A family dwelling on an embankment as river erosion destroys their home following the damage of a coastal embankment along the Bay in Satkhira. Kurikahnia, Ashashuni upazila, Satkhira on 28 September 2020
A family dwelling on an embankment as river erosion destroys their home following the damage of a coastal embankment along the Bay in Satkhira. Kurikahnia, Ashashuni upazila, Satkhira on 28 September 2020Saddam Hossain

Sitting alone on the bank of Shakbaria river, Pramila Mandal was now gazing at the slanting rays of the setting sun and then towards her home that went under water as the embankment along the coast damaged in the cyclonic storm Amphan in May this year.

The 45-year-old said she has seen her home eroded several times but she could not count the specific number of times she had to shift her home. Since the Amphan in May, her family has been living at a home constructed by a fish enclosure. But her voice was shaky when she was talking about home.

Pramila Mandal is from Aangtihara village in Dakkhin Bedkashi union of Koyra upazila in Khulna, the southwestern district of Bangladesh. The embankment she was sitting on is newly constructed. There was another embankment around 300 yards away. Her home was by that old embankment. There are remnants of the old house that can be seen during the low tide.

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Cyclonic storms Sidr, Aila, Mahasen and last but not the least Amphan have severely affected the lives and livelihoods of coastal people like Pramila in the last one and a half decades. A number of families, once a respected, now have become pauper losing their land and properties. Grim pictures of the struggle of coastal people of over 30 villages of 10 unions of Khulna and Bagerhat districts have been seen during visit in the areas between 28 September and 3 October.

Almost all the people talked about their future, gradually turning uncertain. Locals said many people have already left their homelands while many are thinking of leaving because of the recurrence of natural disasters.

Local people said they have learned from their birth to live by fighting against the nature. That’s why rain or storm cannot subdue them but they lose morale if the embankment gets damaged since this destroys everything and they do not have the capacity to fight it

We talked to Pramila Mandal on 28 September. There are a few huts made of golpata, a local grassy material people use to build huts, and some pucca homes, newly constructed after the Amphan. There is a superabundance of trees and shrubs in Aangtihara village as there is enough fresh water. But the picture is different in villages around. Potable water is a luxury for the people of those villages as they are encircled by brackish water.

Local people said they could not produce much paddy or other crops as the river water in the area is too brackish. There are a number of fish enclosures there but that does not create much jobs. Most of the people of the area live by collecting fish fries, fishes and crabs.

Shamsur Rahman, chairman of Dakkhin Bedkashi union, said the Sundabans encircles the union on three sides and that’s why it bears the brunt of any natural disaster like storm or cyclone. There are around 27.5 km embankment around the union. People of the union were marooned for four years as the embankments were damaged during cyclonic storm Aila. Only 10 per cent houses survived that storm. Around 2,500 families had to leave the area after the Aila.

Life in high tides

Lives of people of at least four villages, including Kathmar Char and Kashir Hatkhola, of Uttar Bedkashi union in Koyra upazila depend on the low and high tides. The villages have almost no road connections. Villagers use boats for commuting during the high tides. They must finish cooking or responding to calls of nature before the high tides every day.

A carpeted road from Pratapnagar Bazar and Union Parishad will take you to Satkhira Sadar upazila. River water enters the union eroding one place of the road (the culvert area). Boats and trawlers are the only mode of transportation there. Water Development Board officials said a deep trench has been created in the area due to low and high tides. It would not be possible to repair the road until the end of rainy season.

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Speaking to Prothom Alo, Dilip Kumar Datta, professor of environmental science department at Khulna University, said, the land formation in coastal areas of Bangladesh is quite new. High brackish water is damaging the coagulation capability of this earth. That’s why the embankments are eroding rapidly. He proposed raising the land level by Tidal River Management (TRM) system.

