In the scorching summer heat, with two large steel pots of water balanced on her head, Rangamma walks to her house, about half a kilometer away from the public standpost, in Mangamaripeta village of Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh.
She needs to make nine additional trips that day, every trip two pots of water balanced on her head, to store enough drinking water for her family for the next two to three days. "We are right next to the water (Bay of Bengal), but face acute water shortage in our village. Drinking water is supplied once in two to three days for an hour or so," said Rangamma. "The day water supply comes, I try to store enough water for cooking and drinking purposes," she added.
Across the road, in the other part of Mangamaripeta, which is at a slightly higher elevation, a large number of fisher families buy drinking water. "Almost 30-40% families in the village have to buy drinking water, as our water sources have turned saline," said Bharati, another resident of Mangamaripeta.
"A 20-liter water can costs Rs 15, but if we want it delivered to our village, then the same can costs Rs 25. We have no choice but to buy water," she added.
'Buying water a financial burden'
Mangamaripeta, about 40-km from Visakhapatnam, is a fishing village of 4,500 families, all of whom face drinking water problem. A large number of hand pumps in the village spew out saline water making them redundant.
Whereas some women make multiple trips a day to fetch water from stand posts in the village, others are forced to buy bottled water in large cans. "Our houses are at an elevation and far away from the stand posts. It is very difficult to carry water pots, so we have an additional financial burden of buying water," said Bharati.
Ratna, another fisher said, she buys drinking water only for the menfolk and children in the family. "We women drink whatever water we fetch. Our cooking is done in saline water, too," she said.
Young girls in Mangamaripeta village in Visakhapatnam keep a check on when water would be supplied. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal
Sea-level rise and salinity ingress
Sea-level rise, salinity ingress and coastline erosion are some of the biggest impacts of the changing climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 'IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C' published last October reads: "Increasing warming amplifies the exposure of small islands, low-lying coastal areas and deltas to the risks associated with sea level rise for many human and ecological systems, including increased saltwater intrusion, flooding and damage to infrastructure (high confidence)."
And, for India it is a huge concern because nearly 250 million people live within 50-km of coastline. A 2017 report of the Indian government's Central Water Commission, A report on Problems of Salination of Land in Coastal Areas of India and Suitable Protection Measures, notes: "Climate change-induced sea level rise is a major threat to the country as the 73 coastal districts (out of a total of 593) have a share of 17% of the national population, with nearly 250 million people living within 50 km of the coastline." Further, a 26-year study of the Indian shoreline from 1990 to 2016 shows that a third of the Indian coastline is facing erosion.
According to R Ramasubramanian, principal coordinator of the coastal systems research programme of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, more than seven million coastal families of fishers and farmers are vulnerable to the rising sea level and salinity ingress. Many are already facing the brunt. Andhra Pradesh's coastline alone has over 555 fishing villages, Mangamaripeta being one of them.
Simply put, salinity ingress means saline marine water seeping underground into freshwater aquifers. This could be due to over-extraction of groundwater in coastal areas, or sea-level rise as sea intrudes in coastal areas, eroding coastal lands and contaminating the aquifers.
"When shallow aquifers are over-exploited and groundwater is pumped out, sea water ingression takes place. Aquaculture practices, in which seawater is pumped a few kilometres inside the land, is another reason for salinity ingress. These are purely human-made problems," said Ramasubramanian.
Some natural factors, such as cyclones and sea storms, also lead to seawater incursion. "In case of Mangamaripeta, less rainfall, hence low groundwater recharge; and rivers not bringing enough freshwater to the sea are some reasons for salinity ingress," added Ramasubramanian.
Hidden health cost
Salinity ingress has put an additional burden on fisherwomen of Mangamaripeta, who, apart from drying the daily fish catch and selling it at the local market, have to run helter-skelter to fetch drinking water. Fisher families have a clear demarcation of labour; men go to the sea to catch fish, women sell the daily catch at the market.
"There aren't any comprehensive studies on health effects of consuming saline water amid coastal communities in India. But, enough evidence has been gathered in Bangladesh, which also faces seawater incursion in its coastal areas," said Patralekha Chatterjee, a senior health journalist, who's been documenting such health cases.
A recent study, 'Impacts of Salinity Intrusion in Community Health: A Review of Experiences on DrinkingWater Sodium from Coastal Areas of Bangladesh' notes that "approximately 20 million people in Bangladesh are at high risk of hypertension due to the intrusion of saline water caused by climate change."
Another 2011 comprehensive risk analysis for disproportionate salt ingestion was conducted among the people in Chakaria sub-district, a rural area on the southeastern coastal region of Bangladesh. This study found that owing to the use of saltwater (due to salinity ingress in their local water bodies), villagers suffered from numerous diseases, including skin ailments, hair fall, diarrhoea, gastric diseases, and high blood pressure.
This is not all. Drinking water sodium (DWS) has serious implications for the health of the community, particularly for pregnant women. People exposed to slightly saline (1000–2000 mg/L) and moderately saline (2000 mg/L) concentrations of drinking water had, respectively, 17% and 42% higher chance of being hypertensive than those who consumed freshwater (<1000 mg/L), reported the 2011 study.
It further found that females have a 31% higher chance to be hypertensive than the males. Also, DWS can also lead women, especially pregnant women, to an increased risk of (pre)eclampsia, hypertension, as well as infant mortality.
"Whereas Bangladesh has conducted comprehensive research studies to understand health impacts of drinking saline water, in India this problem is yet to be recognised though a large number of coastal communities are exposed to saline water," said Chatterjee.
Several fisherwomen in Mangamaripeta informed they regularly had 'headaches' and catch skin infections. "Even if we know it is because of drinking saline water, what choice do we have? We have never got any comprehensive health test done," said Ratna.