 3) in 2019 and Amphan (category 5) in 2020.
With every storm, salt water floods the land, polluting freshwater ponds and wells. In the past, the West Bengal government has launched programs to increase the height of tube wells to avoid flooding, but locals say it hasn’t worked. However, a few villages continue to consume this water due to lack of alternatives.
Joy Banerjee, a Delhi resident working for the Indian military, now makes solo trips to the Sundarbans whenever he can in boats filled with drinking water. “When I started visiting villages away from the tourist spots, I realized that the water they drink is usually salty. There are no government pipelines on remote offshore islands. Now they are used to it,” he told DW. But they have no idea how bad it is for their health.
The salinity of drinking water has been found to be associated with cardiovascular disease, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
A 2015 World Bank report on the “bad” drinking water situation in the Sundarbans states that in 2008 there were about 1,925 deaths and more than 1.5 million cases of diarrhea in the region. institution. A follow-up 2020 World Bank report warned: “This situation is likely to have numerous adverse health outcomes for mother and child, including dehydration, hypertension, prenatal complications and an increase in infant mortality.”
A 10-minute drive from the village is a pond-based water filtration plant that supplies piped water to Malpara and several other villages, including Arampur, Chondimon and Borobari. The plant, set up in 2018 by the government of West Bengal, collects dirty water from four large ponds and filters out 300 million gallons of water for every 20 minutes of operation.
However, it became difficult to manage the plant. “Today is the last day we work at the plant this season,” said Debashish Adhikari, one of the five plant caretakers. There is not enough water in the ponds to operate the machinery. Any water left in the system will be filtered in a cycle to keep the equipment in good condition over the next few months until the rainy season hits,” he told DW.
Adhikari blames the water shortage on the policy of the Neighborhood Development Authority, which leases out the same ponds to several families with large farmlands or fisheries. “These are local wealthy families with political connections, which is why they got the rent,” he said. “It shouldn’t be.”
Adhikaris and locals said that larger ponds are leased for 1-2 years for hundreds of thousands of rupees, although the villagers depend on the same water. He claimed that the lease was given to powerful people in local politics at the village level.
Pressure from the villagers forced the current village chief, known locally as “pradhan”, to refer the matter to the District Development Officer (BDO), but little has changed.
DW asked joint BDO Bidhan Mridha about the nature of the lease, why the same ponds that are used to provide drinking water are also used for other purposes, and how the funds received from the lease are used. “The ponds are only rented out for fishing purposes,” he said.
Said lease is provided by Gosaba Panchayat Samiti and this fund is treated as Gosaba Panchayat Samiti’s own fund. Dear BDO/EO Panchayat Samiti, on behalf of Panchayat Samiti, is using the fund for various development purposes.”
Panchayat Samiti is the layer of government in rural India that acts as a link between the village council and district governments. It is composed of block development officials as well as members of the state legislature and parliament belonging to the region.
Achin Paik, head of the Sundarbans Panchayat Samiti, did not return phone calls from DW.
Pradhan Gurupado Mandal of Gosaba Block confirmed that the ponds were leased to 2-5 influencers without providing further details. Meanwhile, residents of the Gosaba village remain without access to clean and free drinking water.
Pahirala, a village in Gosab on the banks of a river leading to dense forest, has another problem to solve. The proximity of the village to the river and annual floods flood the soil with salt, making the land unsuitable for cultivation.
Once salt water enters the soil, nothing grows on it. We need to wait a whole year and more rains to decontaminate the soil,” said local resident Shubho Mondol. He goes on to describe an endless cycle of rains that cleanse the soil, followed by a season of cyclones that destroys all the crops grown in the last few months.
Communities in several villages such as Parihala, Khapukur and Khasnabad have given up agriculture and switched to small-scale shrimp and crab fishing.
What is the government doing?
The water crisis in the Sundarbans is not new. Several studies, global studies and reports have identified the dangers of climate change for the region. Despite warnings, things only got worse.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee acknowledged the problem during a recent trip to the region and vowed to take action, according to local reports. “I heard about your water problems. We are trying to solve this problem. By 2024, we will connect all households in West Bengal to piped water,” she said. Telegraph.
Banerjee also said the state government is working on a master plan for the overall development of the Sundarbans, which includes declaring the region a separate district.
Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her 2023-2024 National Budget, announced a new initiative to develop mangrove plantations along the coastline and in the salt lands. MISHTI or “Mangrove Initiative for Coastal Habitat and Income” was announced after India joined the Mangrove Alliance for Climate launched during the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Change climate at the end of 2022.
The experts hailed this as a good and necessary step towards the long-term conservation of coastlines and the rich biodiversity of mangroves. However, the effort will likely take time to show results.