KHULNA: Life is extremely precarious for the residents of Sutarkhali, Tildanga, Banishanta, Bajua, Laudob, Kamarkhola, and Dacope unions – living on the edge of the rivers Shibsa, Pasur, Dhaki, Bhadra, Chunkuri in Khulna.
Strong fears of unrest and eviction are always breathing down their neck. Without warning, tidal floods can rise and surge over the place they call home, leaving devastation in their wake.
Sixty-one-year-old Chhayra Begum from Dacope lives next to the River Chunkuri. She has no son and married off her two daughters.
The husbandless Chhayra lives in a Nipa palm thatched house – partly swallowed by the river – and does not have a private toilet. She has to go to her neighbour’s house or to the riverside to answer the call of nature. The sexagenarian uses a bamboo bridge to return home. She catches fish from the river with hooks to eke out a living, reports UNB.
Chhayra earns Tk 80 to Tk 100 from selling the catch of the day in the Dacope Bazaar which is barely enough to get by. She has to walk one mile every day to fetch drinking water from the filter set up next to the pond of sadar upazila.
Chhayra draws water from the river for cooking and uses alum as a purifier.
Tidal waters threaten to intrude into her living room. Heavy rains threaten to submerge her place more immediately. Chhayra knows where she is standing right now could flood anytime.
This is how thousands of people like Chhayra are living with the ebb and flow of the rivers across the coastal belts.
Climate change puts the inhabitants of these areas without access to safe toilets and drinking water facilities. It is estimated that two-thirds of Bangladesh is less than five metres above sea level and around 28 per cent of the population lives in the coastal areas.
The coastal population faces the stern browbeating of rising sea levels, saline intrusion and arsenic contamination in groundwater, which leads to scarcity of safe and affordable drinking water.
People of this salinity-hit area rely on rivers for drinking, cooking, and cleaning.
They often have no choice but to drink saline water. Water options often require round trips of more than 30 minutes. This condition makes things harder for women and adolescent girls, who are typically tasked with the transport, storage and use of water.
Also, for the people of Dacope, a climate-induced natural disaster is a big challenge for maintaining proper hygiene.
They depend on the river to answer the call of nature. Many of them wait for the darkness to fall to respond to the urge. Some have less water and food to avoid the need to use a toilet.
Chhayra has been living by the riverside since 1988. Following her husband’s death, she is living on a small piece of land between the river and the road.
The sexagenarian lives alone. A few days ago, the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of Dacope gave her a goat. Chhayra now owns five goats and rears them as her children. Her goats have also learned to cross the bamboo bridge that she uses every day.
Although she lives on the banks of the river with no certainty for tomorrow, Chhayra has no regrets. “That is my destiny,” she says.
In the Sutarkhali union, lies a fraction of the immense labyrinth of tiny islands known as the Sundarbans on one side of the River Bhadra and the road to Kalabagi sits on the other. Recently, the unpaved road has been built with the funding of the World Bank.
Only a few households can collect drinking water in less than 30 minutes here. During Cyclone Aila in 2009, almost all the freshwater sources in the southwest were destroyed. The embankments were eroded and groundwater sources flooded.
As Aila left a trail of destruction in its wake, 26-year-old Sabuj Mandal built a new house on the bank of Bhadra.
The family of five lives on the money that Sabuj alone earns from selling fish and crabs caught from the rivers and canals of the Sundarbans. His father Prabash Mandal shows clear signs of ageing.
Life is never a bed of roses for them – for even a single day. Sabuj’s family has to fetch drinking water from a pond a few miles away from their home. They use water from the river for bathing, cooking, and washing clothes.
To obey the call of nature, Sabuj and his family members have to go to a neighbour’s house. However, an open-air hanging toilet can be seen in Sabuj’s house next to the river.
The 26-year-old’s house is extremely vulnerable to flooding and could eventually be underwater. Tidal waters threaten to inundate the floor of Sabuj’s house every day.
Yet that is the reality that confronts the inhabitants of our coastal areas on a daily basis.