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Azmal Hossan joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss climate change and the ongoing water crisis in Bangladesh.
Hossan, a PhD student in sociology at Colorado State University and current Agents of Change fellow, also talks about growing up in a farming family, how the environmental justice movement looks much different in the U.S. than in South Asia, and the promise of prison agriculture.
The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here, and subscribe at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.
Listen below to our discussion with Hossan, and read his essay, Weaponization of water in South Asia.
My guest today is Azmal Hossan, a PhD student in sociology, and a national research trainee in interdisciplinary training, education and research in food energy water systems at Colorado State University. That is a mouthful of a title. Azmal just published an essay last week about water woes in his native Bangladesh. And we talk about growing up in a farming family there, the ongoing water and food security crisis in the region, and how he sees the differences in the environmental justice movement between the U.S. and Bangladesh. Enjoy.
All right now I'm super happy to be joined by Azmal Hossan. Azmal, how are you doing today?
I'm great, Brian, thank you so much for having me here. And I'm glad to be part of this great podcast.
Excellent. Well, thanks for being here. And where are you today? Where are you talking to us from?
I am right now talking from Fort Collins, Colorado. I just spent two months in Grand Junction, Colorado for my summer internship. I just returned back last week from Grand Junction to Fort Collins.
Excellent. And how are things there? I know the country is crazy right now with air quality and fires and heat. How are things in Fort Collins?
The air quality is, I think, one of the main concerns in Fort Collins because Fort Collins is surrounded by regions where there are a lot of fracking industries, like unconventional oil and gas development industries. And that area is being contaminated by the chemicals used in the fracking industries. And other thing is look, is looking good in Fort Collins.
Gotcha, I was out there a few years ago for a conference and it was a really fun town to be in. I remember really, really liking it. So you weren't always in Colorado. You were born and raised in Bangladesh. And I want to hear about that. Can you tell me a little bit about your, your upbringing and where along the way you became interested in environmental health and justice and some of the things that you've gone on to research and study since?
Thank you so much, Brian, for asking this question. Yeah, I was born in, born and raised in Bangladesh, which is a small country with high population density. You can imagine how population density is there. It's a small country with 55,000 square miles in size, but the total population is 170 million. And the fact is that most of the population are heavily dependent on natural resources for their survival and livelihood, especially agricultural food production. So for example, 70% of the country's population are dependent on agriculture and food production. And among them 90% produce rice, which is one of the water intensive crops. And the problem is that Bangladesh belongs to the world's largest delta, we call, it is the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna delta, and Bangladesh belongs to the downstream of the delta. And more than 91% of the country's water are coming from outside of the country, through the major transboundary rivers like the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna. And that means the country is heavily dependent on nature, upon water resources coming from outside like from neighboring countries. The major transboundary rivers originated in the Himalayan glaciers, and they pass through neighboring countries like India, China, and then fall in the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh. So, availability of water in Bangladesh is heavily connected with the water governance and management in neighboring countries. And you know, India and China are the big brothers in the region, and they have a huge dominance in, in controlling water flows in the transboundary rivers. That means regional political, economy and, and obviously climate change are affecting the water resource availability in Bangladesh. And from my own life experience I found that—I'm from a small farming family. My dad was a farmer and I have been observing in my childhood and throughout my life that he has been struggling in producing rice because rice is our main staple food. And the problem is that as the neighboring countries are controlling water in the transboundary rivers, water has become a double-edged sword. So, for us, in terms of agricultural food production during monsoon season, when we have huge rainfall and precipitation, we don't need extra water, but the neighboring countries they open the barriers and dams in their territories to lead to the water flow in the downstream country, in Bangladesh. So, consequently, every year, Bangladesh faces huge flash. So, for example, in last year, Bangladesh had five minutes of devastating flash, which has huge negative consequences for agricultural, for food production, for infrastructure and also for public health. And during winter season, when you don't have water in the river, and we need water, and the neighboring country, India and China, they close their barriers and stop the water flow in the transboundary river. And consequently, we are suffering from lack of water, which has also negative consequences for rice production—as I mentioned that rice is one of the water intensive crops. So, given this life experiences, I have been confronting with academic questions from the very beginning of my academic life like, how do social systems exit their ecological carrying capacities. And I found that studying sociology, I found that environmental problems like water crisis or water scarcity are not, are not necessarily coming from the lack of natural resources, they are coming from the unequal distribution of natural resources by different stakeholders, by different countries. And this is the point from where I got interested in environmental health, environmental justice. You can say like, it is my life story.
