Embankment damage on the rise amid local disputes

Two people on a boat after collecting drinking water in Deluti union in Paikgacha, Khulna on 31 May 2024.High tide inundates large part of the Deluti union after embankments on Bhadra River broke due to cyclone Remal, causing a crisis of drinking water.Prothom Alo

Cyclone Remal left embankments damaged in about 300 places in eight coastal districts. As the embankments broke, about 4 kilometres of the area has been washed away. Water overflowed in at least 35 places of the embankment and entered the localities leaving the area waterlogged as the water cannot recede. Embankment protection infrastructures also sustained damage in at least 22 places.

An initial report of the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) revealed the extent of damage left by Cyclone Remal. The BWDB filed the report to the Ministry of Water Resources on 30 May.

According to the BWDB report, Rangabali of Patuakhali, Char Fasson of Bhola, Paikgacha and Dakope of Khulna remain inundated since embankments either broke or overflowed. In Gabura of Satkhira, water from high tide overflew embankments and inundated the area. Embankments in these areas were mostly built in the 1960s and are 6-8 feet high, which is relatively lower than other areas. High embankments were built in eight coastal districts after the cyclones Sidr and Aila wreaked havoc in these areas, but some of the embankments remain low, resulting in water entering the areas when water flows higher than usual.

There are currently embankments stretching 5,800 km across the coastal districts.

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Experts, however, said that the broken parts of embankments have not been repaired quickly due to feuds among locals, and that has been the biggest damage of the cyclone. Because water from high and low tide flows through broken parts, thus, widening the damage. As time passes, damage on embankments will increase, as well as repair costs, and it will pave the way for corruption.

BRAC University emeritus professor Ainun Nishat told Prothom Alo water entered localities and croplands after water flew at a higher level than the heights of the embankments in several places, but embankments were weak in most places because of the negligence and corruption of the contractors. Embankments were not mended in many places. As a result, embankments broke and may break again. Good governance must be of most importance in repairing embankments, he added.

Tension over embankment repairing

According to the BWDB sources, tension arose between public representatives and locals in several places over repairing embankments sustaining damage during the cyclone.

BWBD and local sources said cracks appeared across a 10-meter portion of the embankment in Paikgacha on the night of the cyclone. Locals and BWBD contractors then began repairing it, but they had a heated argument with the local public representatives, triggering chases between the contractors and the followers of the Deluti union parishad chairman, bringing a halt to the repairing work. Two days later, the damaged portion of the embankment expanded from 10 meters to 50 meters.

Deluti union parishad chairman Ripon Mondal told Prothom Alo, “The contractors started repairing work with a single excavator, but we were asking them for three machines, but they did not pay heed to us so, we barred them. Though it was a bit late, they brought two more excavators and resumed work. However, the matter has been settled now.”

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A similar problem also arose in the Moharajpur union of Koyra upazila over embankment repair due to a party feud as well as dispute over contract. A feud arose between the followers of former UP chairman and incumbent upazila parishad member Abdullah Al Mamum and incumbent Koyra upazila parishad chairman SM Shafiqul Islam.

The feud ensued from the supply of sand, to be used to repair the broken part of embankments. Disputes also arose over the land for constructing a ring dam on the back of the broken part. Locals volunteered and mended the embankment while BWDB was responsible for building a protection system with sandbags and pipes on either side of the embankment. But feuds arose between the followers of the two Awami League leaders over supplying sand. So, the repair barely finished the embankment broke again. Now they blam each other over the supply of sand and labourers.

District parishad member Abdullah Al Manun told Prothom Alo, “More than 300 people in the area started repairing the embankment on Tuesday morning, and BWDB was supposed to supply sand-filled tubes after the earth filling. BWDB deputy assistant engineer Solaiman Ali talked to local dredger owner Jahangir Alam over the supply of sand. The embankment was supposed to be protected with sand-filled tubes on either side by afternoon, but the dredger owner, who is known to be close to upazila parishad chairman SM Shafiqul Islam, refused to do so at the last moment.”

Prothom Alo could not reach SM Shafiqul Islam for comment.

BWDB Khulna-2 executive engineer Ashraful Alam told Prothom Alo, “We started repairing work with the help of the locals immediately after embankments broke in the cyclone. Work was delayed in several places as trouble arose with local public representatives over appointing contractors. The matter, however, has been settled now. We have started the initial repairing in most places and hopefully we will complete the remaining work soon.”

Weak embankment gives wrong message

The office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh prepared an assessment report on the damage of cyclone Remal and submitted it to the government on Thursday. The report said Pirojpur, Khulna, Borguna, Satkhira, Patuakhali, Bagerhat, Bhola and Barishal sustained more damage among the coastal districts.

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According to the UN assessment, 50,000 fish enclosures, 34,000 ponds and 4,000 crab farms were inundated as water entered the area after the embankment broke. Fish and crabs were washed away, said the Department of Fisheries. The water turned saline in 30,301 ponds in rural areas of eight coastal districts and 16,500 tube wells, which were the main source of drinking water, went out of order.

Expecting mothers faced the worst due to waterlogging. They cannot go to hospital and health complexes for emergency treatment and medicines. The UN report said 700 pregnant women experienced a deteriorating situation in Galachipa and Kolapara upazilas of Patuakhali as they could not receive treatment.

Professor Ainun Nishat, however, said if a place has no embankment, locals can prepare for tidal surge, and may leave the area, but a weak embankment gives a wrong message on the risk of tidal surge. Health, education and agriculture of coastal people face irreplaceable loss due to damaged embankments. People responsible for this overall loss must be identified and brought to book, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna