Maloti Rani Raha, a 72-year-old widow of Padma river basin’s Uttor Kedarpur village in Naria upazila, came to her father-in-law’s house 58 years ago. Her husband Haradhon Chandra Raha died in 1984, but Maloti and her children lived in the same house until it was swept away by the river last Friday. Realising the probable consequence of ruinous erosion her sons initially dismantled one of their homes, but couldn’t save other two homes as they had no clue that how quickly the mighty Padma will chew their ancestral house to satiate its abdomen. Once Maloti’s family had thirty bighas of crop lands, two fruit orchards with eight bighas of land, a banana orchard with three bighas of land and a bamboo cluster spanning over two bighas of land but all of these were eroded by the erosion. Losing the last memento of her husband Maloti Rani Raha was sitting on the bank of Padma with a hapless look as if she was searching for her lost house. Probably she was haunted by the memories which were created during her long stay in the house. May be that is why sometimes she was weeping and her tears were rolling down the cheek. Her daughter-in-laws several times tried to take her away from the river bank but she didn’t leave the place. Maloti was not alone, rather thousands of mass people of the right bank of Padma, particularly the people of river adjoining villages of Naria and Zajira upazila, are going through similar experiences. At least 5,500 families were displaced from their houses and 1000 businessmen lost their shops during the continuous erosion of Padma in the last two months. According to the locals, around 30,000 people are affected by this catastrophe and 50,000 more people are now under serious threat of becoming the victims of homelessness. The water level of Padma increased about 75 centimeter in the last one week. This rise of water will surely cause more erosion due to the strike of stream in the river basin and the risk of damage will reach its peak when the level of water will begin to decrease as then the soil structure of the river bank will become weak.
Many areas of Naria upazila including Sadhur Bazar, Mulfatganj Bazar, Chondipur, Kedarpur, Nikaripara, Isshorkathi, Sheikhkandi, Chorjujira, Matborkandi, Suresshor and Pachgao, and Zajira upazila’s Bilaspur, Pachukhar Kandi, Kaiyumkhar Kandi, Gofurbepari Kandi and Kunderchar are already about to vanish completely because of Padma. From cropland, school, hospital, market, mosque, temple to government structure, erosion spared nothing from its aggressive grip. Thus local inhabitants on the bank of Padma are passing sleepless days and nights. People there every day remain busy in dismantling their homes, taking window frames, doors, and roofs. Some are even pulling their homes apart brick by brick. Leaving all their assets in the womb of the river, many of them are now living under the open sky. Only a few fortunate people are getting the opportunity to relocate their homes to the lands of their relatives in the adjacent villages. But the farmers and traders, who have lost their cultivable lands and business shops, are in a dire situation. They are struggling socially for displacement from the previous place and economically due to lack of source of income. These people are under serious pressure to manage the daily necessities and survive with their family members and they hardly have any idea about their future. Most of these victims will have to migrate to other districts.
Mohammad Rafiq Kazi, a member of Kedarpur Union Council, stated, “I am the UP member of ward no. 2. My home was situated in Chorjujira village. Albeit I was elected as the Member of that ward, now I am living in another ward. My whole ward has disappeared! No one is happy here. Even the affluent people have turned into street beggars!”
Reviewing the situation of all-devouring erosion of Padma, Sanzida Yesmin, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Naria upazila, said, “More than ten villages of five unions, and ward no. 2 and ward no. 4 of Naria municipality are under threat of erosion. We are providing food assistance for the people who already have become the victims. We are making a list of them and we have a plan to provide them government’s ‘khas’ land and include them in different projects like Asrayan and Gucchagram so that they can resettle them and get a secured life.”
