Arsenic and saline contamination of groundwater: Achieved unprecedented dimension in Coastal Area of Bangldesh

Walking miles for drops to drinkSix-year-old Chapala doesn't know the meaning of the terms, 'salinity' and 'arsenic'. But she does know she will have to wake up before dawn and walk five kilometres with her mother, braving the morning chill, just to fetch drinking water. She also knows that if she doesn't, her father will scold her because the whole family will have to drink salty water from a nearby shrimp-cultivating gher. Chapala's family and the others of Khaserabad village in Satkhira's Ashashuni upazila have no alternative but to walk such distances because their local groundwater, already contaminated with arsenic, has now been polluted with salinity. "We have to walk this long way as the water of two ponds in our village has turned to saline and is too muddy to drink," said Chapala's mother, Usharani Das.

Arsenic or saline contamination of groundwater is not a new problem, but it has achieved unprecedented dimensions since the mid-80s because, as sea levels rise and shrimp cultivation grows unchecked, saline in now flooding the water supply. The resulting crisis, which now effects 25 upazilas of Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat, is transforming not only the physical terrain, but also the cultural, social and economic landscapes of the effected areas. The situation is worst in Ashashuni, Tala, Kaliganj, Shyamnagar, Debhata, Koira, Paikgachha, Dacope, Botiaghata, Dumuria, Mongla, Rampal, Chitolmari, Morelganj, Bagerhat and Sharankhola upazilas.

Increased salinity is the result of both man-made and natural factors. Experts say the seabed is rising 3 to 4 millimetres a year, the result of global climate change, spreading saline water to more and more areas by the rivers. Upstream rivers, meanwhile, are failing to wash the saline water back out to sea, because their currents are diminishing and ceasing altogether in the dry season. The current in upstream rivers has also become weak due to India's withdrawal of water from the Ganga for agricultural works in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maddhya Pradesh and Hariana and for ensuring navigability of the Hoogly River. "Once saline water enters local water bodies and fields, they cannot go down as the filled-up river beds block their way," said Sheikh Selim Akhter Shawpan, a local NGO official working with water management. He added that coastal embankments built in the 60s aggravated the problem.

shrimp cultivationOver the past few years, shrimp cultivators have been one of the largest single factors contributing to the increase of salinity in groundwater already contaminated with arsenic. "Collecting saline water and holding it to their lands for most of the year, the shrimp cultivators are sending the salinity to the ground," said Abdul Mannan, an official of CARE Bangladesh.

The effects of increased salinity are far reaching and potentially devastating, not only for the natural landscape but those inhabiting it. Tube-wells that previously lifted sweet water are now lifting saline water from the ground. Excessive use of groundwater for irrigation in Boro paddy fields during the dry season, meanwhile, also results in damage to underground water bodies. Because water is being lifted without being replenished, the groundwater level is going down. Women and children are the worst victims of the current salinity crisis, as they have to fetch drinking water by walking over ten kilometres by narrow katcha roads in some cases. Their ordeal is most acute during the rainy season, when roads become slippery and difficult to navigate.

"It takes the women several hours to give a round and one has to remain engaged in bringing water. Male members do not go to bring the water," Bhadrakanta Sarker, a teacher of Khasherabad Primary School in Ashashuni.

People of less water crisis-stricken areas, meanwhile, refuse to marry their sons and daughters to people from the crisis-hit areas:

The crisis is even transforming old local customs and creating new cultural barriers. Twenty three-year-old Shwapna of Dumuria village of Shyamnagar now finds her dream of marriage a far cry, since her aged parents, fearing that there will be no one to fetch them drinking water, do not want to marry her away.

Three children recently drowned in a shrimp gher

There is no end in site to the crisis for Kalidasi, Ashalata and Manisha, three housewives from Shamukpota village of Paikgachha upazila. Four tube-wells set up in their village a few months ago only lift water heavily contaminated with saline and arsenic, forcing them to bring water from Bahirbunia village, 3 kilometres away from their house. Keshamoni of Pankhali village of Shyamnagar takes her minor son on her lap while walking two kilometres for drinking water. She endures this extra burden after three children recently drowned in a shrimp gher when their mother went out to bring water.

The scarcity of drinking water is also helping to transform the local economy, turning some people into water traders. This correspondent found many three-wheeler vans and boats carrying large containers of water -- collected from ponds with less salinity and hardly purified -- from Satkhira town in the morning to sell in nearby villages.

Recent government efforts have not helped to stem the problem

Government officials have set up one pond-sand filter (PSF) in a pond in Dasherhati village, but the result is far from satisfactory, villagers say. "We have to stand in cue for hours for a pitcher of water as people from all adjacent villages come here for water," said Usharani, the 30-year-old housewife of a local day-labourer (Daily Star, February 11, 2005).

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