Left behind in a water crisis:
On the southwest coast of Bangladesh, where the land meets the sea in the Ganges delta, the increasing salinity of the groundwater has had far-reaching effects. As the arable soil has become too salty to support traditional crops such as rice, men in rural areas have been forced to move to the city to find work.
The women left behind to care for the children and elderly face an acute drinking water crisis. Each summer, they have to walk farther to find potable water. And socio-cultural norms that restrict the movement of women in public spaces make it even harder for women to live on their own.
Bangladesh’s reliance on agriculture, high population density and climatic conditions make it one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change. And the effects of climate-induced migration are only just beginning to be felt. About 20 million people will be displaced in Bangladesh in the coming five years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In the villages of Bangladesh’s Satkhira district, I met the women who were left behind to grapple with changing environmental conditions. Over 200 miles away, in the slums of Dhaka, I met the men – their husbands – who had left their homes to find work. This series brings together both their stories, and the possible solutions to this problem.
Left behind in a water crisis:
Surviving salty waters
Romesa Khatun’s day is punctuated by trips to a community water pump in a neighboring village. For all the water her family needs, Romesa must make three trips a day, each time walking in the sweltering heat, the loose end of her threadbare mustard-colored sari covering her head, her blue rubber slippers slapping against the hot cement of the winding road. Her village, Srifalkathi, lies on the southwest coast of Bangladesh bordering the Sunderbans, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world.
Here, at the edge of the Ganges delta, water intrudes on the low-lying land, and shallow ponds and rivulets proliferate across the landscape. Tidal flooding, inundation by storm surges and saltwater intrusion have caused a rise in salinity in the groundwater and the fresh-water ponds. As a result, in the coastal area of Satkhira, potable water is a scarce and precious commodity.
The impact of the acute drinking water crisis is borne disproportionately by women, as the family member traditionally charged with collecting water. Sometimes the task of collecting water takes up nearly a third of their day, leaving little time to do anything else.
After a prolonged wait in line by the pump, her arm hooked around an aluminum pot that is one of her most precious possessions; the water Romesa collects still tastes of salt.
“The water has a strange smell, it tastes peculiar,” said 27-year-old Romesa, looking out at the pond by her house where she used to be able to collect water, her eyes squinting in the harsh summer sun. “You can’t use it for cooking or drinking. Even when you have a bath with it, your skin itches. The only water that is safe is the rain water.”
About 70 percent of people in the region depend on pond water for drinking and domestic use, as the groundwater is extremely saline, according to Golam Rabbani, a fellow at the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies. During the monsoon season, the shortage of drinking water in the village is somewhat abated, as most households collect rainwater in plastic buckets and drums.
During the dry season, the water level in the shallow ponds goes down by nearly 3 feet and the little water available gives off a sharp odor. As water sources dry up and demand increases, women from Srifalkathi are forced to walk farther and farther to provide water for their families.
When Romesa’s 11-year-old daughter is home from school, she takes her with her to fetch water. Women here are married early – Romesa was married at 15 – but she hopes her daughter will be able to complete high school.
The lack of available drinking water has turned water into a commodity. In recent years, many entrepreneurs have begun to filter water and sell it in the area. Amirulla Gazi, a tall, reedy man with skin weathered by the elements, began to sell water in Kochukhali village 16 years ago. Each day, he buys 30 liters of water from the tube well at the bazaar and sells it to households in the village. Since cyclone Aila, the demand for water has increased, driving up the price. “People who used to get water for free are getting more habituated to paying for water,” he said. “They don’t take it for granted anymore.”
Over the past 35 years, salinity intrusion in Bangladesh has increased around 26 percent, with the affected area growing each year. According to a study by the World Bank, climate change is likely to increase river salinity and exacerbate shortages of drinking water and irrigation in the southwest coastal areas of Bangladesh, where 2.5 million people are already struggling with a lack of water.
