Rising salinity threatens Bangladesh's coastal communities - experts

by Pantho Rahaman | @pantho000 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 13 October 2015 10:58 GMT

The muddied feet of a resident are seen as she stands on a river dam after cyclone Aila in Gabura, Satkhira May 13, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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Almost 3 to 5 million people could face serious problems with salt in fresh water by 2050, experts say

GABURA, Bangladesh, Oct 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Suruj Miah walks through his village carrying two large pots of water, one in his hand and the other on his shoulder. His 8-year-old granddaughter, Rozina, lugs a small pot by his side.

"It is one of our daily duties," Miah says. "We have to walk almost three kilometres to collect fresh water for our daily needs."

Miah used to be a farmer in Bangladesh's coastal southwest district of Satkhira, but rising salt levels in the region's soil and water have made his land impossible to cultivate.

Six years ago he had to quit farming and now pulls a rickshaw for a living.

"It is unfortunate, but true," said Miah, who believes he will never be able to return to farming. Now, "I am bound to be a labourer", he said.

Climate change-induced alterations to sea level, temperature and rainfall are affecting freshwater supplies in low-lying coastal areas around the world, scientists and environmentalists say.

With more than a quarter of its population living in 19 districts facing or near the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is especially vulnerable, they say.

If access to fresh water continues to decrease at current rates in Bangladesh, experts warn, the country faces worsening drinking and irrigation water scarcity in the next few decades.

"Left unattended, 2.9 million to 5.2 million poor (people) in southwest coastal Bangladesh will face serious river salinity problems by 2050," said Susmita Dasgupta, the lead environmental economist of the World Bank's research department, in an email interview.

A DIRE PICTURE

A study by the World Bank and Bangladesh's Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) published last year paints a dire picture of the future of freshwater supplies for the country's coastal communities.

In a worst case scenario, the study predicts that the area served by freshwater rivers - those whose salt levels measure less than 1 part per thousand - in the country's 19 coastal districts will drop from 41 percent to 17 percent by 2050.

Researchers believe sea-level rise, rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and a reduction of water flow in the country's rivers could add to river salinity.

Losing freshwater could mean "significant shortages of drinking water" and a lack of irrigation water for dry-season agriculture, the study said.

"The impact of the increase in salinity is already being felt by the local communities, as they now have to purchase water from water treatment plants run by commercial operators," said Ainun Nishat, a noted Bangladeshi environmentalist and one of the researchers on the World Bank study.

A dramatic decrease in the area served by freshwater rivers would also do damage to the region's fishing industry, which supports approximately a half million families, researchers said.

According to environment and forest secretary Kamal Uddin Ahmed, the Bangladesh government is taking steps to combat rising salinity levels. But potential solutions are still in the early stages.

For instance, working with local government and the agriculture ministry, his ministry has started a solar-powered desalination project in Cox's Bazaar, a popular tourist town.

But "we cannot extend this project to other areas right now due to lack of funds", he said.

He said the government also has scientists working on a saline-tolerant rice variety to be used in the affected areas.

MIGRATION?

According to the World Bank-IWM study, the region's salinity problem is worst during the dry season, when the reduced flow of fresh water from the Ganges River combines with increased siltation in the tributaries of the region's rivers to drive up river salinity.

Of Bangladesh's 19 southwestern coastal districts, the study pinpointed nine already in danger of being unable to protect their freshwater resources.

Even in the best case, by 2050 four districts - Barguna, Jhalokoti, Khulna, and Patuakhali - may no longer have regular access to fresh water from rivers. And in a worst-case scenario, Pirojpur district could lose 100 percent of its fresh river water, while Bagerhat and Barisal could lose over 90 percent, the study said.

In addition, the study said, five districts will suffer a serious shortage of water for dry-season agriculture.

"This worrying change might lead to a migration of people from southwestern Bangladesh," Nishat said.

Most people see leaving their homes as a last resort. But already the lack of available fresh water is turning daily life into more of a struggle, families said.

During dry times of the year, Fajar Ali, 70, spends about 50 cents every day - one-third of his daily income - buying water for his family from local vendors in Gabura who bring it from nearby cities or collect it from their own fresh water ponds.

"We are spending too much money to buy our drinking water," said Ali. "We have enough water all around, but it is too briny to drink." (Reporting by Pantho Rahaman; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)

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