Khadiza Akter :: Around the world Bangladesh stands at the forefront of saltwater contamination. Presently water salinity is a serious problem for Bangladesh, especially in the coastal region. Because of its severity it is now recognized as a natural disaster which has different kind of bad impacts on the people who are dealing with it. Among those bad impacts, occurrences of different health problems among those people is a crucial one. Already huge number of people has experienced harmful effects on their health because of the high level of salinity in the water they consume. Now it becomes a major concern of them and appears like a threat to their well-being. Therefore, this is the need of time to take necessary measures against this threat with a view to ensure the well-being of communities who live in coastal region of Bangladesh.
Along with the geographical disadvantage, rising level of Bay of Bengal; frequent attack of natural disaster like cyclones, higher tidal waves, storm surges; climate change induced decrease of dry season rainfall; upstream withdrawal of freshwater flow and intentional saltwater logging for shrimp culture is resulting increase intrusion of saltwater in the coastal region of Bangladesh. The matter of anxiety is that salinity along the Bangladesh coast has already intruded over 100km inland through different estuaries and water inlets intertwined with major rivers and has affected domestic water sources and agricultural land.
Usually the level of salinity starts to increase rapidly both in the surface and ground water with the start of dry season. Low freshwater flow from the upstream and less rainfall during the dry season lead this increase of salinity levels. As during the rainy season freshwater flow from the upstream is substantial and rainfall is ample, the level of salinity remains low. But unfortunately during rainy season intrusion of saltwater to the rivers and canals from the Bay of Bengal occurs through cyclones and tidal surges. Consequently, in this period salinity level both in the surface and ground water becomes considerably higher than drinking water standards and the standards for irrigation.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Forest, about 53% area and 20 million (over 57%) people of the coastal region of Bangladesh are extremely affected by increased exposure of salinity in surface and ground water both. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) informed that since 1948, the level of salinity has been increased by 45% in the rivers of Southern Patuakhali, Pirojpur, Borguna, Satkhira, Bagerhat and Khulna districts. Also the canals, ponds and tube-wells have been contaminated by varying degrees of salinity in this region. As we all know, coastal people are heavily dependent on rivers, canals, ponds and tube-wells for their drinking water and water for other uses. Therefore, for a long time coastal people who depends on rivers, canals, ponds, and tube-wells for drinking water and water for other uses is suffering a lot.
The situation is getting worse day by day. Presently the availability of fresh water becomes a major challenge for them. It has been identified that increasing salinity in the water is resulting severe health consequences to the people of coastal region of Bangladesh. People of all ages, especially with poor economic condition are suffering from numerous health related problems due to multi-purpose uses of saltwater regularly.
Because of drinking saltwater and taking food cooked with saltwater people especially children are suffering from diarrheal diseases like diarrhea and dysentery. Adult people are growing the risk of being attacked by cardiovascular diseases like heart failure and hypertension or high blood pressure. High dietary intake of salt also causing problem in the stomach like abdominal gas, acidity, ulcers and burning pain among the young and adult people. Also due to consume and use of saltwater reproductive health related problems among women has been increased. For instance, itching, wound and pain around the genitalia as well as vaginal discharges become very common.
In addition with reproductive health related problems, the causal relationship between water salinity and maternal health problems has been recognized. Pregnant women in particular, becoming acutely susceptible to the diseases of hypertension and preeclampsia from the high level of salinity exposure in their drinking water and food. Both hypertension and preeclampsia causing impaired liver function and low blood count of the pregnant mother and increasing the risk of retardation. More importantly, both mother and child are facing the risk of death. Moreover, during pregnancy women are facing the problem of malnutrition, vomiting, swollen legs and miscarriage despite giving up taking extra salt with their daily food on doctor’s advice. Water salinity also increasing the need of C/S deliveries in the salinity prone areas. This suggests that water salinity is not only affecting the health of our present generation, but also our future generations.
One of the deleterious outcomes of using saltwater is outbreak of skin diseases among the people of coastal region of Bangladesh. Because of geographical location their livelihood is mostly connected with fishing. They catch fish from the seas, rivers, canals and ponds where water is very much saline. Besides, presently the number of saltwater shrimp farms has been increased remarkably and many people started to work those farms. It keep them wet for a long time with saltwater and causing severe skin diseases. Additionally, when people do bath or clean body parts with saltwater their bodies become sticky, which creates itching and ultimately leads to wound and black spots on their skins. People also face the problem of hair fall and wound in their scalp due to do bath with saltwater. Also cloths washed with saltwater do not become clean properly and cause skin diseases.
Along with these, respiratory infections, fever, appendicitis and even cancers are happening due to the consumption of saltwater. It is also noteworthy that among all the people women and children are in most vulnerable situation. Because women do most of the household work with water which increase their risk to be affected by saltwater borne diseases; and biologically children have less disease prevention capability. However, all these pattern of health problems coincide with the seasonal variation in the water salinity level.
Considering the significant contributions of coastal population to economic and social transformation of Bangladesh, their good health is fundamental to our country’s sustainable socio-economic development. Furthermore, it is prominently known that a healthy nation can influence the economic progress of a country. It is true that Bangladesh has achieved excellent progress in health sector over the last few decades. But to continue this progress, collective approach of government, Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and the local communities is needed. If we do not take necessary action in good time, the existing health crisis owing to water salinity may be exacerbated to epidemic proportions.
Therefore, we should take some effective and sustainable measures to tackle this environmental challenge and protect the human life in our coasts. Rainwater harvesting could be a sustainable measure through which they could access freshwater at least for drinking during the dry season. Furthermore, solar desalination could be a feasible and cost-effective alternative for them to get safe drinking water. So the initiative of providing rainwater harvesting tank or solar desalination device to the poor people by governmental or NGOs would be helpful.
In addition with these, a bigger role needs to play in monitoring of structural measures by the government agencies. Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) should pay special attention in exploring suitable places for tube-wells and take the initiative of test the existing tube-wells on regular bases. A good option could be construction of embankment and water regulation gate or sluice gate in important channels by Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) or Local Government Engineering Department (LGED). Community people also should take care existing freshwater sources with a view to maintain the quality of water.
Though the health of almost all the people in coastal region of Bangladesh are somehow affected by water salinity, they are less concerned about its awfulness. A gap in the knowledge and perception of the people regarding the health impacts of water salinity is existing. They are also not much concern about some of their practices which may increase the risk to health caused by saltwater. Therefore, existing as well as planned interventions should be such that along with the approaches to reduce the extent of the salinity problem, modifying knowledge, awareness level and also practices of the people would be under their consideration. Also more research is required to improve the management of fresh surface water and groundwater resources.
It is hoped that these interventions could directly empower and positively impact the health and well-being of the people of coastal region of Bangladesh.
Writer: Junior Programme Specialist, Gender and Water Alliance-Banglades.