People left areas are not in good condition

Md Hamid from Jorsing village in Dakkhin Bedkashi union lived in a shack on an embankment for one year as his house was destroyed in cyclonic storm Aila in 2009. Then he moved to Khulna. Currently he lives with his family in a rented house in Khulna town. Hamid is a rickshaw puller and his wife works as a housemaid. He said many families moved from Koyra to Khulna at that time. Most of them are working as rickshaw pullers and wage labourers.

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Abul Hossain Gazi and his elder brother Abu Bakkar Gazi live at the far corner of Fakirer Konapara of Kalabagi village in Dacope upazila. They live with their grandmother and specially abled uncle as their parents are no more. The family lives in an area that looks like an island. Shibsa and Sutarkhali river flow by the two sides of the island and the other two sides are encircled by the Sundarbans. Boat is their only mode of transportation. The situation was like this before the cyclonic storm Amphan. The area has suddenly got separated from the main land as an aftermath of Amphan.

A visit there by boat revealed that the yard and house was inundated because of high tide. A small boat is moored there while a fish net was hung in the yard to dry in the sun. There is a shack made of golpata (local plant) hanging on the river. That is the toilet of this family. They have constructed a makeshift bridge made of bamboo to go there. There are several plastic drums that contain drinking water.

Abul Hossain grandmother Kulsum Begum is about 80 years old. She said they had 12 bighas of land in the area around 25 years ago. They were a well-off family back then. Then the erosion started. Now they have been living on a piece of land bought at Tk 5,000.

Rainwater is the only source of drinking water in the area. Every house has plastic drums to reserve rainwater. They buy drinking water if the drums are empty. There are no medical facilities there. There is no way to take a person to a hospital if he falls ill suddenly. Trawlers are the only fast moving mode of transport. The only primary school in the area is also about to be devoured by erosion.

Erosion at Mongla upazila

Bangladesh’s second largest sea port is in Mogla upazila of Bagerhat district. Parts of Chilabazar in Chila union of Mongla upazila have eroded into Pashur river. Many adjacent areas are also under the threat of erosion. Many people are staying on the banks of rivers in makeshift homes while many have left the area.

According to the Water Development Board, around half a kilometre area of Kalabaghi village has eroded into the river while Shibsa river has devoured parts of Gunari village. Besides, about 50 to 300 metres of embankments in Koyra, Shyamnagar, Ashashuni and Mongla upazilas have been eroded. Erosion has been continuing in other areas surrounded by rivers.

People in search of works

Anyone can easily go to Ashashuni upazila in Satkhira from Koyra upazila via Maharajpur and Dashahali Kheyaghat. Around 8:30am on 30 September, the Prothom Alo correspondent found four people waiting to cross the river. One of them, Babul Gazi, 23, from Nakla in Pratapnagar union of the upazila was with a spade. He went to Khulna town in search of works but has returned home as he could not manage anything there.

“The work of a day labourer has decreased a lot in Khulna these days. I had to return as I could not get any work even after waiting for a few days there. There is permission of fishing in the sea from mid-October. I’m thinking of fishing that time,” Babul Gazi said.

People from different areas of Koyra upazila were seen taking preparations to work at brick kilns as there was no work in the locality. Most of the young adults and youths work at brick kilns every year. Some of them even take their families with them. Many run their families taking money from head of the workers in advance.

‘Sustainable embanks required’

The most important thing that came up while looking for solutions to the problem of habitation of people in coastal areas is a sustainable and permanent embankment. Local people said they have learned from their birth to live by fighting against the nature. That’s why rain or storm cannot subdue them but they lose morale if the embankment gets damaged since this destroys everything and they do not have the capacity to fight it.

River specialist and professor emeritus at BRAC University Ainun Nishat thinks people have been leaving coastal areas because of uncertainty of living. People at least would live at their own homes if the embankments are sustainable. If that is ensured, their tendency to move anywhere else would decrease.

At the same time, he said, there should a comprehensive plan of action to create jobs in the coastal areas.

* The report, originally published in the Bangla edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten for English edition by Shameem Reza