To get to the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, I usually drive from my grandfather’s home in Calcutta to the Vomra Border. Inevitably, I get stuck at the border as foreign passport-holders travel over land so rarely. This year the head officer on the Bangladeshi side bought me a coconut full of water. He remembered me from my last visit and, while I still had to wait for hours, he wanted to be hospitable.
Next, I took a CNG to Satkhira, a micro down to Shyamnagar, and a rickshaw van to the ghat, where I stumbled clumsily over uneven concrete tiles into a bhotboti. Chugging along steadily to the rhythm of the engine as we navigated the tides, I noticed that the boat had special pillars installed which you could drape fabric over to create a small pocket of shade. When a woman on the boat asked the driver why the fabric wasn’t there this time, the man shrugged and said that it didn’t matter, it was only for tourists anyway. “Well, what about the people? Do they not feel heat too?” she replied. Silence, a glance, and his eyes glazed over and returned to the river.
Next and finally, a motorcycle ride to the village. The motorcycle drives along one long edge of an embankment, or bandh, parallel to another identical embankment. These embankments are dotted with large shrimp fields and then clusters of mud houses that sit right at their base and enjoy the protection that these massive earthen berms offer. Once in a while there is a small, wooden structure right on the embankment that sells biscuits and tea. Next to these makeshift shops, there is always a single wooden bench that two or three men perch upon so comfortably that it is impossible to imagine them ever moving anywhere else. Crossing over from one embankment to another in most places means crossing about 15 feet over two long bamboo sticks that are precariously secured on each end. The motorcycle drives to the one real bridge, has the passengers disembark, and then slowly drives over. As we crossed, I noticed that, while it was pristine last year, this year it was in much worse shape. The driver attributed this to the bandh being broken during Cyclone Fani. Ten more minutes on the motorbike, and finally, Gabura.
Every time I make this journey I stop and think, this is the most remote place I have ever been to. What I saw last year as the Sundarbans’ natural beauty, this year I saw as hints of the complicated relationship between salt and this landscape. Before beginning my research in the Sundarbans, I don’t think I had ever thought about salt so much. I’d never thought of salt as the force of nature that I now know that it is. One of my best friends often tells me that he’s 70% water, so if I like water I automatically like 70% of him no matter what he does. But what happens when that water is salty? This is always one of the first things that crosses my mind when I go to the Sundarbans and try to grasp what it feels like to live with salty waters. In the Sundarbans, as the climate changes, the salt water from the Bay of Bengal seeps slowly into the villages that inhabit the forest. Cyclone Aila catalyzed this change, swiftly bringing in salt that has intruded on people’s water, homes, land, and bodies.
Arriving in Gabura, I look around and I see simple mud homes with an outhouse and small ponds. The homes with bigger trees and plants tend to be cooler, and I’ve noticed that the villagers guide me almost naturally to these homes. This year, there was a brand new concrete road that everyone was excited to tell me about within moments of my arrival. They said that next year there might even be street lights. Meanwhile, there were six little boys on the side doing flips and tricks into the pond, showing off and curiously seeing if I remembered them from last year.
These ponds are essential for daily life. They belong to each house or are sometimes shared with a neighbor. The functions of the pond include providing drinking water, water for bathing, water used for the bathroom, a place to raise freshwater fish, doing laundry, and washing dishes. When Cyclone Aila hit the Sundarbans in May 2009, it irreversibly salinated these ponds: immediately killing off the freshwater fish and drinking water supply as well as posing continued health challenges for those who use this water for their bathrooms and bathing. A villager in Gabura explained to me that, “When you bathe in that water, you ruin your body. In that water, a lot of people’s eyes have gone bad.” The salt accumulates on their skin even after bathing. The villagers describe how one small cut turns into a salty mess from being washed endlessly in salt water. And how when they are sick, bathing in salt water keeps them in poor health for even longer.
To adapt, the villagers have had to find new access to fresh water. Usually, this results in women walking an average of 5-10km round trip to access fresh water almost daily. These walks have their own set of troubles such as placing women in areas they usually would not have to go to and exposing them to additional risks from tiger attacks, snake bites, slipping off embankments into crocodile infested waters, and unnavigable muds. Because they are carrying it home each day, this water is reserved for drinking. Therefore, washing dishes, clothes, bathing, etc, all take place in salty waters.
One of my respondents explained that “[Fresh] water is very far from here. 25 or 30 minutes distance. I go by walking but many people go and bring them by cycle. Usually I can just go once but on hot days I have to go at least twice.” The women of her village recounted tales of digging a tube well with the hopes of finding sweet water and still finding salt water. They talked about how crushing it is to live in a place that used to support their lives in many ways, and now because of the salt that support is quickly disintegrating. Now, they use a mixed system of walking to fetch water and rain catchments. When their rain catchments run low, the women have to walk at least three kilometres (almost two miles) to get water and a lot of it spills out of their large drums on the walk home. Some do not have childcare so they hold their child in one hand and their water drum in the other. Some people have given up on the daily struggle for water and just drink salt water with chlorine pills to kill of the possible diseases. Another villager explained that though she has to trek an “hour each day to get water, [it is still] a little bit salty.”
Traditionally, there is a season where homes are built, it is the season right before the hottest months. The underlying logic being that the hot months will ‘bake’ the mud homes into a hardened brick like structure. Without the drying process, the homes exist in a perpetual wetness and are significantly less sturdy. Homes in the Sundarbans are usually made of mud. These types of home can be built rather quickly and are usually built during the spring to give the mud the summer to harden enough to weather the winter and rainy months. The villagers conveyed that the salt in the mud changed the way it dried. They added that the additional rain each year, made it so that during the monsoon season their homes were perpetually damp. Aila occurred during the summer and many families had to rebuild their homes during an inopportune time. A few of my respondents stated that their homes never really dried because of this, which made them worry about the stability and longevity of these new homes. The women of Gabura speak of a type of muddy labor that is involved with cleaning and repairing their home each day. Since the cyclone, since the salt, more people have been putting their resources into building concrete homes.
“The vegetables are okay, but it is not as good as before Aila. I don’t get it, the plants just kind of want to die.” Aila uprooted the gardens and salinated the land such that nothing would grow back correctly. The absence of traditional crops and fish dispirit residents. Sundarban residents are deeply connected to the land, which is unmistakably marked in their attachment to the traditional fish and vegetables of the land. One woman explained that with all the changes to the food, the fish and the land, “home no longer felt like home”.
Now when I think about salt, I have a powerful mental image of how the salty residue that leaves cracks in the dirt leaves the same effect on people’s skin in the Sundarbans. How usually people in the Sundarbans don’t need to cook with salt because it is already embedded in their lives. How salt traps heat, and makes everything feel hotter. How it affects health in many ways. How salt, something that in my life is mundane, is a natural force to be reckoned with in the Sundarban.
Raka Sen is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania studying the sociology of climate change, development, and disasters.