But the ill-fated sufferers have claimed that they haven’t received any significant government assistance from the local administration until Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked to take an all-out effort to save Naria from the erosion and stand beside the victims in Monday’s cabinet meeting. Before her address there was no visible activity from the part of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. They even haven’t measured the number of erosion affected people, let alone stay beside them. Government’s own organisation Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) four months ago warned in their annual report that this year mass people of Padma basin may face large scale river erosion, but Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) has failed to take timely action to prevent the deadly erosion. River erosion is nothing new for the inhabitants of Padma basin as they have been facing this problem for several years. Padmar Dan Tir Shongrokkhon Committee, a social organisation, has been conducting regular programmes since 2009 so that government allocates funds and BWDB works to save mass people and their assets. But BWDB took six years only to begin their feasibility study for examining the necessity of taking a project. They sent the project proposal in the mid of 2017 and finally the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) passed the project in the first week of January 2018 for protecting the river basin which will be implemented from November this year. But the damage has already been done.
While replying to the query of newsmen, Safiul Islam Sheikh, executive engineer of BWDB, stated, “The government allocated Tk 5.5 crore on an emergency basis and we are putting sandbags in affected areas with that money to reduce the pace of erosion. Besides, the government has passed a project of Tk 1,097 crore to protect the right bank of Padma. We are ready to begin this work from the upcoming dry season.”
When asked that why BWDB failed to protect the assets of the mass people of Padma river basin despite the warning of CEGIS, Sheikh replied, “Padma is known as one of the few mysterious rivers in the world. It is always difficult to predict that where and when the river will change its course. Earlier, the river was 5-7 kilometers away from its current position. And the river used to erode the bank on the north of Naria. But now the current is slamming the banks at Naria and Jajira. Thus we needed adequate time to complete the feasibility study and take proper project for long term solution of the problem. If we can implement this project, I think the people of this region will get permanent relief from this catastrophe.”
However devastating river erosion in different parts of the country in the post monsoon season is nothing new in Bangladesh. This year Teesta River’s erosion has threatened the people of Nilphamari’s Dimla, Kurigram’s Ulipur and Rajar Hat and Rangpur’s Kaunia upazila. The inhabitants of Kurigram’s Fulbari upazila are under threat of Dharla River erosion now. Jamuna River’s erosion is tormenting the lives of the people of Jamalpur’s Islampur, Sirajganj’s Shahzadpur and Enayetpur and Manikganj’s Shibalaya and Daulatpur upazila. The mass people of Rajbari Sadar upazila are struggling to survive the erosion of Padma River. Aggression of the same river has created serious panic among the people of Natore’s Lalpur, Kushtia’s Shilaidaha, Madaripur’s Shibchar and Dhaka’s Dohar upazila. And like the people of Naria and Jajira upazila the mass people of these areas are facing a terrible situation due to erosion.
According to a recent study by the NASA Earth Observatory, more than 66,000 hectares of land have been lost to erosion caused alone by Padma River in Bangladesh since 1967. According to CEGIS, 88,780 hectares of land had been eroded along the Brahmaputra, 27,990 hectares along the Padma and 38,510 hectares along their distributaries between 1973 and 2007. About 15 to 20 million people are at risk from the effects of erosion in the country while about 1 million people living in 94 upazilas are directly affected by riverbank erosion every year. At least 6,000 hectares of land are lost due to river erosion every year. This creates internal displacement of huge number of erosion victims leaving them in a grave uncertainty. Though the government often talks about rescuing the victims of river erosion, providing them aid and helping them resettle in new places, in reality sufferers of river erosion need to do everything for their survival through their own efforts.
Riverbank erosion contributes immensely to the marginalisation of a large number of people of the country by displacing households and adversely affecting their social and economical circumstances. It triggers the flow of migration and increases urban poverty as consequences. Although a number of policies and acts have been formulated to stand beside the victims, the country is still far from developing appropriate guidelines for addressing the causes and consequences of riverbank erosion. A national policy should be formulated that would address the necessity of shelter and source of income for the victims of displacement due to riverbank erosion every year involving the local government agencies. Because, we cannot fight against the forces of nature but we can develop strategies to mitigate the aftermaths as much as possible.