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India: How water crisis is haunting Sundarban residents

Mahima Kapoor in West Bengal
March 17, 2023

People residing in and around the Sundarbans — the world's largest mangrove forest — are being forced to spend their meager incomes on buying drinking water as climate change and local policies exhaust their options.

A Sonargaon resident attempts to catch crabs at the edge of the river in Sundarbans
Sundarbans, partly in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal and partly in Bangladesh, is the world's largest mangrove forestImage: Mahima Kapoor/DW

Karuna, 65, ran across the narrow lanes of her village a little before noon, calling out to other women on the streets — "is the water coming?" She adjusted an empty metal pitcher against her hip, as she made her way towards a different water pipeline to ask the same question.  

Karuna and the 200-odd families in her village were waiting for water since 7 a.m. A winding line of plastic cans, buckets and pitchers had formed in front of the government-installed drinking water taps.

"It is supposed to come three times a day," explained Debasis Sarkar, another resident of Village No. 4, also known as Malpara, in the Gosaba Block of Sundarbans. "Two hours early in the morning, two in the afternoon and another two in the evening," he said. That has not happened in weeks.

Sundarbans, partly in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal and partly in Bangladesh, is the world's largest mangrove forest. A delta between the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna and the Bay of Bengal, 30% of the forest is covered in water bodies. Yet, large parts of the region are going through a severe water crisis worsened by climate change and local policies.

Karuna, a resident of Malpara in Gosaba block of Sundarbans, makes her way to the local water tap
Karuna and the 200-odd families in her village are facing acute water shortagesImage: Mahima Kapoor/DW

The pipelines don't work for months at a time and the groundwater in most islands is either far too deep or far too salty. Thousands of families on the delta are now having to buy drinking water. That is especially a problem considering the population is economically weak, with little opportunity to escape their circumstances. "We can barely afford two meals a day and now we're having to pay for water. This is torture," Sarkar said.

Storms, sea and salt

Sundarbans' mangrove forest has historically protected the inlands from cyclonic storms which originate in the Bay of Bengal. But changing climate patterns have resulted in stronger, more frequent storms while deforestation of the mangroves has weakened its ability to resist them.

In 2009, Cyclone Aila — classified as a category 1 storm, the lowest on the scale of five — devastated the region with around 2.3 million people affected, according to Associated Press. Despite its classification as a lower category storm, it led to widespread floods which washed away mud houses, crops and livestock alike in a matter of hours.

In recent years, the region has been battered by one severe cyclone after the other — Fani (category 5) and Bulbul (category 3) in 2019 and Amphan (category 5) in 2020.

With every storm, the sea's saltwater floods into the land, contaminating the freshwater ponds and wells. In the past, the West Bengal government has commissioned programs to raise the height of tube wells to avoid their submergence, but locals say that has not worked. Yet, several villages continue to consume that water due to lack of alternates.

Joy Banerjee, a resident of Delhi who works in the Indian armed forces, now conducts independent trips to Sundarbans when he can, with boats full of drinking water. "When I started visiting villages away from tourist hotspots, I realized the general water they drink is saline. There are no government pipelines in the faraway coastal islands. They are used to it now," he told DW. "But they have no idea how bad it is for their health."

Drinking water salinity has been found to be associated with cardiovascular diseases, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Empty water cans Malpara village, Gosaba block, Sunderbans
A winding line of plastic cans, buckets and pitchers infront of government-installed drinking water taps in Malpara villageImage: Mahima Kapoor/DW

A 2015 report by the World Bank on the "poor" situation of drinking water in Sundarbans stated that an estimated 1,925 deaths and over 1.5 million cases of diarrhea were reported in the region in 2008. Things have only worsened since, according to the global financial institution. A follow up report by the World Bank in 2020 warned, "This situation will likely have numerous adverse effects on mother-child health, including dehydration, hypertension, prenatal complications, and increased infant mortality."

