PayBito team visited the largest delta island around the world, the Sundarbans to conduct their “Brokering World Hunger Away” movement. While addressing hunger, the team came across some of humankind’s worst nightmares. Every year, the land is sinking, eroding, and destroying trees, houses, and wildlife, putting hundreds of animals and villagers at risk. Alongside problems related to child education, early marriage, menstrual hygiene, and animal attacks, a silent threat looms, which poses a significant danger to the biodiversity of Sundarbans. This threat is developing rapidly, causing fear among the locals and imperiling the region’s future.
“Saltwater intrusion in Sundarbans is not just an ecological problem; it’s a humanitarian crisis that threatens the livelihoods and well-being of millions of people living in the region. The devastating impact of this phenomenon cannot be overstated, and urgent action is needed to address it before it’s too late.”
In recent years, the Sundarbans have faced a significant threat: saltwater intrusion. As the sea level continues to rise and freshwater sources diminish, salt water is slowly penetrating inland, affecting the ecological balance and the lives of the people who depend on the region. This phenomenon, known as the “Saline Struggle,” is a pressing issue that requires immediate attention from governments, researchers, and conservationists alike. In this essay, we will examine the causes and impacts of saltwater intrusion in the Sundarbans, and explore possible solutions to mitigate its effects.
In the Sundarbans coastline, where freshwater meets saline seawater, an intriguing phenomenon occurs. The denser saltwater intrudes into the aquifers beneath the freshwater, creating a fluctuating boundary of mixed salinity. This boundary moves inland during the dry season when freshwater is scarce and seaward during the wet season when the freshwater supply increases. This seasonal and daily tidal variation of the saline wedge is a significant concern as it can cause saltwater intrusion, affecting both the ecosystem and the people who depend on it.
Saltwater intrusion, which occurs when saline groundwater replaces fresh groundwater, is a natural process that can be impacted by human activities. However, this process can become problematic when the saltwater intrusion extends inland to the point where it reaches freshwater resources, such as wells. This can have adverse effects on the ecosystem and the people who rely on these resources for their daily needs.
In Sundarban villages, homes have ponds that serve as a multi-purpose water source. However, cyclones and rising sea levels have caused irreparable salination, killing off freshwater fish and rendering agricultural land unusable. Women have to travel farther to fetch fresh water and men have to seek alternative forms of work. Salinity intrusion has reshaped the ways of life for the people in Sundarbans. They can no longer rely on agriculture and have to opt for high-risk work such as fishing in the core jungles of Sundarbans, or they become honey collectors with no proper equipment to protect them. Moreover, the fear of confronting wild animals is always a threat.
During their visit, the PayBito team encountered some challenging firsthand accounts of the effects of saltwater intrusion on villages in the Sundarbans. The issues that the residents face are intertwined, and the team gained insight into the interconnected struggles of the community. Here is a snapshot of the stories shared by the locals.
The Sundarbans are facing a persistent disaster in the form of saltwater intrusion, which is caused by a complex ecological process. The gradual demise of the Sundari mangrove trees is due to factors such as rising sea levels and ocean acidification. These trees are renowned for their robust root systems that interlock to safeguard the coastline. They help to mitigate the impact of strong tides and storm surges, which are prevalent in the region. However, as these trees perish, the Sundarbans’ coastline deteriorates rapidly. This coastal erosion has a significant impact on the approximately four million inhabitants of the Sundarbans.
“Sundari trees keep us safe from the wrath of floods, and high tides. However, due to the increase in salinity in the water, the trees are dying, making the islands vulnerable to flood water.”
– Sagar Mondal (Kumirmari village, Sundarbans)
A villager named Sagar Mondal, representing the millions living in the Sundarbans, expressed his concerns about the issues caused by saltwater intrusion in his village. According to him, the Sundari trees play a crucial role in protecting their village from devastating floods and high tides. However, as the salinity levels in the water increase, these trees are dying, leaving the islands exposed to floodwater and other hazards.
Usually, agricultural land becomes more fertile and suitable after a flood or high tide. However, the stagnant water that resides in the land after a cyclone has an everlasting effect on the land, increasing its salinity so much so, that the land is damaged for decades. Here’s the story of Padma, and her struggle after cyclone Yaas 2021, damaged her agricultural land.
“My land was damaged by the flood water that raised during the Amphan cyclone in 2020. We lost all the paddy we planted, and suffered a huge loss. My husband committed suicide last year. It’s been two years and the land is still not ready for any crop cultivation. I work on the outskirts of the Sundarbans to feed my family.”
