Salinity turns green habitats barren
Keramat Sheikh's five-bigha homestead used to be located just under the spot where the new embankment has been built. There was farmland there too. The land still is there, but it doesn’t yield any crops. The homestead has vanished in the Kapotaksha river. He has nothing left now.
Once a farmer, Keramat Sheikh now supports his family by selling fish he catches in the river. Both of his sons have left the area about a year ago. They work as rickshaw pullers, living in a slum of Khulna city. He stayed behind for the sake of that farmland, hoping that he can grow crops there once again.
Thousands of farming families in the area are now face the same situation as Keramat Sheikh of Harinkhola village in Koyra upazila, Khulna. Every year, natural disasters cause the embankments along the river to fall apart and vast areas of land get immersed in saline water. Then a new embankment is built while habitats and croplands are lost.
The farming families are left helpless when the salinity level of the land inside the embankment increases and they are unable to grow crops. Unable to struggle against these natural adversities, people are finally forced to leave their ancestral homes.
According to information provided by seven union parishad chairmen of Koyra, 16,000 families have moved out of villages from different areas of the upazila within the past decade while 10,000 families have relocated. And more than 700 families from across the upazila are still living on the embankment.
Meanwhile, 1,300 hectares of land has turned barren because of the salinity. And 400 hectares of land has been lost in river erosion.
Due to salinity level going up in water and soil, farmers of this area have to count losses in the shrimp business as well. As a result, many people are being forced to change their profession.
Waliar Rahman from Hogla village of the upazila used to lease other people’s land alongside his own land and cultivate shrimps. He is now sunken neck deep in loans after suffering losses in the shrimp business recently.
Being left with no other option, he went to work at a brick kiln in Barishal this time, with his brother and two sons. Like Waliar, many shrimp farmers of the area have switched their means of livelihood.
Koyra upazila fisheries officer Md Aminul Haque said the salinity level in the rivers of the area is rising higher with every passing year. Salinity level up to 5-6 PPT is the tolerable limit for this area. Yet, it soars up to 25-30 PPT in summer.
This has caused a crisis in shrimp farming. Thousands of shrimp enclosures are washed up when the embankments collapse under the surge of high tides. Many are being compelled to change their profession after incurring losses every year in this way.
Saline water invades localities in Koyra upazila, surrounded by five rivers, whenever feeble embankments along the river bank are damaged by natural disasters. Saline water stay trapped on farmland for longer periods of time as the embankments are not repaired on time.
This disrupts crop production there. People’s lives and livelihood in the upazila has been transforming because of this. Unemployment is on the rise as dependency on agriculture going down.
Toyebur Rahman from Ghatakhali village said, “Our lands were a lot more fertile even a decade earlier. Even after cultivating paddy there only once a year there, we used to live contentedly. But, that’s not possible anymore."
"The soil is being devoured by salinity. As a consequence, it is a struggle for farming families like ours to survive in the area holding onto the cropland," he added.
UP member of the area Abul Kalam said, saline water remained trapped for a long time as the embankment was damaged by the cyclone Aila. Just as that water was receding, they were faced with another disaster. Then there was extensive damage in Cyclone Amphan.
This way, at least 100 bighas of farmland in that area have been lost in river water within the last decade. A total of 51 families have moved away, losing their homes. Some of them have relocated to Rangamati, some to slums in Khulna while some have shifted permanently to the neighbouring country.
Some elderly people in Dashhalia village said, at a time there were over 500 families living in the area. Each of them had farmlands alongside homesteads.
About 450 bighas of land from the area have been lost to the aggression of Kapotaksha within last 20 years. Almost 300 families have left villages having lost everything. Those, still standing, are spending their days in a miserable condition.
Mizan Mollya of Dashhalia villages said, “River erosion on one hand and saline water on the other has made life unbearable for everyone. Houses have been left without shade because all trees have withered away. It feels like we are living in a desert.”
Another resident of the village Mati Dhali said, “There’s no such work in the area anymore. At least we had our own farmlands to work on before; even that’s not an option anymore. I work as a day labourer in government, non-government development projects now. Whatever I get from that somehow takes me through the month. I’m considering moving towards the city.”
Maharajpur UP chairman Adullah Al Mahmud said, drinking water sources of the area are being ruined because of saltwater. As a result, an acute potable water crisis is created in the area during monsoon.
Life and livelihood in the area is transforming day by day in the aggression of river erosion and saline water. 500 hundred families have relocated from that union in the last couple of years.
Similar information has been found, exploring six other unions of the upazila as well. Public representatives have said that people are turning destitute after losing their homes because of natural disasters. The number of such people is growing every day. Finding no work, they are moving elsewhere.
Mentioning that salinity level in rivers is going up every day, chief scientific officer of agricultural research division at Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute Md Harunur Rashid told Protom Alo, with every passing year, saline water is entering newer areas of the region rendering farmland barren.
Crops as well as plants are dying. This in turn is reducing the quantity of farmland every year. In this context, they are advising farmers to grow salt-resistant varieties of paddy and Rabi crops.
Koyra upazila parishad chairman SM Shafiqul Islam told Prothom Alo, river erosion is the main concern in this upazila surrounded by rivers. Effects of this are showing in every sector. At the same time, costal people are becoming jobless due to salinity.
Starting from drinking water crisis, severe negative impact has been noticed on education as well. People dependent of agriculture are at highest risk. The government is trying to support and rehabilitate helpless people in various ways in times of disaster.
When this correspondent was talking to locals during a visit to Dashhalia village, a man named Kanai Mistry pointed towards a desolate mud house. lamenting that no one knows where the family has left, leaving their ancestral home behind.