Dulal Krishna Sarker has been living on the banks the Madhumati for 75 years. The farmer from Magura’s Harinadanga said he has seen water flow downstream all his life. “But now I see it going upstream!”
The simple villager says that must be how saline water gets into the river. He says reduced water flow result in lower sedimentation.
Research and surveys of the Soil Resources Development Institute (SRDI) and other government agencies also show that it has been leading to increasingly higher levels of salinity along the distributaries of the Padma (as the Ganges is called in Bangladesh).
“We used to cultivate Aush, Aman and jute before, but the yield is very low now”
Millions of other Dulal Krishnas echo similar sentiments. Lower sedimentation and higher salinity are causing them to spend more for less yield, they say.
Bangladesh's south-western districts that used to be fed by the Ganges waters are witnessing a rise in salinity that is consistently linked with its water flow.
The decreasing flow of the Ganges has a direct correlation with the rising salinity of district like Magura and Narail. The trend continues to get stronger southwards towards the coast where these rivers eventually drain into the Bay of Bengal.
According to the SRDI, which is the competent national authority in the field in Bangladesh, over 60 percent (1.056 million hectares) are affected by salinity.
Parts of Satkhira, Patuakhali, Barguna, Barisal, Jhalakati, Pirojpur, Jessore, Narail, Gopalganj and Madaripur districts which are all covered by Ganges water flow show trends of salinity that is inversely proportionate to Ganges water flow.
The river salinity data of the Bangladesh Water Development Board and the Farakka water flow data of the Joint Rivers Commission paint a clear picture.
For instance, salinity was only 211 in Electrical Conductivity (EC) count when water flow stood at 97,766 cusecs during the first 10 days of 2017 at Farakka. But salinity jumped to 3,220 EC during the last 10 days of March when water flow came down to 59,488 cusecs. Salinity stood at 449 EC with Farakka water flow at 95,883 cusecs during the first 10 days of 2008. That same year during April 11-20 salinity rose as high as 4,900 EC with water flow dipping to 52,519 cusecs at Farakka.
Dozens of farmers said they were witnessing ever lower water levels along the Gorai, Madhumati and Kumar rivers all of which used to sustain many of the southwestern districts with the Ganges waters they carried through the mangroves into the sea.
A 65-year old small farmer from Narail’s Babra who grows paddy, jute and winter vegetables said sedimentation has decreased visibly. The reason is quite plain to him. “Not much water flows in the river as it once used to. So we are not getting that layer of sediment in our lands.”
Although he cannot put a finger on it, Atahar Uddin feels this lack of flow is probably connected to the rising salinity. He says that there is higher salinity where they drill the ground to reach the ground water table. “Crops around that pump turn red, for which we mostly use sulphur to cut off the salinity.”
This extra use of fertiliser naturally pushes up the cost of production and at the same time reduces productivity and crop yield. Official agricultural census of the Bangladesh government shows that productivity is lower in the districts typically affected by salinity compared to the national level.
The 85-year old Malek Molla from another sub district along the Gorai river, which turns into Madhumati at Rajdharpur of Magura, said the river used to be about 150 feet deep there where it is now barely five feet deep.
Malek says: “Right now, we do not have a single crop that depends on river water. But two decades ago, we only had the river for irrigation. We never needed groundwater.”
But even with the irrigation and modern fertilisers, farmers are not satisfied. They say the yield is dwindling. Akbar Molla of Narail’s Jashamanthapur said rice production used to be quite good before. The 65-year-old farmer said they noticed this year that the crops turned red, and they do not know why it happens and there is also no improvement after using fertilizers. “It is probably because of salinity. But I don’t know how to solve this.”
Another sexagenarian farmer Abdul Mannan from Narail’s Bhabanipur had the same problem. Fertilisers simply don’t seem to work anymore. What is worse, he says the groundwater seems to have something in it. “It is like there is another layer in the water. And the soil loses its stickiness.”
“No matter how much fertilizer we use, it does not work.”
He says farmers around the area face the same problem with salinity. “I have already used 10kg of extra fertiliser. There has been no change.” To make matters worse, he said, the water table had sunk as low as 250 feet below ground. “That is how deep we must bore to get irrigation water.”
A much younger farmer who did not have the years of experience like the elders of the village knew he needed more water and was having to spend more on fertilisers. The 30-year old Shamsul pointed to crop fields saying they used to be under the river not too long ago. “The water would go over my fields too and leave a layer of sediment every year. Now it is not there and I end up using almost double the fertiliser and still the crops are not growing well.”
To others of Shamsul’s generation, there is a clear reason behind the rising salinity in the area. Taifur Molla from Naokhola of Narail said it was because they were not getting river water anymore. “Less sediment and less water mean we have to use groundwater and more fertiliser, which only exacerbates the situation.”
A comparative study of the soil resources institute shows that the area of salinity affected land rose from 833,450 hectares to 1,056,260 hectares in 2009. What is more alarming is that the amount of land affected by higher levels of salinity has almost quadrupled during that time.
A specialist in delta economy and ecology, Nilanjan Ghosh, said the Indian part of the mangroves, Sundarbans, were also witnessing decreasing paddy production. Ghosh who is also the head of economics at a Kolkata-based think tank called Observer Research Foundation said: “Many of the paddy fields have been converted into pisciculture or shrimp culture. Because shrimp flourish better in brackish water, while the paddy flourish in freshwater.”
“Many of the paddy fields have been converted into pisciculture or shrimp culture. Because shrimp flourish better in brackish water, while the paddy flourish in freshwater.”
Ghosh who is also the head of economics at a Kolkata-based think tank called Observer Research Foundation said this was not merely an agricultural problem but also a causing scarcity in drinking water.