The politics of water

Located a 10-minute drive away from the village is a pond-based water filtration plant that supplies pipeline water to Malpara and a few other villages, including Arampur, Chondimon and Borobari. Set up in 2018 by the West Bengal government, the plant takes dirty water from four large ponds and filters out 300 million gallons of water for every 20 minutes of operation.

However, operating the plant has become difficult. "Today is the last day we're operating the plant this season," said Debashish Adhikari, one of the five caretakers of the plant. "There isn't enough water left in the ponds to operate the machinery. Whatever water is left in the system will be filtered on loop to keep the machinery in good condition for the next few months till monsoon hits," he told DW.

Adhikari blames the water shortage on the Block Development Office's policies which leases out the same ponds to a few families with large agriculture fields or fisheries. "They are local affluent families with political connections, that's why they've gotten the lease," he said. "This should not be happening."

Adhikari and local villagers said that the larger ponds are leased out for a period of 1-2 years at a time for hundreds of thousands of rupees even though villagers depend on the same water. He alleged that the lease had been given to influential names in local village-level politics.

Pressure from villagers has pushed the current village chief, locally known as the "pradhan," to take the matter to the block development officer (BDO), but little has changed.

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DW asked Joint Block Development Officer Bidhan Mridha about the nature of the lease, why the same ponds that are being used to provide drinking water, were also being used for other purposes, and how the funds raised from the lease were being used. "The ponds are leased only for the purpose of fisheries," he said.

"The said lease is given by Gosaba Panchayat Samiti and the fund is treated as the own fund of Gosaba Panchayat Samiti. Respected BDO/EO of panchayat Samiti on behalf of the Panchayat Samiti utilizes the fund in varied development purposes."

A Panchayat Samiti is a layer of government in rural India which acts as a link between the village council and the district authorities. Its members consist of block development officers, and members of the state's legislative assembly and parliament belonging to that area.

Achin Paik, head of Sundarbans Panchayat Samiti, did not respond to DW's phone calls.

Gosaba Block's Pradhan Gurupado Mandal confirmed that the ponds had been leased out to 2-5 men with influence, without providing further details. Meanwhile, villagers in the Gosaba block remain without access to clean and free drinking water.

Failing agriculture

Pakhirala, a village in Gosaba at the edge of the river towards the deep forest, has an additional issue to deal with. The village's proximity to the river and annual floods clogs the soil with salt, making the land unfit for cultivation.

"Once salty water goes into the soil, nothing grows on it. We have to wait for the whole year and more rain to decontaminate the soil," said Shubho Mondol, a resident there. He goes on to describe an endless cycle of rain, which clears the soil, followed by cyclone season, which destroys whatever crops have grown in the past few months.

Communities in several villages like Parikhala, Khapukur and Hasnabad have given up on agriculture and switched to catching prawns and crabs from small estuaries.

A large pond in the Gosaba block of Sundarbans used by the water filtration unit to supply drinking water to nearby villages
About 30% of the Sundarbans mangrove forest is covered in water bodiesImage: Mahima Kapoor/DW

What is the government doing?

Sundarbans' water crisis is not new. Several investigations, global studies and reports have outlined the dangers of climate change for the region. Despite the warnings, things have only gotten worse.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in a recent trip to the region, acknowledged the problem and promised action, according to local reports. "I've heard about your water-related problems. We are trying to solve it. We will connect all households in West Bengal with tap water by 2024," she said, according to The Telegraph.

Banerjee further said the state government was working on a masterplan for the overall development of Sundarbans, which includes declaring the region as a separate district.

India's Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her 2023-24 national budget, announced a new initiative for mangrove plantations along the coastline and on saltpan lands. MISHTI or the 'Mangrove Initiative for Shoreline Habitats & Tangible Incomes' was announced after India joined the Mangrove Alliance for Climate, launched during the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in late 2022.

Experts have hailed it as a good and necessary step towards long-term conservation of coastlines and the rich biodiversity mangroves sustain. However, the efforts are likely to take time to show results.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru