Hanging from the ceiling of the one-room mud hut that is Dayamanti Biswal’s home are two baskets fashioned out of rope. During the annual floods that sweep this corner of eastern India every monsoon, the few items–a comb, some fruits, few items of clothing–these baskets hold are the only things that remain dry.
“We sit on the bed for sometimes as many as 15 days, waiting for the flood waters to recede,” said the 48-year-old, who is mother to four daughters.
Biswal’s home in Sitalpur village is less than 50 m from one of the tributaries of the Baitarani river, the second longest river in the state of Odisha along India’s east coast, as it flows into the Bay of Bengal.
To those living here in Sitalpur, a village in Bhadrak, along Odisha’s northeastern cost, floods and rainfall appear to be synonymous.
With the annual flood waters come insects and snakes. The mud walls of homes give way. And the hand pumps – the only source of freshwater in these villages – go underwater. It takes days, sometimes a fortnight, for the water to recede.
In recent years, climate change has increased rainfall variability around the Bay of Bengal region. There appear to be more and more intense cyclones.
“Overall, cyclonic activity is increasing in the north Indian ocean, which includes the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal,” said Asmita Deo, scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune who looked at data spanning three decades to come to the conclusion in her study published in May 2015. “Cyclones are occurring earlier; their frequency and intensity is also increasing, which indicates an impact of climate change.” Land around Bay of Bengal also faces frequent droughts, increased salinity in water and crop land as well as sea and river erosion, according to a 2013 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest environmental network. The report included data from 20 Odisha villages.
The report also found that climate change was disproportionately affecting households headed by women, with 80% of them getting fewer work opportunities and 70% reporting increased hardship and longer working hours during and after disasters, when jobs were scarce.
In villages like Sitalpur, where roads and communication have improved over the years, constant flooding damages homes and assets, leaving those like Biswal stuck in a cycle of poverty.
Previously, they accepted their fate. Now, they are not.
As climate change makes life harder, women like Biswal are now raising their voices through a women’s federation, where they share the impact of weather-related disasters on their livelihoods and discuss solutions. As these federations grow in size and influence, the women involved have started demanding accountability from local officials in the form of incremental change.
This is the fourth story in IndiaSpend’s series on India’s climate-change hotspots. The series combines reporting with the latest scientific research and explores how people are adapting to changing climate.
Changes in the world’s largest bay
Rising sea levels. Saltier inland water. Rising temperatures. More cyclones. More intense rainfall. More dry days.
These are some of changes already occurring and predicted in greater force for the Bay of Bengal region. The Bay is the world’s largest, a recessed coastal body of water that connects to a larger main body. Along this bay are countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, home to a fourth of the planet’s people. The Bay of Bengal connects to the Indian ocean, the world’s third-largest ocean, which runs from Africa in the west to Australia in the east.
The low-lying countries of this region, such as Bangladesh, are frequently inundated by rising sea levels and changes in rainfall patterns. West Bengal and Odisha in India experience much of the same issues, but the impact of climate change here has, so far, garnered lesser attention.
“We are seeing a rise in the number of dry days as well as extreme rainfall events; this is leading to a water crisis,” said Pulak Guhathakurta, head of the India Meteorological Department’s climate data management and services. “Instead what we need is several days of lower intensity rainfall. All the rainfall that Odisha receives during the monsoon months is from the Bay of Bengal.”
Rising temperatures are set to increase extreme weather events, including the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation, warned a report released in October 2018 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Rising sea levels will make the water in low lying areas and deltas saltier, the report said.
“Increasingly we are seeing more flash floods due to a large amount of rainfall within a small period of time,” said Antaryami Nayak, executive engineer, Rural Water Supply and Sanitation, Bhadrak. “All this water runs off into the ocean. As a result of this the groundwater doesn’t recharge and there is a water shortage following the flash floods.”
The amount of mean rainfall is decreasing but “not in a significant” way in Odisha and “significantly” in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, where several of Odisha’s rivers originate, affecting water flow in the state, according to a study on trends in rainfall patterns over India by the IMD which looked at data for over a century from 1901 to 2003 and was published in 2006.
A more recent analysis of the rainfall data published in 2014 shows that there is a “significant decrease” in rainfall in both Odisha and Chhattisgarh.
The amount of surface water in the coastal areas of Odisha, including Bhadrak, has decreased in some places over the past three decades, according to satellite data.
This decrease is manifest in longer, harder journeys for water – a burden that falls on the women of Bhadrak.
The burden of filling water for the family
In the summer months, the water in Bhadrak’s rivers turns salty, as seawater make its way inland. That means saline groundwater and longer journeys for potable water.
Kuntala Rout, 58, spends three, sometimes four, hours to fill enough water for everyone in the family, walking to the only hand pump 500 m outside her village, Kaliapat. A single trip can take as much as 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the crowd around the hand pump.
Of the four hand pumps in Kaliapat, only one produces potable water. Water from the other hand pumps has turned saline.
To be sure, this is not a new problem.
The groundwater in this area is five times as saline as fresh drinking water, according to studies nearly a decade old. Sea water is the major polluter of groundwater in the coastal area of Odisha, according to a 2014 report of India’s ministry of water resources. It also reported that the quality of groundwater varied more along India’s eastern coast than the western.
