Categories
Essay

Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans

By Camellia Biswas

Many projected climate change impacts, including sea-level rise, temperature increase, heavy rainfall, drought and cyclone intensity, is increasing yearly flooding, riverbank erosion, salinity intrusion, etc. These pose severe impediments to the socio-economic development of India, especially the coastal areas. The coastal area of India, especially the Bay of Bengal, is located at the tip of the northern Indian Ocean. It is frequently hit by severe cyclonic storms, generating long tidal waves aggravated by the shallow bay.

At least one major tropical cyclone strikes the Eastern/south-eastern coast each year with powerful tidal surges. The Chakraborty et al (2016, 13-19) report states almost 2.3 million people were affected by Cyclone Aila more than a decade ago in May 2009. Many people were stranded in flooded villages. The tidal surge was about 10-13metres in height. It washed away enormous number of households, lives, livestock, crops and all other resources of the affected region. Aila was not a powerful storm, but its heavy incessant rains and storm surges were enough to swamp the mouths of the Ganges in both Bangladesh and India (Biswas 2017).

Some islands in the Bay of Bengal and the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans region were wholly submerged underwater. This catastrophe happened within a brief period, which resulted in people becoming homeless, leaving their assets in the households. A tiny percentage of the affected people could take shelter in the nearby cyclone shelter or schools during the cyclonic event. However, in several discussions, the affected people criticised that most cyclone shelters were built post-Aila and schools had only ground floors, which was anyways inundated. Most people thus took refuge on elevated roads. The extreme flooding also resulted in thousands of people losing access to safe drinking water and exposure to floodwaters containing untreated wastewater, dead animals and fish.

Impacts on water systems and water quality are often not visualised as chronic damage to property or the landscape. And thus, most treatments to these problems are temporary and short-lived. Potable water scarcity is a cumulative problem in the coastal region of India, especially Sundarbans, as it is revolving saline water slowly. Climate-induced disasters like rainfall, cyclone and storm surge, flood etc., are making the situation worse. Coastal people gradually depend on groundwater due to surface water salinity. As a result, groundwater extraction is increasing day by day. For that reason, the shallow aquifer has also been contaminated by salinity intrusion.

I have witnessed the horrific situation of women and children wailing for drinking water and waiting for relief distribution while spending my summer holidays at my native house in Sundarbans. The 14-year-old me then was horrified by the helpless situation of my own people, my kin and kept wondering whether disaster management conditions would be better or worse in due course of time especially when it concerns marginal communities of Dalits and Adivasis.

The memories of Aila keep flashing back to these Sundarban islanders every time they are hit by a cyclone or post-cyclone flood. Some of the stories they shared with me during my doctoral fieldwork made me revisit my Aila memories. As a native researcher, it gave a new stance towards the importance of water beyond its economic value and enhancing communities’ socio-cultural ties. Water, which has often served as an agency to conflict and dispute, during Aila it stimulated the sense of brotherhood and togetherness among the Samsernagar village residents.

Flood Friendship Between India-Bangladesh

Samsernagar is the last village in West Bengal’s Sundarban, bordering Bangladesh by river Kalindi. During Aila, the embankments of Samsernagar broke, resulting in the inundation of the village with the high tide influx from Kalindi. It led to total ruination of the settlement in just a couple of minutes. Samsernagar was submerged in the water, and so were the tube-wells and ponds, which were the only source of drinking water. It is where the villagers from Bangladesh came as harbingers of help.

In the political map, Bangladesh and India are demarcated as two separate nations. However, for people in Samsernagar, their neighboring village will still be the Village Koikhali of Bangladesh. To better understand, I phoned one of my respondent’s relatives who lived on the other side and asked about their experience during Aila regarding the help they provided to the Samsernagar residents. Koikhali residents came to Samsernagar rowing on their boat with barrels of potable water and other essential aids like food, clothes and mats. From several discussion and information interaction, it can be inferred that Samsernagar still recognises their international neighbour’s gesture which didn’t let them die of drinking polluted water. This act showed how, on the one hand, the water acted as a demon to the villagers through flooding and on the other, the barrels of drinking water brought by the neighbouring villages of Bangladesh became a sign of camaraderie and community interest. It went beyond just a mere necessity to live. It showed us how two villages come together, ignoring the human-made international boundary.

The Dilemma of Drinking water Crisis

That this acute drinking water problem can turn into a chronic issue in events like Aila and similar flooding situations is given credence by the fact that underground water also becomes saline due to leaching and seepage. Even after the floodwater recedes, the tube well water remains undrinkable. Sittler (2017), in her study on ‘Floodwater and stormwater can contaminate your water well’ argues that regardless of where storm-water runoff occurs, like floods, it can carry harmful contaminants such as soil, animal waste, salt, pesticides, and oil, potentially impacting drinking water wells and water quality. When discussed these challenges with groundwater experts at Sundarbans, they pointed out that in the Hingalganj Block, where Samsernagar village is situated, many deep tube well weren’t rightly maintained. Excessive contaminant-laden run-off infiltrated these drinking water wells through and assessed that the well casings or caps may not have been completely watertight. Moreover, any potential contaminants into the well can pose at least a short-term risk to water quality and human health.

In 2009, many families in Sundarbans, out of desperation, consumed pond water undergoing some basic filtration, knowing that the pond water stank from carcasses of dead animals. As farmlands remain filled with saline water, paddy yield became meagre the same and following year. Affected people when interviewed spoke of the mismanagement of the state’s relief supply and its lack of providing safe water, on how the local administrations would run some basic filtration like boiling the contaminated water and distributing it. As a result, hundreds of villagers suffered from diarrhea two weeks after drinking contaminated water. According to UNICEF, 28 diarrheal deaths were registered, and over 85,000 cases were reported from the Aila-hit districts of West Bengal.

Water can be considered a symbolic element, a resource, a commercial product, or a service. The interconnections established and the value attributed to water usage serves to build norms and references that influence the decision-making process from individuals to higher levels of social organisation. When considering it a resource for life, its interests and values vary and change across cultures, communities, states, space and time. One may raise an inquiry that spaces like Sundarbans is surrounded by rivers and seas, and that’s presumably the reason why Sundarban locals might not feel impacted by the presence of noble metals in the water.

However, as Sundarban landscape has a mangrove ecosystem, the water quality in and around the area has been found to be of inferior quality (CGWB report, 2014-15). If also, post-Aila most deep wells that were reconstructed at the height of 8-10ft above flood level so that the runoff was less likely to introduce contaminants into these wells, slight amount of saline water still managed to seep into the groundwater. However, it is the persistent presences of high iron and arsenic in the wells within that should raise alarm. So, even though the region is surrounded by water, most of it is toxic. Thus, for the Sundarban islanders, continuous access to safe and potable water is an aspiration that continues a dream for the whole community.

REFERENCES:

.

Camellia Biswas is a doctoral candidate at the discipline of Humanities & Social science, IIT Gandhinagar. She is an Inlaks-RS conservation grantee for the year 2021-22. Her research specialises in Environmental anthropology, focusing on human- Nature Interaction in Indian Sundarban under the larger discourse of Climate disaster.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Editorial

The Caged Birds Sing

...Don't you know
They're talkin''bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper...
-- Tracy Chapman,'Talkin 'Bout a Revolution
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
— Bible 

We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?

Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?

That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.

“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”

Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’.  Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?

 Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.

In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices?  We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.

We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.

Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!

While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?

Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares, and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.

We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.

Have a beautiful month!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal