Bangladesh’s toxic waters captured in photo-essay

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink… A cluster of striking images by leading South Asian documentary photographer Munem Wasif turns the spotlight on the water tragedy brewing in Bangladesh.

An estimate by Veolia Water, an international water provider, says a staggering 60 percent of the drinking water points around Bangladesh’s coastal villages are contaminated by arsenic while in the hinterland, water is a scarce resource.

In Wasif’s photographic project “Goalmari, Bangladesh’s Own Island’, on display at the Alliance Francaise in the national capital, the village of Goalmari in the delta of the Meghna river is depicted as the symbol of the country’s battle against contamination, scarcity and inaccessibility of clean drinking water.

The exhibition has been sponsored by the Alliance Francaise, the United Nations Information Centre for India, the Bhutanese government and Veolia Water India under the “2012 Water Series” – a series of expositions themed around water.

Twenty-nine year-old Wasif, a multiple award-winning photographer, has been lending his skill as a lensman to the cause of water contamination in his Bangladesh. Exhibited around the world, Wasif won a Prix Pictet commission to document a water project in Bangladesh in 2008.

“I worked on the Goalmari project in August 2008,” Wasif told IANS from Bangladesh. He spent two days one hot August photographing life in the village against the backdrop of its water consumption.

The colour images telling individual stories form a narrative when put together.

Shot in striking yet stylised details, the photographs trail fishermen scouring the hyacinth-riddled backwaters of the Meghna for fish in wooden boats, ferrying potable water from a few safe tubewells, children drinking water from local sources, contaminated tubewells and kitchens which make frugal use of water.

In Goalmari, 83 per cent of the drinking water points – tubewells – are contaminated by arsenic, says a report by Veolia Water.

“There are different levels of water crisis in Bangladesh. In the southern part, you have high levels of salinity. In some parts, water is contaminated by arsenic. In the hill tracts, it is difficult to get fresh water. In Dhaka, you get water sometimes, so people have to queue up for water for a long time,” Wasif said.

Recently, he was selected as one of the 30 emerging photographers by Photo District News (PDN) of the US. Wasif teaches at the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy in Bangladesh.

Wasif has been documenting water and people on the margins in Bangladesh for the last three years.

The artist said he had earlier shot a photo-essay, ‘The Salt WaterTears’ on the killer soil salinity at Satkhira, a village in Khulna district of Bangladesh bordering West Bengal.

The collection of black and white images, which were exhibited at The Mall Galleries in London were a testimony to the ravages of salinity in the areas around the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.

The rising level of brine in the soil at Satkhira has rendered it barren, leading to scarcity of food.

The villagers often have to make forays across the border to the forests of the Sunderbans on the Indian side for “goalpata palms” and shrimps.

A report by the Grameen Veolia Water, a collaboration between the grassroots Grameen Bank in Bangladesh (founded by Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus) and Veolia Water, says: “Bangladesh has abundant groundwater resources, but unfortunately, for geological reasons, almost all the groundwater has been found to be contaminated by arsenic.”

Today, more than 30 million Bangladeshis are exposed to the fatal consequences of chronic arsenic poisoning, the Grameen Veolia report adds. The project provides clean and safe drinking water in the villages of Bangladesh with the proceeds from the sale of jars of fresh water in Dhaka.

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