– Padma Das (Kalitala Village, Sundarbans)
Padma Das, a resident of Kalitala Village in the Sundarbans, shared her personal tragedy caused by the floodwater that surged during the Amphan cyclone in 2020. The flood water damaged her land, resulting in a significant loss of the paddy that she had planted. Moreover, her husband took his own life last year, possibly due to the loss and other challenges caused by the natural disaster. Even after two years, her land is still unfit for crop cultivation. To sustain her family, Padma works on the outskirts of the Sundarbans.
The Sundarbans region experiences regular cyclones that have resulted in the pollution of freshwater ponds used by villagers for various purposes. In every household, there is a pond that serves as a source of water for cooking, drinking, washing clothes, utensils, and other domestic needs. However, due to the adverse effects of climate change, frequent cyclones and floods are taking a toll on the mangrove trees, which are instrumental in safeguarding the coastline villages from floodwater. As a result, the floodwater is now seeping into the villages and polluting the freshwater ponds, creating a significant challenge for the residents.
“The frequent floods and cyclones have contaminated the freshwater ponds, which is the only hope for the villagers. There are no filters available, we boil the pond water and drink it. However, over the years we are consuming saline water which is causing diarrhea and pregnancy complications among the villagers, especially children. We have adapted ourselves to the change, however, there is no help from the government yet.”
– Binoy Mondal (Gosaba village, Sundarbans)
The consumption of saline water can result in severe health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, stroke, preeclampsia, and pregnancy-related complications. In the villages of the Sundarbans, women are particularly vulnerable to these health risks, and exposure to salinity intrusion can result in serious pregnancy complications, including stillbirths and miscarriages. The impact of salinity intrusion on women’s health can lead to maternal deaths and infant deaths, creating a significant concern for the local communities.
Climate change has had a severe impact on agricultural lands in the Sundarbans, exacerbating the effects of salinity intrusion. As a result, many farmers have had to switch to alternative professions such as honey collection and fishing in order to make a living on the islands. In addition to these challenges, women in the region face issues related to menstrual hygiene and genital infections, which can be exacerbated by the lack of clean water and sanitation facilities.
“I couldn’t talk about my menstrual hygiene with my husband or the ASHA worker for years. However, finally, it was unbearable, and I was admitted to a hospital in the city. The saline water would infect my urinary tract which then spread to several organs. I was under heavy antibiotics for months. It was a horrifying experience.”
– Ashima Sardar (Kumirmari village, Sundarbans)
Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs) in the Sundarbans delta islands lead to pregnancy complications and an increased risk of genital infections. Major cyclones exacerbate hygiene problems, putting locals at risk. Improving hygiene practices and access to healthcare is crucial to prevent and managing these health issues.
Climate change causes saltwater intrusion in Sundarbans, hindering children’s education quality and leading to dropouts.
Saltwater intrusion can lead to a child education crisis in several ways. Firstly, it can make it difficult for children to access schools, as flooded or damaged roads can make transportation challenging or impossible. Moreover, the loss of crops and livelihoods caused by saltwater intrusion can force families to move away from their homes, disrupting children’s education and making it challenging for them to continue attending school.
Furthermore, the stress and trauma caused by natural disasters and the resulting loss of property and loved ones can take a toll on children’s mental health, making it harder for them to focus on their studies. Finally, the financial burden on families affected by saltwater intrusion can result in a lack of resources for children’s education, including books, uniforms, and tuition fees. All of these factors can combine to create a child education crisis in areas affected by saltwater intrusion.
PayBito is addressing saltwater intrusion in the Sundarbans through their ‘Brokering World Hunger Away‘ movement. They aim to provide sustainable solutions to the food scarcity and quality education problems faced by the local communities.
Providing support to affected communities: Paybito partnered with local NGOs and other organizations to provide much-needed support to communities affected by saltwater intrusion. This includes providing access to clean drinking water, food supplies, and medical assistance.
Raising awareness and educating people: Paybito is using its platform to raise awareness about the impact of saltwater intrusion on food security and the steps that can be taken to address it. Through its website and social media channels, Paybito is educating people about the causes and effects of saltwater intrusion and promoting sustainable solutions.
Encouraging sustainable farming practices: Paybito is working with farmers to promote sustainable farming practices that can help mitigate the impact of saltwater intrusion. This includes providing training and resources on alternative crops that are more resistant to saltwater, as well as irrigation and water management techniques that can help conserve freshwater resources.
Paybito’s Brokering World Hunger Away Movement is taking meaningful steps to address the urgent issue of saltwater intrusion and its impact on food security. By providing support to affected communities, raising awareness, and promoting sustainable farming practices, Paybito is making a significant contribution to the fight against world hunger.