Water security and crisis in the new normal
It has been four years since the World Economic Forum in their 2016 Global Risks Report highlighted the water crisis as the most important concern for this new decade alongside the unprecedented refugee crisis that has gripped nations worldwide. When the World Resources Institute(WRI) updated the Global Water Risk Atlas in 2019 it revealed that 17 countries will face extremely high water stress within the next 20 years. Bangladesh currently faces medium-high risk in this ranking.
Climate change is significantly transforming the water cycle and will contribute to many added problems including migration. The loss of livelihood due to increasing water scarcity and variability could force those affected to migrate. Furthermore, water scarcity is becoming much more problematic (eg through increased variability of water flow against vulnerability) due to global climate change. Climate change is likely altering rainfall patterns, which may lead to increased flooding, drought, and soil erosion in tropical and arid regions of the world.
In that sense, climate change is worsening pre-existing phenomena of climatic unpredictability. Close to one-third of Bangladesh has already been flooded with forecasts of further damages yet to come. It was reported by the National Disaster Response Coordination Centre that over 50 lakh people of 150 Upazilas in 31 districts have been affected by the flood. This comes after two back to back cyclones in six months, Bulbul and Amphan months prior.
Abdul Majed (50), had left his village from Assasuni Upazila in Satkhira 10 years ago. Majed sold off his land and all his belongings in Assasuni and migrated as life there was a constant challenge. He and his wife had to grow up with a constant burden of searching for potable water. Cyclone Amphan made things worse. It breached embankments, and high salinity made the little cropland they hand unsuitable for agriculture. Majed did not want this fate for his daughters. He moved to various cities across the southwest, finally moving to Munshiganj, 260 km away from his home. There, he drove a truck to make a living.
However, amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, he had to return to his village in Assasuni with his wife and three daughters due to unemployment. Currently, Mazed is living in a rented house working as a part-time hawker earning less than Tk500 ($6) a day, just enough to make rent. With limited savings and the pandemic not ending anytime soon he and his family might soon be homeless. People like Mazed are stuck, weary and are in a constant limbo about settling down. Disasters and pandemic worsened the already existing problems due to shortages of drinking water. People in Bangladesh are now sandwiched in a quadrupled disaster of cyclones, flooding, the coronavirus and an associated socioeconomic crisis of loss of livelihoods and jobs.
The latest flooding of farmlands and destruction of crops can push millions of people, already badly impacted by the Covid-19, further into poverty. The problem of a ‘double jeopardy future under climate change’ was brought to light by Canadian researcher Mclemen who argued that problems migrants and displaced people will face will double if they are constantly moving from point A to point B in search of basic needs and rights.
Like Mazed, Bishakh Rani Mondal (43) is not new to the adverse aftermaths of disasters. But to her, what is not normal is the frequency at which these disasters arehappening. In the past twenty years cyclones, drinking water crisis, salinity, breach of embankment and waterlogging have made her life a constant trail for survival. She and her husband work as day labourers to support the family of five. Her husband used to migrate to various parts of Bangladesh to work as a labourer, but as the whole country stood stagnant due to the lockdown, her husband was not able to find any work. As a result, they didn't have any savings to rebuild her destroyed home.
“We survived on two meals and charity after the cyclone,” exclaimed Rani talking to us. The only reserve ponds they used for cooking were damaged by tidal inundation and drinking water supply had to be purchased from 2 km away since everything was closed after the cyclone.
For the first month after the cyclone, they had to wait for NGOs or Government support to have any drinking water. “I am scared for my children,” she said. The tidal surge also destroyed their latrine and kitchen and severely damaged their house. For more than a month Rani and her family had to use their neighbour’s latrines. It was a very humiliating experience for the whole family and they were often subjected to harassment.
Rani also said that her husband is looking for an opportunity to take them to someplace else, where her children will have a better future and they won’t have depended on the mercy of the climate. Notwithstanding the frequent natural calamities in Bangladesh, these poverty-ridden people always had alternatives or time to recover in-between disasters. In the ‘New Normal’ people like Rani and Mazed are now facing additional burdens to water security.
Is climate change forcing these people to move? It should be noted that climate change alone does not cause poor access to potable water or sanitation. Problems are often created because of poor governance practices, financial management, high demand or capacity issues of surrounding water management. Climate change is worsening many of the existing threats to water security and is putting additional stress on the availability of WASH services. Coupled with problems as mentioned earlier, people are being forced to move from their homes or are thinking about moving. Thus moving towards stronger water security requires climate change planning to address the issues of migration and these problems in the new normal.
Adnan Qader is a climate change researcher. His research interests lie with the relationship between climate fragility risks and water security.
Zahid Amin Shashoto is a program officer of Uttaran's Climate Change and Water Governance Programme. He also independently leads a conservation project for Otters.