As Climate Change Grows More Intense, Women In Battered Coastal Odisha Step Up

As Climate Change Grows More Intense, Women In Battered Coastal Odisha Step Up
Odisha, India
As Climate Change Grows More Intense, Women In Battered Coastal Odisha Step Up

This is the fourth story of a series on India’s climate change hotspots. You can read the first part here, the second here and the third here.

Bhadrak, Odisha: 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 they hold -- a comb, some fruit and clothing -- 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 mother to four daughters.

Biswal’s home in Sitalpur village is less than 50 meters from one of the tributaries of the Baitarani River, the second-longest river in the state of Odisha, which borders the Bay of Bengal. 

To those living here in Sitalpur, a village in Bhadrak district, 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, and scientists say cyclones have become more and more intense.

“Overall, cyclonic activity is increasing in the north Indian Ocean, which includes the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal,” said Asmita Deo, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune. She looked at data spanning three decades to come to that 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.”

The area around the Bay of Bengal also faces frequent droughts, increased salinity in water tables and soil, as well as sea and river erosion, according to a 2013 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest environmental network. The report included data from 20 Odisha villages.

It 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.

Yet 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 changes.

Bhadrak is a coastal district in Odisha along the Bay of Bengal, the world’s largest bay. During the monsoons, flash floods are a monthly occurrence, and for several days life comes to a standstill.

Changes in the world’s largest bay

Rising sea levels, saltier inland water and more intense rainfall. Higher temperatures, more frequent cyclones and more days without rain.

These are some of changes already occurring in the Bay of Bengal region -- and they're predicted to take place more often and more severely. The bay is the world’s largest, a recessed coastal body of water that connects to the Indian Ocean, which runs from Africa in the west to Australia in the east. Along the bay are countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, home to a fourth of the world's population. 

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 many of the same issues. But the impact of climate change here has, so far, garnered less 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 (IMD) 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 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 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 at Rural Water Supply and Sanitation (RWSS) in 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 2006 study on trends in rainfall patterns over India by the IMD, which looked at data over a century, from 1901 to 2003.

The mean rainfall is decreasing over Odisha but not in a significant way during the south-west monsoon season. It is decreasing significantly over the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh where many of Odisha’s rivers either originate or flow through / Credit: Trends in rainfall pattern over India by P Guhathakurta and M Rajeevan; National Climate Centre Research Report

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.

Red colour indicates a significant change while the arrows represent an increase or decrease in the amount of southwest monsoon rainfall / Credit: Observational analysis of Heavy rainfall during southwest monsoon over Indian region, Pulak Guhathakurta, in High-Impact Weather Events over the SAARC Region published in 2014.

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 manifests in longer, harder journeys for water -- a burden that falls on the women of Bhadrak.

The red spots indicate a decrease in surface water from 1984 to 2015, and are based on satellite data, while the black represents water bodies that show no change in size / Credit: Global Surface Water Explorer developed by The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre using satellite data from USGS and NASA.

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 collecting water for everyone in the family. The only hand pump is 500 meters outside her village, Kaliapat, and a single trip can take as much as 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the crowd gathered there.

Of the four hand pumps in Kaliapat, only one produces potable water. Water from the other hand pumps has turned saline.

Kuntala Rout, 58, who lives in a village in Odisha’s Bhadrak district along India’s eastern coast, says the burden of filling water falls on women, and they spend nearly four hours every day getting collecting it / Credit: Disha Shetty

This is not a new problem.

The groundwater in the 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 by 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 over extraction by local populations. 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 their water containers. 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.”

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. Some of the issues they discuss are water shortages, the need for more hand pumps and issues of sanitation in the aftermath of natural disasters. They say these are issues men in their villages are not interested in, but they are because they feel the impacts of such events accutely.  

Dayamanti Biswal, 48, has to rebuild her mud home every year after the monsoon like most of her neighbours in Bhadrak, Odisha. She has thought of moving away but cannot afford to do so but said, “I ensured all my daughters were educated and sent them away from this misery as soon as I could" / Credit: Disha Shetty

If women menstruate during the floods, for example, they have no option but to wash their sanitary napkins in floodwaters and re-use the blood-soaked cloth.

“Lack of privacy is the over-arching feature during such events related to climate change," said Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, a professor at Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy and an expert on the gendered impacts of water crises. "In our society the burden of shame is on women."

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.

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt’s documentary, Women at the Water’s Edge, explores how rising sea levels due to climate change affects women in the Sundarbans.

At the self-help federation meetings, women also raise issues related to the lack of health care 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 seven kilometers from a hospital, and the two men, carrying Das, waded through knee-deep water to reach it. Jasodha, then 21, delivered her son while on the way.

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, a government think tank. Half of the women in Odisha between the ages of 15-49 are anaemic, and nearly one in every four has a low body mass index. 

Climate change will be an added stressor on an already stressed health delivery system, experts say.

Fishing boats like the one pictured here are used as ambulances when the floods come. Women in labour are taken to hospital using such boats in flood-prone coastal Odisha / Credit: Disha Shetty

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 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, a doctoral researcher with Sansristi, a research centre that looks at gendered migration due to Odisha’s droughts. “So more women are having to take on agricultural responsibilities that they were not trained for.”

In response, 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 court. Her voice loud, she blamed 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 and spending a fifth of the day collecting 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, a project coordinator with WaterAid India. “They have been making specific demands from the authorities, which then get processed.” Many dormant self-help groups are coming alive again because of the women’s federation project, he added.

Up to 60% of India’s population depends on groundwater reserves, but nearly 15% are 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.

In addition, the effects of climate change 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.”

Banner image; Women in 11 gram panchayats in Odisha’s flood-prone coastal district of Bhadrak have formed federations to highlight issues that affect them in the aftermath of intense floods or drought. Such disasters are becoming frequent and intense due to climate change / Credit: Disha Shetty

Disha Shetty is a Columbia Journalism School-IndiaSpend reporting fellow covering climate change. Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network’s Bay of Bengal Climate Resilience Initiative.

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