Yeah, for sure. And, and so, looking at this water problem, and you mentioned this a little bit, especially talking about kind of water releases from India and China, but. So, your work has looked at how environmental problems are linked to social systems, right. And so, how does that, can you walk us through a little bit how that manifests in Bangladesh? Some, some examples of that, building on what you, what you mentioned with the water releases, or not allocating enough water for Bangladesh?
Yeah, definitely. I think, as I have a training in sociology, I always try to connect the social systems with the environmental problems. And I really believe that there is a strong connections between environmental problems and social systems. So for example, if we look at the history of Bangladesh, the country got independence in 1971. And after independence, the country adopted like, a Western model of development. If we look at the economic aspects of the development in the agricultural food production, the country adopted the Green Revolution, a model of agricultural food production, which promotes monoculture, which promotes the use of pesticide, agricultural chemicals and other and fertilizers, which has a negative consequences for the public health. Definitely, we ensured food security through the Green Revolution, but it brought negative consequences for public health and also other environmental qualities in that region. So for example, I can show you an example that recently, National Cancer Research Institute and hospitals in Bangladesh, they published a report called Cancer Registry Report from 2015 to 2017. And they found that one third of the patients they are treating in their hospitals are farmers. And the institution is that is that…the rate of cancer among the farmers are, is gradually increasing. So for example, in 2015, over 30% of the cancer patients were farmers. In 2016 it is 33% and 2017 it is 34%. And along with these alarming rate, it has huge consequences on the farmers in terms of treatment of cancer, because it is a huge financial burden on them. And also use of fertilizers, chemicals and other ingredients in the agricultural field has also negative consequences for water quality, air quality of the region. So, the Green Revolution program has focused on food security, not on Environmental Quality, not on, like food justice or sovereignty. And if you look also in the political structure after independence, in 1971, Bangladesh has been struggling in establishing the democratic institutions. And in social science, we call that in South Asia, especially in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, we call the political system as the Eco-critical governments, which refers that natural resources are controlled by the political elites. So there is a huge gap between the political, powerful people and political powerless people in getting a natural resources.
I'm curious, just wondering, so when you came here, you kind of had a firm understanding that the environment and justice were things that were important to you and things you wanted to study? What was it like coming to the U.S. and studying these things? What was it like to leave Bangladesh? And what was that experience like for you?
Personally, I feel that if you look at the history of environmental justice movement, it has been originated in the U.S. in 1970s. And when I came in the United States, I found that obviously, there are serious problems in the country in terms of environmental justice that people of color or marginalized people are the main targets of chemicals and environmental waste dumping. But I also really feel that there is a strong environmental justice movement in the United States that's compared to Bangladesh. The reason behind is that I think, the democratic governance system in the United States, which has allowed, which has been allowed, the environmental justice activists, academics, researchers in doing research in environmental justice and making awareness among the different segments of the society. But, but Bangladesh, I think, since it is still a underdeveloped country, and the country is suffering from lack of democratic practices. There is a little space or lack of space in doing research, and doing environmental activism in Bangladesh, and also making awareness among the most people. So this is the difference I found that between Bangladesh and the United States.
You've mentioned, Bangladesh's history of fighting for social, economic and political justice and how it makes it well-suited to be a leader among the least developed nations in the climate justice movement. I was wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.
Yeah, thank you so much for the question. And I really appreciate it. Yeah, if you look at the history of Bangladesh, especially when it got independence in 1971. And if we look at the Declaration of Independence, there are three main principles of the Declaration of Independence, which is equity, human dignity, and social justice. But unfortunately, we could not ensure these principles after independence. But I always feel that if we look back in the history of Bangladesh, under British colonialism, then under, in Pakistan regime, we found that we have a great history in fighting against social, economic and political injustice. Especially, I can concentrate here, when Bangladesh, when India supported independence from British colonialism, the whole Indian subcontinent was divided on the basis of two nations theory, like Hindus for India and Muslims for Pakistan. And Bangladesh was part of Pakistan as the region of current Bangladesh was a predominantly Muslim dominant region. But the problem is that Pakistan had two parts, one is West Pakistan and one is East Pakistan and they are geographically separated from each other. Only one component was considered to bind them together, was religion, but it did not work. When we got, when Pakistan got independence in 1947, then the conflict between these two region has already been started and the first conflict came in into existence. In terms of language, like, among the whole participant 56% of the population were speaking in Bengali, and only 11% of the whole of Pakistan's population were speaking in Urdu, But the political leaders who are from West Pakistan, they are trying to impose Urdu as the state and national language of Pakistan, of the whole Pakistan. But the people in Bangladesh who are a majority in terms of number of population, they protested these decisions. And in a rally organized by the mass people, especially led by students, Pakistani police shoot, shooted at the rally. And we lost a couple of students from the University of Dhaka. And this is one example in world history that a nation can sacrifice their lives for, in protecting their own language, native language. And we got independence in 1971. And now, we throw a massive Liberation War, which was nine months in length. And we lost almost 3 million people during this Liberation War in 1971, and 200,000 women were raped during this Liberation War. But the Liberation War was organized by the students, by the farmers, by the laborers, by the mass people, and we achieved independence in 1971, against the oppression and exploitation by the West Pakistani rulers. And this has also been the history against British colonialism. If you look at the resistance movement against the British colonialism, most of the resistance movements were happening in the current Bangladesh regions, by the farmers, by the students by the Indigenous communities and also by the laborers working in the industries. So historically, we have a legacy of fight against social, economic and political injustice. And definitely from my sociological point of view, climate change is not only an environmental problem, it's a social and environmental justice issue. If we look at the rate of carbon emissions, most of the carbon are emitted by the industrialized and developed countries. But the problem is that poor countries like Bangladesh are the main suffers. So from the historical legacy of fight against a social, economic and political justice, I think, Bangladesh has been playing a great role in in the climate justice movement around the world. And Bangladesh has been leading in different international forums, in getting compensations from the western industrialized developed countries, like I think Climate Green Fund, Bangladesh has been leading in organizing this fund and distributing the allocations among the least developed countries.
So I've been asking everybody on the podcast, what is a defining moment that shaped your identity up to this point? It could be a moment, an event, something that something that stands out to you?
That's a great question, Brian. And as I mentioned, that climate justice or environmental justice or even social justice is my life experience. But the defining moment I decided to be an academician, a researcher or an activist for climate justice or environmental justice is my field work during my master's thesis that I conducted in the coastal region of Bangladesh. I was examining how climate change are affecting the forest based coastal communities living in the southwestern regions. And I realized these personally when I was in the field, I found that the coastal communities, they are totally dependent on the natural resources of the forest. We call the Sundarbans, which is the largest mangrove forest in the world, because they don't have any agricultural land, especially the Indigenous communities living in the coastal regions, they don't have any agricultural land because there is an unequal distribution of land ownership in that region. Only a small portion of the population who are rich, they have the land ownership. Most of the people they don't have any land ownership, so they are fully dependent on the natural resources of the forest. But after the Cyclone Sidr in 2007, and Cyclone Aila in 2009, the government imposed restriction on the forest-based communities to enter into the forest. Because the objective of the restriction is that if people or Indigenous communities enter to the forest, they will harm the natural ecosystem of the forest, which was almost destroyed by the cyclones. But the problem is that if they don't have any access to the forests, they don't have any livelihood mechanism. Because they collect honey, they collect wood, they collect fish from the forests to survive and to make their livelihood. And the problem is that due to climate change, sea level rise is, is one of the main problems in the coastal regions. And due to sea level rise, water salinity is also a major problem in that region. And you can't produce rice or other agricultural produces in the saline water. So the landowners converted their lands, from agricultural field to the shrimp production field. They produce shrimp, which is tolerant in the saline water. And the people who, when they lost of access to the forest, they started to working as a labor, daily labor in the shrimp field, which is a devastating issue for their health. If you continuously work in the saline water to produce shrimp, it has a negative consequences for you, for your other health issues. So these problems like climate change, and then government's forest management policy creates barriers for the natural resource dependent coastal communities. And another, another issue I found were due to extreme water salinity, they have a lack of source for drinking water, safe drinking water. I stayed there a couple of days and I realized that, how difficult, how difficult it is to bring saline into water. I could not drink saline water, I bought water bottles from the market to drink it. But I realized that since they are poor, they have less financial capitals to purchase water bottle from the market, they have no other alternatives to drink saline water, which which is a huge health issues for them, and also life threatening issues for their survival. Yeah, and this is the point that when you go to the field, you can realize the sufferings and struggles people are doingin their day to day activities and for their survivals. And my master's research, fieldwork, influenced me to become an environmental justice academician and researcher and also an activist.
What a great story. I, the part of the inner intersection of the issues there where you're not only dealing with an economic imbalance, but this environmental imbalance, I think really speaks to the kind of work you've been doing that's looking at social systems as well as environmental ones. And it brings me to another project that you're involved in that really caught my eye. And I want to, I want to pick your brain on it a little bit. A project you're involved in called Incarcerated Agriculture, Horticulture and Gardening, which seems vastly different than a lot of what we've been talking about so far. I'm wonder if you could tell me about this project, your involvement and what's the aim?
Thank you so much, Brian, for raising that questions. And I think working in the present agricultural lab, by Dr. Joshua Sbicca, one of the faculty members in the Department of Sociology is one of my great life experiences in my graduate life. I have been involved in the project in the last couple of years, especially during summer. Because I am an international students I could not work more than 20 hours due to my immigration status. So I have been working in the project during summer as a research assistant. The main goal of the project is to examine how the agricultural food production in the U.S. prison systems can make tools for the rehabilitation program for the incarcerated people. And you know that the United States is a land of incarceration. 2.3 million people in the United States are behind bars. And there are 5000 prisons and jails, 1800 juvenile correctional facilities in the United States, and if all the incarcerated people are housed in one place, it would be the fourth largest city in the USA. So there are a lot of issues connected with the prison systems in the United States like housing, feeding, clothing and governing of the incarcerated people. And the project was established to examine how the socioecological dimensions of the experiences prisoners have with food and plants are contributing in their rehabilitation program. And this project was influenced by one of the famous quote by Nelson Mandela from South Africa who was inprisoned for 27 years. And the quote is that "a garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it offered a simple but endearing satisfaction for the prisoners." But the problem is that there is not a comprehensive study on the prison agriculture in the United States. And there is lack of knowledge and information on prison agriculture. Only one source, we can refer to the US Census of Prisons. And in the last census in 2005, they had only one question on, about farming and agriculture in the prison. So, the project was designed to develop a national database on the US prisons and jails covering how much prison and jails have like agricultural food production system in there, in the territory. And we have been developing the national database and we found that 602 state prisons in total in the USA have food and agricultural activities. Among them, we can split them by the following way that 26 states have animal agriculture, 25 states have crops, 19 states have food production, and every state has some form of horticulture. So, these national database is using right now to conduct a primary data collection research. We are using a mixed method approach to collect primary data through a semi-structured survey and in-depth interview, to examine like how the agricultural food production is being organized in the US prison and jails. And what are the implications from both the environmental, ecological and incarcerated people's economic and social, social rehabilitation. The agriculture and food production can contribute. And it's a huge experience in my graduate life that, working in a project connecting agriculture and prison system. I think it will create new insights in the penal system in the United States, in the future.
I'm wondering if you guys have hypotheses, is it? Is it that healthy food? Or is it just that being around plants? Maybe a sense of purpose and, and good for the soul? And, and also maybe eating healthy foods? Or where does the kind of the hypothesis lie, and where this could be a net good for the incarcerated?
That's a good question. Although as I mentioned that although there is no comprehensive study. But there are a couple of case studies on prison agricultural systems in the United States, and the research shows that if the prison agriculture, prison has a food production system by their own, it has a positive influence of the rehabilitation of incarcerated people. And you know, the food system in the US prison is highly corporatized. And often your food system is highly corporatized, it has a lot of issue in terms of food justice, food sovereignty and nutrition of the incarcerated people. So, the case studies are showing that if there is a sustainable agriculture or food production system in the US prison, it has a positive implications for the overall environment, for the overall ecology of the prison system, and also for the, for the sustainable rehabilitation of incarcerated people in the society. When they get training, in food production in the prison, when they are out of the prison they can organize their own livelihood through that training and to produce their own food by their own. And it will help them to, to be rehabilitated sustainability, sustainably in society.
So you might be the first environmental sociologist I've had on here. I shouldn't say that, because I don't know that for a fact. But I'm pretty sure. So I'm curious, you know, you have international experience coming from Bangladesh, and now you're in the States. I'm curious, where are some of the areas of the field that you think could improve? And how would you like to be a part of that change as you advance in your career?
Yeah, that's a great question, again, Brian. As I mentioned earlier, that, as an environmental sociologist, I found in the United States, when I came in the United States, there are a lot of opportunity to work in the environmental justice field in the United States. For example, I can mention about Agents of Change in Environmental Justice Fellowship Program, which is a great opportunity for the early career scientists and scholars to practice environmental justice. But as I mentioned earlier, that there is a huge lack of opportunity in the global south to be an environmental activist, to do research on environmental justice, and making our needs—as I said, I'm from Bangladesh, where the country has been shifting from a lower, more lower income country to middle income country, and there are a lot of huge development activities are going on there. But there is a little chance to assess the environmental consequences of the development activities. So I think, as a Bangladeshi, in future, it would be a great opportunity for me to continue my research in Bangladesh, and how the ongoing development activities are generating environmental injustice in, in the, in this country. So I think that getting training from the academic and research setting in the United States will be a useful resource for me to be an environmental justice scholar in global south, in future.
So you mentioned the Agents of Change program, which is of course, why we are here talking. And it's obviously geared toward pushing scientists like yourself to communicate with a broader audience than they're used to. And I'm curious why science communication is important to you, and how do you see it fitting into your career moving forward?
Thank you so much. Science communication is one of my favorite things. And I'm glad that I'm part of Agents of Change fellowship program. And, when I started my Master's in sociology at Texas Tech University, I had the chance to work with Katharine Hayhoe. I don't know whether you know her or not. Yeah. She is one of the leading climate scientists and climate science communicator, and she just joined the Nature Conservancy as the chief scientist. And I got a lot of training from her, how to communicate, like the science, especially climate change science. And one important thing I found from her is that there is lack of communication, why the world is polarized in terms of climate change. And one suggestion, I'll always keep in mind from her is that if you want to communicate science with people, especially climate change, talk to them. Because the Yale climate change communication program shows that people are concerned about climate change. But when they are asked whether the climate change will affect them personally, or individually, they say no. That means that people are not talking about climate change. So she, one solution I always kept in mind from her, talk to the people about the science, and identifying the commonalities affected by the issue of climate change is one of the main tools to communicate science. Say, for example, we have different political perspectives, someone is liberal, someone is conservative, but we all have health issues. And health issues are being affected by the climate change. We have our kids in home, their future is being affected by climate change. So identifying the common issues affected by climate change is one of the main, like successful tools to communicate about climate change and to make science communication successful one.
It's worth pointing out that Katharine has been very open about her faith and her science. So she's kind of notorious, for people who don't know, of being a Christian I believe, she's Christian I believe?
She's an evangelical Christian.
And being very upfront about that. And she's, she's made it a point to speak to a lot of evangelical Christian groups who, on the whole, are often more skeptical of climate science. So she's, what a great person to learn from for you. She's, she's really been at the forefront of climate communication.
Yeah, definitely. I was listening to one of her talk. And she, she mentioned that it is her faith that makes her a climate change scientists and climate science communicator. Because she was mentioning that as a human being, we have responsibility to protect that, because it is our responsibility coming from the god to protect the Earth. So if you are a believer, if you believe in religion, then you have the responsibility to protect the Earth and you have the responsibility also to protect the most vulnerable people. Because the most vulnerable people due to climate change or other any problems, they don't, they have little contribution in the climate change process, but they are the sufferers. So it is also a justice issue and as a believer, it is our responsibility to ensure justice.
Well Azmal, this has been such a fun conversation. I've learned so much about Bangladesh and your history and your, your path to where you're at now. And I have one final question. And that is, what is the last book that you read for fun?
Thank you. And as I said that, Katharine Hayhoe is my is one of my mentors. And I learned a lot of things from her on climate change, communication. I started reading her latest book, published recently. And the book's title is "Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World." And, as I mentioned, in this book, she highlighted that there is a lack of communication, in communicating climate change. And in this book, she's trying to give people, different tools to have constructive conversation about why these issues are relevant to all of us, and how we can work together for change. And one important lesson I learned from this book that she's trying to show, that we need to start with our heart, not by the head, because we have been listening to the science of climate change in the last one and half century, when the science of climate science has been started. But it's still now our society is highly polarized and divided on the issues. So we need to start with the heart in a sense that, as I mentioned earlier that identifying the commonalities, identifying the common values, norms, that are affected by climate change, would be a great step to make a unique or homogeneous consensus on the climate change in our society. So this is a great book, I think, to read, plan new tools and techniques on how to communicate climate change with the different stakeholders.
Excellent. Well what a positive note to end on. And Azmal thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much for having me again, and I really appreciate you Brian. And also Environmental Health News and also Agents of Change fellowship program and I feel honored to be part of this great, great program.
During the middle of the holy month of Ramadan, when I started writing this essay, my native Bangladesh was confronting the COVID-19 pandemic with a nationwide lockdown.
While more than 90 percent of the country's population was fasting every day from dawn to dusk as a mandatory Islamic ritual, without taking any food or water during the driest and warmest season of the year, the nation saw record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths caused by the second wave of the global pandemic. According to official statistics, as of August 4, 2021, there were 1,296,093 confirmed cases and 21,397 total deaths in Bangladesh.
This public health crisis exacerbated another: Bangladesh's water shortage. The inequitable management of the major transboundary rivers that the country shares with India puts Bangladesh in a precarious situation, vulnerable and overly reliant on the water coming from outside of the country. Water shortages have been all too common in Bangladesh ever since its independence in 1971. The result is immense pressure on much of the population.
Seventy percent of the country's population is directly dependent on farming for their survival, and 90 percent of them grow water-intensive rice. Meanwhile, 91 percent of Bangladesh's water comes from outside its borders. In addition, drinking water scarcity is exacerbating public health concerns specially in the southwestern coastal region where most of the people confront waterborne health risks like diarrhea, dysentery, and skin diseases.
This year, water scarcity puts an unnecessary extra burden on a country already struggling with the global pandemic.
Drought, floods, and misallocations
A woman cooks food on a raft made from a banana tree after a flood inundated her house in northern Bangladesh. Source: UCA News, July 14, 2020 (Credit: Liton Das)
A water crisis is not new for Bangladesh. As someone who was born and raised in a small farming family, I have seen my farmer father's life-long water struggles. As a child, I used to work in the rice field with my father and siblings. I saw that our household's food security was unstable during both the water-scarce winters and the water-abundant monsoon seasons. Every year, drought and floods come one after another to Bangladesh, the land of rivers, toying with the lives of the poor farmers who rely so heavily on irrigation.
Climate change is obviously one factor behind water scarcity, but the true culprit is the construction of the Farakka Barrage by India in 1975, which was made to control water flow in the mighty Ganges. This year, that imbalance is more prominent than ever. The demand for water skyrocketed over the last year due to the critical role of water in containing COVID-19.
Safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene services also play a significant role in the prevention of infectious disease outbreaks. The burden of the pandemic exacerbated water demand, especially as the country experienced an extreme heat wave. On April 25, the temperature in Jessore, a southwestern district, was 106.16 degrees Fahrenheit — the highest temperature recorded in the country since 2014.
There are several treaties and agreements in place between Bangladesh and India to address water management and allocation. But lately, India, which lies upstream from Bangladesh, has not been releasing its agreed volumes of water. As a result, Bangladesh's supply is running dry, and this year, it has had to suspend projects like the Ganga-Kobodak Irrigation Project, the largest of its kind. This suspension brought severe hardships for the thousands of irrigation-based farmers who rely on that water. Consequently, Bangladesh's groundwater is depleting, sinking
from 30 feet below the surface in the 1970s to 107 feet in 2018.
At the same time, the country has seen a rapid increase in the frequency and magnitude of floods. Between 1972 and 2014, Bangladesh had severe flooding in only six years — 1974, 1987, 1988, 1998, 2004, and 2007. But starting in 2015, then Bangladesh saw higher magnitude floods for six years in a row that submerged more than 22 percent of the country's total land.
Water has become a double-edged sword for most Bangladeshi families, including mine. I can recall my own childhood when I took shelter in my village elementary school building during every monsoon season when our household was flooded from the overflowing river.
Bangladesh: A land of rivers
Buriganga River, Bangladesh. (Credit: shishir fajsal/flickr)
"Rivers first create land, then fertilize it and finally distribute its produce," Bangladeshi environmental historian Iftekhar Iqbal quoted this famous statement of C. Addams Williams in his seminal book "The Bengal Delta: Ecology, State and Social Change, 1840-1943" (2010) to indicate how was the land of Great Bengal Delta formed. Bangladesh is home to one of the world's largest fluvial regimes made up of three major Asian rivers: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna. Along with these three major international rivers, downstream Bangladesh shares 51 more rivers with upstream neighboring country India, and three with Myanmar. It is a land of 230 rivers in just 55,000 square miles. Its 170 million inhabitants proudly call it "Nodi-Matrik Bangladesh," comparing "the mighty rivers (Nodi) to a mother (Mata), signifying the strong and gentle, unrelenting and yielding, protecting and releasing, demanding and unassuming power of mother's love."
Why does a country known as the land of rivers suffer from such water crises?
Studying environmental sociology, I came to understand that global ecological problems like the water crisis do not merely result from the depletion of natural resources, but that they mostly come from unequal distributions of both natural resources and power.
India-Bangladesh water relations
Control over water is determined by the power relations between countries. Generally, upstream countries use water to get more power while downstream countries use power to get more water, and, as noted by water security expert Paula Hanasz, the most powerful side ends up achieving and maintaining the upper hand, especially in situations of water scarcity. Bangladesh shares more than 90 percent of its international border with India, and it is surrounded by the Indian states of West Bengal to the West, Assam and Meghalaya to the North, and Tripura and Mizoram to the East. This makes Bangladesh "India-locked," putting the country on its backfoot when arguing for fair water sharing.
Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has signed four water treaties with India, and every time the treaties are designed to cater to Indian interests. For example, in The Ganga Water Treaty of 1996, both countries agreed to allocate water based on availability at the Farakka point, which is located on the India-Bangladesh border. But the river originates in the Himalayas, passing 11 Indian states before entering Bangladesh, and there is no language preventing India from overdrawing water before it even reaches the Farakka point. Meaning, India controls how much water the negotiations begin with, which is a claim Bangladeshis have been contesting for years. Another major injustice: India gets extra water during the driest period of the year (March 21 – 31).
Water justice is social justice
Equality, human dignity, and social justice: these are the three fundamental principles on which Bangladesh's Proclamation of Independence is grounded. In a similar spirit, the country's constitution promises that the state "shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to preserve and safeguard the natural resources, biodiversity, wetlands, forests and wildlife for the present and future citizens."
But the lack of fair and just regional water sharing policies leads to the suffering of poor and marginalized people who depend on natural resources for their survival. They must endure both the floods in the monsoon season and droughts in the dry season.
One of my Masters' theses found that forest-based coastal communities in Bangladesh are losing their traditional livelihoods (like fishing, agriculture, honey collection, wood collection) as freshwater becomes too salty due to climate change-induced sea level rise, frequent cyclones, and decreased river flows.
Lack of drinking water exacerbates vulnerabilities, especially for the women of these communities who are the main water managers in the household. It also increases the migration of male household members to urban centers as a coping mechanism against the changing climate. This migration of male household members makes women more vulnerable within the patriarchal social system. For my other Masters' thesis, I found that women with access to pure drinking water in their household have healthier body mass indices (BMI) as compared to women without access to drinking water, even after controlling for other household amenities.
All these examples illustrate the idea I've constantly found in my research, and the truth I've known since I was a child: Water justice is fundamentally a social justice issue.
Acknowledgement: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1828902. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Banner photo: Farmers harvesting fish from the rice field while others remove black soil from the pond, Bagerhat District, Bangladesh. (Credit: AWM Anisuzzaman)
Azmal Hossan is a PhD student in Sociology and also a National Research Trainee of Interdisciplinary Training, Education and Research in Food-Energy-Water Systems (InTERFEWS) at Colorado State University. He is conducting research on human dimensions of climate change, food-water nexus in Bangladesh, and environmental justice.
This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.
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