The groundwater becomes more saline because of an increase in sea levels, reduction in rainfall and excess drawing of ground. The first two reasons are directly linked to the impacts of climate change.
When the hand pump outside Kaliapat breaks down every few months, the women walk a kilometre to a neighbouring village to fill water. Each trip can take longer than an hour.
“Our bodies hurt, we have joint and back pains,” said Rout “To reduce the consumption of water we try not to drink much water.”
Biswal and Rout are among dozens of women raising their voices through government-recognised Self Help Groups (SHGs), which have, so far, formed federations in 11 gram panchayats (rural councils) across Bhadrak, with help from the NGO WaterAid India. Shortage of water, the need for more hand pumps and issues of sanitation in the aftermath of a natural disaster–which the men are not interested in, they said–are some of the issues they discuss.
If women menstruate during the floods, they have no option but to wash in floodwaters and re-use the blood-soaked cloth they use as a sanitary napkin.
“Lack of privacy is the over-arching feature during such events related to climate change. In our society the burden of shame is on women,” said Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, professor at Crawford School of Public Policy’s ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, and an expert on the gendered impact of water crisis.
Research on how climate change is affecting women is still in its infancy and needs “a lot more attention”, said Lahiri-Dutt, adding that while it is considered acceptable for a man to relieve himself in public, a woman doesn’t have the same option.
Lahiri-Dutt addressed some of the intimate issues women face during disasters in a 2017 documentary.
Women also raise issues related to the lack of healthcare during disasters. Biswal said all four of her now-adult daughters were born at home amidst the floods, a trend that continues in the villages around her.
Jasodha Das remembered how her father and brother took turns to carry her on their backs in a basket made of cane when she was in labour, seven years ago. Their home in Hengupati Khatua Sahi village was 7 km from a hospital and the two men, carrying Das, waded through knee-deep water to reach there. Jasodha, then 21, delivered her son while on the way.
In some villages, boats owned by village fishermen are used to ferry pregnant women to the hospital. Makeshift stretchers are made with cloth, rope, cane or plastic–anything that is available.
Odisha ranks as one of the top five deadliest states for pregnant women in India, with a maternal mortality ratio nearly 27% higher than India’s national average, according to data from NITI Ayog, the government think tank. Half of Odisha’s women aged 15-49 are anaemic, and nearly one in every four has a low body mass index. The state’s child sex ratio–the sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years–is declining, according to government data from the National Family and Health Survey, 2015-’16.
Climate change will be an added stressor on an already stressed health delivery system, experts said.
Other women in Kaliapat complained of skin diseases and respiratory problems, both linked to increased salinity in water. Excess salt in drinking water is also linked to increased hypertension in women and higher risk of preterm birth.
The women of Kaliapat are not alone. Reports in Bangladesh have linked the rise in pregnancy complications to increased water salinity. Abu Siddique, a journalist based in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka who has reported the issue for the Dhaka Tribune said, “In most cases the women are not aware that the saline water is the cause.”
“The health status of the women provides a robust evidence of the impact of climate change,” said Lahiri-Dutt. “It is very easy to see the before-and-after picture and yet (this) remains the most neglected area.”
Despite the strain on the women’s bodies, they receive little help. “The men turn a deaf ear to our complaints,” Rout said.
But the men are migrating in larger numbers. “As agricultural production is affected we see more men migrating out,” said Amrita Patel, PhD, a researcher with Sansristi, a research centre that looks at the “gendered survival migration” due to Odisha’s droughts. “So more women are having to take on agricultural responsibilities that they were not trained for.”
So, the women are learning to help each other.
Vibrant women’s federations
In a meeting of the self-help federation in her village, Rout held fort, her voice loud, blaming the men for not lending a helping hand. Most younger women are, often, quiet to begin with. It takes time for them to recognise that drinking less water and spending a fifth of the day filling water is not normal.
Soon enough, the complaints started. Salt water entering the fields has washed out chances of a good harvest, one said. We have to use the hand pump that belongs to the school, another added.
“These women’s groups are very vibrant and are able to identify the gaps,” said Purna Mohanty, project coordinator, WaterAid India. “They have been making specific demands from the authorities which then get processed.” Many dormant self-help groups were coming alive because of the women’s federation project.
Up to 60% of India’s population depends on groundwater reserves, but nearly 15% is already over-exploited. While there are no estimates available about future groundwater tables, in general reserves are expected to decline with a decrease in rainfall.
Climate change effects are compounded by human interventions and policies gone wrong. “The dams upstream also block the flow of water to the coastal areas,” said Nayak, the government engineer in Bhadrak.
Odisha has 204 dams, and neighbouring Chhattisgarh, where some of its rivers originate, has 258, including some under construction, according to 2016 data from the Central Water Commission. Many rivers run dry by the time they reach Bhadrak and, as sea levels rise, sea water rushes in instead.
Biswal bears the burden of that problem, which she does not want transferred to younger women. That’s why, she said, the women’s federations matter.
“This is not how life must be,” said Biswal, “And I will continue to speak up in the hope that things will change.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.