The link between growing salinity and climate change is an indirect one. “Slow onset events such as saline intrusion in coastal areas – these are things that are slowly happening but get exacerbated by rapid onset events such as cyclones,” said Dr. Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh. “Floods and cyclones are not new, but climate change will exacerbate them and make them more frequent and more severe.”
AS ROMESA SITS on her porch, an extension of the raised mud platform on which her house is built, the sound of the azan from the village mosque reverberates in the air. She recently installed a light bulb in her home, where she lives with her children and her husband’s aging parents, after a non-profit brought electricity to the village.
To avoid inundation from frequent flooding, most of the mud homes in the village are built about 4 feet above the ground. But that is seldom enough. Her home, like most others in the village, was completely destroyed during Aila, a devastating cyclone in 2009. After the cyclone subsided, the ponds and most other drinking water sources in the area were contaminated with ocean water. After taking out some loans from a local non-profit, she was able to rebuild her home, but has yet to repay the debt.
Increasingly frequent cyclones in the region mean that life is always a little uncertain in the village. “Nobody knows when the village will be hit again,” says Romesa. “Earthquakes happen frequently. When the ground shakes, I become afraid that another disaster is about to happen.”
As evening falls, she begins to prepare dinner – fish cooked with onions and tomato and white rice. With her husband away working in Dhaka, she lives with her children and her in-laws. Romesa has never been to Dhaka, but her husband tells her that the water there is sweet, not like in her village.
“Since my husband went to Dhaka, I have to look after the children and school and doctors and market,” said Romesa, using one hand to wipe off her son’s runny nose with the edge of her sari. Her son, who is 6, misses his father and often asks if they can travel to Dhaka with him. “If there is no man in the house, how much can a woman do?”
Every week or so, Romesa’s husband sends her about 600 Bangladeshi taka, or $7.70 through bKash, a money remittance service in Bangladesh that allows money transfers through mobile phones. Of that she has to pay $3.21 for her children’s school fees for the month. Then there are books, medicines, clothes and food left to purchase – and each month Romesa finds that the money sent home is not enough.
“Expenses are going higher. I tell him this,” said Romesa, who talks to her husband on her plastic-wrapped phone every other day. “He asks us to manage somehow. We have to survive.”
While most women don’t receive enough financial support from their husbands, some don’t receive any. A study by United Nations Women and the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies found that food and water are the biggest concern among women on Bangladesh’s southwest coast.
The study also found that as a result of socio-cultural norms, women face harassment and do not work – even if they are desperate for money. Women also said that members of the community disapproved of women going to the market or visiting doctors in town.
“There is a feeling of insecurity when the men are not around,” said Dilruba Haider, coordinator, gender and climate change, at the Bangladesh country office of UN Women. “They are struggling to take care of their children and household chores.”
Left behind in a water crisis:
The life of a climate migrant
Over 200 miles away, in Bangladesh’s congested capital city Dhaka, Romesa’s husband, Kabir Hossain, spends his days driving a cycle rickshaw. At the end of a long day on the scorching pavements, Kabir, 30, returns home to his corner of the mud-walled room that he shares with 18 other migrant men, mostly from his district Satkhira, on the southwest coast of Bangladesh. The walls are made of aluminum and small bundles of cloth demarcate the spots on the floor reserved for each man. He would like to return home, but he needs to feed his family.
Next door, in a small, smoky room, the garage owner’s wife cooks food for the men three times a day. There is rice in every meal, a staple in the local cuisine, and a simple fish, vegetables or lentils to accompany. Once a week, the men are served eggs or meat.
It has been more than 12 years since Kabir first came to Dhaka to look for work as a rickshaw driver. Kabir, who studied until grade four in his village school back in Srifalkathi, vividly remembers that first trip to Dhaka, a few months after he was married at age 18.
His journey began in a van shared by five other men to go to the bus stop in Shyamnagar, a small town about an hour from Srifalkhathi. That evening, as smoke rose from the tea stalls on the side of the dusty road, he boarded a bus bound for Dhaka with a small bundle of his belongings tucked under his arm. He travelled in the bus, bumping up and down on the uneven rural roads, sleeping for short bursts, until he reached the Gabtoli bus station in Dhaka early the next morning after a 12-hour bus journey.
Gabtoli bus station was a whirlpool of activity in the morning as buses from all over the country arrived in the capital, their sleepy passengers disembarking and trying to find their bearings in a chaotic city. His neighbor from Srifalkathi, who had been working in Dhaka for a few years, had written down the address of a rickshaw garage owner. Showing that well-worn note to people at the station, he asked for directions. When he finally figured out the best route, he took a local bus and then flagged down a rickshaw for the last leg of his journey to the Meradiya slum, where he asked the garage owner for a job as rickshaw driver. The whole journey had cost him about 500 taka, $6.42 – money he had borrowed from his parents.
During his first few days in Dhaka, the busy roads baffled him and he missed his family. He had heard about the frequent rickshaw thefts where street gangs would use chloroform to sedate a driver and steal his rickshaw, and he was terrified. In just three days he had managed to earn 600 taka, $7.70. He enjoyed seeing the tall buildings and walking around on the streets. But when he called home, he felt very homesick. Three days after he arrived in the city, he decided to go home.
But back at home, there was not much work available for young men like him. The increasing salinity of the soil in Bangladesh’s coastal villages has not just made safe drinking water hard to come by — it’s also made rice farming, the region’s traditional occupation, which requires irrigation, nearly impossible. The shrimp farms that thrive in the salt water and have become ubiquitous in the region don’t need many day laborers, forcing poor farmers without land to look elsewhere for work.
Kabir soon he found himself back in the city. And he’s not alone.
Landless laborers with dependents are the most likely to migrate, says Golam Rabbani, a fellow at the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies.
“They go to the nearest town or the capital city, wherever people from their social networks are already present,” said Rabbani. “About 90 percent of the people who migrate are men, leaving the female members of the household behind.” According to a study by the International Organization for Migration, 66 percent people said that they were forced to migrate because of changing climate conditions and environmental hazards, he added.
“There is pain in leaving your own village but we have to for the sake of earning money,” said Kabir. “Those who come to Dhaka are the poor, who have no income. Those who are not poor, they choose to stay in the village. It is a better life there.”
The World Bank estimates that 400,000 people from different parts of Bangladesh move to Dhaka every year. With the changing climate, river salinity is projected to significantly increase in the dry season by 2050, adversely affecting at least 2.9 million poor in the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh.
At 6 a.m. each morning, Kabir heads out onto the streets with his cycle rickshaw before the heat as set in. At about 1 p.m., when the sun is at its strongest, he returns to the garage to eat lunch. At 3 p.m., he heads out again and works until 10 p.m. He makes about $7 each day, and pays the garage owner $2.50 for food and the rickshaw rental. He passes his free time watching Bengali and Hindi movies on the grainy television screen propped up in one corner, grateful for the sweet water in the city. He usually returns home once a month, and stays for about five to seven days at a stretch.
“Who wants to be in such a job?” he asks, leaning against his cycle rickshaw parked in the shed near his room. “But I don’t have a choice. I can’t survive without doing this.”
Left behind in a water crisis:
Saline water and maternal health
Khadija Begum moved to the Satkhira district on Bangladesh’s southwest coast when she got married at the age of 14.
“We can’t drink the saline water, can’t take a bath with it, if the utensils are washed with this water, those will be damaged, even for cooking we have to bring water from far,” says 24-year-old Khadija. “In the beginning, I couldn’t adjust here, but now I am getting habituated with the water.”
As she speaks, her son, Muttakin Amir, who is nearly 5 years old, climbs into her lap. Her son often falls sick, and has just recovered from dysentery.
