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Soma (above) lives among the mangroves of the Indian Sundarbans, a wild forest where the Ganges River mingles with the Bay of Bengal's salty waters. Her tiny village fears dangerous man-eating beasts that prowl the delta. But children like Soma face even greater threats — poverty, illiteracy and deadly parasites.
Far from the urban chaos of Kolcata, India, the island villages of the Sundarbans are swampy, hot and hostile. It's a place where death stalks daily. Straddling both India and Bangladesh, the area is a volatile place in which to grow up. Dangers come from all around.
Weather extremes don't cause just Soma — a sponsored child since 2007 — and her family to suffer from their life in the delta. Animals, too, must find ways to tolerate the abundance of water — or lack of it.
"During the summer months, the ponds, lakes, river and canals dry up," 15-year-old Soma says. "There is a shortage of water not only for man but also for the beasts of the forest. They come out from the woods and move into the village in search of water."
Badal Maity, a CI social worker, explains that water isn't the only reason tigers stalk the village. He points across the small river. "There is an island which houses quite a few of these majestic beasts," he says. "There have been times when the beasts swim across the river and walk about the villages at dawn in search of cattle. The encounters with man give them easy access to food, thus making them man eaters."
Last year, the Sundarbans gained international notoriety when a tiger snatched a man from his boat and dragged his body off into the forest. And while tigers have long threatened the security of humans in the region, environmental changes are causing a sharp uptick in the number of cattle, livestock and people killed by the cats in recent years.
Accounts vary, but tigers have reportedly attacked dozens of men and women as they fish, crab or hunt for wild honey — common agricultural pursuits in the region. In some years, the animals — estimated to number around 350 locally — have killed as many as 60 people in the region.
While scarcity of water creates problems for both man and beast in Soma's village, monsoon season creates its own set of dangers. Soma says, "Excess water overfills the lakes, ponds and the rivers. Along with the overflowing banks of the rivers come crocodiles."
Just weeks before our visit, in fact, a woman and her husband were fishing nearby. A crocodile attacked the woman and carried her off.
Inhabited by tigers and crocodiles (plus one of the world's most venomous snakes, the cobra), it's hard to imagine a more hostile place to live than the Sundarbans. But, for sponsored children, the biggest threats don't even come from wild beasts.
Disease, parasitic infections, hunger and illiteracy pose much more critical dangers to children's and youths' futures. But help from CI has significantly minimized the risk from these perils.
Gita Maiti, a social worker who focuses on health and nutrition and has worked with CI for the last 14 years, says poverty was at its worst prior to CI's arrival.
"When CI came with its sponsorship program," Gita remembers, "things began to change. Day after day, teams would go out to meet people, talk to them on healthy practices and habits. Then tube-wells [pipes bored into underground aquifers] for safe drinking water were constructed."
Soma's mother, Alpana, recalls life before CI. "We had to walk a very long distance to fetch water," she says. It was difficult to carry heavy loads of the liquid. And the inconvenience, coupled with villagers' omnipresent fear of tiger and crocodile attacks, led families to use nearby — tainted — water.
Soma adds, "We would wash our clothes in the pond, bathe, wash utensils, bathe the cattle and goats, and also use it to wash our vegetables, rice and cook with that water. Due to this, we suffered a lot from various diseases like jaundice, stomach upsets, diarrhea and pain."
CI's tube-wells brought immediate access to improved water, plus some unexpected benefits. Specifically, these wells have become a source of joy for nearby residents – a gathering spot for women on their daily errands, a play area for children and a source of cool relief during the hot summer months.
Latrines are another infrastructure investment CI has made in the area, as well as introducing sanitation-focused educational lessons.
Youth have taken the lead in these efforts by teaching villagers about the dangers of open defecation, and antiparasite lessons have reinforced the importance of hand-washing and other sanitary habits. To make these endeavors even more worthwhile, CI provided water filters to sponsored families. Having such supplies in their homes helps ensure drinking water is safe.
Today, CI's efforts have helped limit the risk from wild animals while offering stepping stones across the water of poverty. Soma says she's blessed simply to feel better. Alpana, though, looks at the bigger picture: "The most important change which has come about is that we and our children do not suffer from water-borne diseases. Children are able to attend school regularly. It is such a delight, and I am so happy!"