The rising salinity of the water in the Bangladesh’s southwest coast has caused several diseases to proliferate in the area. Many of the diseases are tied to natural disasters or occur seasonally. Habibur Rahman Khan, the doctor in charge of the main government hospital in the district, said that he saw an uptick in diarrhea, dysentery, gastric illnesses, skin diseases and malnutrition after drinking water sources were contaminated by natural disasters such as cyclones Sidr and Aila.
However, the impact on maternal health is particularly severe. Aniere Khan, a researcher at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, carried out a study with Imperial College, England, on the maternal health effects of salinity in the southwest coast of Bangladesh. She surveyed about 1,500 women and found much higher rates of preeclampsia and hypertension during pregnancy in coastal areas, as compared to non-coastal districts. Women complained of swollen arms and legs, and complications during pregnancy.
“The saltier water they were drinking, the higher the association with high blood pressure and preeclampsia,” said Khan. The study also examined the sources of drinking water in the coastal areas and found that the salinity levels were much higher than those considered acceptable by the World Health Organization
Exposure to saline water also leads to an increase in infant mortality, according to a 2015 World Bank study in coastal Bangladesh. The study found that salinity exposure during the last month of pregnancy coincided with increased infant mortality.
Khadija used to live in Dhaka with her husband but moved back to the village when she became pregnant. “After I found out I was pregnant, I moved here, but I got sick and had problems with the water,” said Khadija. “I had scabies and my hands and legs were swollen. I had a lot of discomfort.” She moved to her parent’s house in another district for the last few months, and the “sweet water” there was a relief, she said.
Khadija’s husband, Habibur Rahman, lives in Dhaka, in a brightly-lit basement room that doubles as a garment workshop and home to the two dozen migrant men who spend their days sitting at sewing machines. He hopes to save up enough money to move his son and wife to the city, away from the diseases of the village, where they can drink water that’s not saline.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL limitations on women’s movements outside their houses – and restrictions placed on them by their husbands families – can also make it difficult to access health care during pregnancy.
Shahina Begum, 18, is a timid, lithe young woman who has been married for over six years to Saidul Islam. In her wedding, her parents gifted his family two aluminum pots to store water in, which lie by the straw cot on which she sleeps. While her husband is away most of the year in Dhaka, she lives with his parents, who keep strict tabs on her whereabouts. Shahina, who went to school until grade four, now spends her days cooking for the family, washing dishes, cleaning the house and tending to the family’s cow.
With her husband away, she is constrained in her ability to leave the house, making it hard to get food, clothes and medicine. “My husband doesn’t like me going out of the house,” said Shahina. “I don’t go into town, just have a walk around, or in some neighboring houses.”
Her kohl-lined eyes well up as she explains that she is not allowed to visit a male doctor in the village market, despite having been through three miscarriages. When she conceived for the first time, she had a miscarriage after five months. She wore an amulet from a shaman during her second pregnancy, but the child died in the womb. When she was pregnant for a third time this year and began to experience pain, her in-laws called over a village doctor who practiced herbal medicine.
“He tied these holy threads around me to reduce the swelling in my arms and legs, but the baby would not come out,” said Shahina. “Finally they cut all the thread and I had my child, but the baby died in half an hour.” Now, after her last failed pregnancy, she is afraid her husband wants to divorce her.
She thinks that drinking the salty water makes her sick, and she frequently has diarrhea and fever. But every once in a while when she is able to save up some money that her husband gives her to buy herself a bottle of cold mineral water. It costs 15 Bangladeshi taka ($0.19), and the sweet water makes her smile.
Her husband Saidul Islam, 22 a lean, muscular man, who drives a rickshaw in Dhaka, is home for Ramadan. Like many others, he left because he found it impossible to make a living in the village – but now he finds he prefers life in the big city. “In Dhaka there is at least always food on the table at the same time, here there is always scarcity,” said Islam. “Here in the village, even the air is salty.”
Left behind in a water crisis:
Searching for solutions
As the sun rises over a smoggy morning in Dhaka city, a large ship pulls into Dhaka’s Sadarghat port. One by one, the sleepy travelers descend onto the unsteady pier, carrying bundles of clothes and well-worn aluminum pots. At the port, small tugboats carrying fishermen navigate between massive ships carrying migrants from all over the country, and the city continues to churn and swell.
While climate-induced migration on the southwest coast has been rising steadily, Bangladesh’s government does not believe that abandoning the region is the answer.
“These people are very resilient. They know that this is their place. They are born there, brought up there, they know how to live there,” said Nurul Quadir, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Forests in the government of Bangladesh. “They don’t want to migrate. Only when there is no way, only then people will move.”
Quadir said the government’s efforts are currently directed at helping people adapt and stay where they are. “So far we are trying to provide necessary support so that they can live there on their own,” he said. “If not then we have to think to relocate them.”
Through the Bangladesh Climate Trust, the government is trying to support the creation of alternative livelihoods. They are working on crop varieties that can grow in salty water and have had some success with developing saline-resistant rice. The government is providing deeper tube wells, building higher walls around ponds to prevent sea water from entering, supporting efforts to harvest rain water, raising the embankments along the coast, building drainage systems to remove saline water from ponds and carrying out pilot projects at desalinization plants.
However, climate change experts believe these adaptation strategies to help people stay where they are simply a short-term cure.
“The coastal area has salinity and drinking water problems, so the government is working on giving them fresh water to drink – this is a palliative immediate adaptation,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh. “You have to help the people with the problem they have today. But you also have to think of the problems tomorrow and day after.”
The patterns of climate-induced migration are a precursor to larger-scale migration in the future. About 20 million people will be displaced in Bangladesh in the coming five years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With sea levels expected to rise, Bangladesh’s geography makes climate change migration in the coming decades a certainty. About 13 percent of the country’s land is made of up low-lying coastal areas that account for about 18 percent of the population – close to 30 to 40 million people. This area would be inundated with a 1-meter rise in sea levels – which is a certainty, said Huq.
“Attributing current levels of migration in numbers is fraught with scientific uncertainty, making strong statements are difficult,” said Huq. “But the future will bring climate migrants and we will have to deal with that. Tens of millions from the coasts of Bangladesh will have to move.”
The key to helping those families get jobs in cities and towns is education, said Huq.
“We are working to increase the skills of women so when they are forced to migrate they will have some skills with them,” said Dilruba Haider, coordinator, Gender and Climate Change at the Bangladesh country office of UN Women. “So that wherever they go they can sell their skills, instead of just selling their bodies and ending up in brothels.”
Saleemul Huq also points to the need to develop other towns and cities, so that Dhaka, one of the fastest growing megacities in the world, with well over 15 million people already, is not forced to bear the entire burden. “How do we ensure that the next 10 million don’t all end up in Dhaka?” said Dr. Huq. “We need to attract them elsewhere by building infrastructure, schools, creating jobs.”
Bangladeshi officials are pressing for the international community to see future migration as an issue for the world, and not just Bangladesh.
“Let us pray and let us work so that they don’t have to migrate. And if they do, then the world body has to take care of it,” said Nurul Quadir of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. “We have to try to limit our greenhouse gasses but we also have to take care of our development – we cannot live in primitive life. And here the international community has to come forward.”
Now, as climate scientists worry about Washington’s leadership and participation in the Paris agreement under an administration that is skeptical of climate change, international cooperation on climate-induced migration is more important than ever.
However, any policy that grapples with climate-induced migration must take into account the disproportionate impact the phenomenon has on women.
“Policies are currently failing to understand the scale and impact of migration on women,” a December 2016 study by ActionAid on climate-induced migration in South Asian states. “Promotion of women’s empowerment, as well as women-led planning and disaster response, must be part of the solution.”
Meanwhile, women like Romesa Khatun, who struggles to find drinking water in Srifalkathi, her village on the southwest coast of Bangladesh, hope for the sake of their daughters that solutions will emerge.