Why Thousands Are Fleeing The River Islands Of Bangladesh
Many in Bangladesh have settled on the chars, islands in the middle of the river, formed of the silt that accumulates along the deltaic basin. But the river Meghna is swallowing many of these islands, leaving people homeless.
Charfasson (Bhola), Bangladesh: Strong waves gradually wash away the island at the mouth of the sea, and with it the houses, fields, buildings, markets, roads, everything.
Over two decades of constant erosion, the island's settlement area has shrunk from 15 sq km to just 3.5 sq km. The coastal island of Dhal Char, nestling in the delta of the Meghna river in Bangladesh, is about to disappear. About 3,500 families, with about 17,000 people, have dwindled to about 1,000 families with 8,000 people, according to the Dhal Char union council.
"I had five houses of my own here," says Saiful Haque, 65, wiping the tears that flow with the memories. "Cultivated land was 20 acres. There were many buffaloes. I have spent all my life savings here. Now I am destitute. This Meghna river has taken my all." In common with thousands of others, Haque has left Dhal Char and has no intention of returning.
Jharna Begum, 45, is one of those who chose to remain. "I have moved house five times," says Jharna, a resident of Char Abdullah in the Ramgati upazila (a subunit of a district) of Laxmipur district in Bangladesh. "After the government housing was lost in the river, I built another house, and that is also on the verge of collapse. Now there is no place to go. We have to find a place on some new island."
Jharna Begum's narrative of loss spans around 20 years--the time it has taken for the river to gradually encroach into human habitats.
Finding another island, though, is not a permanent solution. Alauddin Master, 55, tells of how he moved from Char Abdullah to Char Gazaria. "I came to Char Gazaria and changed my house twice." He then moved to Telir Char. "After clearing the dense forest, we built settlements on the Telir Char--but my land, houses, crops have all been submerged in the Meghna. I have no stability here either. I don't know where to go next."
Many of Marina Begum's neighbours have tired of fighting the sea, and they have left. "I'm afraid," Marina, who lives on the island of Kutubdia, on Bangladesh's eastern coast says. "Our house will be washed away one day. We can't stay here at all in the rainy season. But where do we go?"
About 100,000 people live a tenuous life on Kutubdia Island. The Coast Foundation, a Bangladeshi NGO working on the coast, has warned that the entire island could disappear under water within 50 years. Many have already moved to the slum area of Cox's Bazar town, about 80 km away, while others have found their way to the slums of Chittagong and Dhaka in search of a livelihood.
Bangladesh's chars under threat from climate change
The chars--or river islands--are formed of the silt that accumulates along the deltaic basin. As silt accumulates and the char grows larger, people--attracted by the fertility of the soil--settle on these islands and take to farming. They build homes, form unions. Schools and healthcare facilities spring up.
There are hundreds of chars or islands in the coastal areas and estuaries of major rivers of Bangladesh.
"Bangladesh's coastal marshes and islands are located in active delta areas. Because of this the chars and islands change shape rapidly," said Md. Shamsuddoha, climate expert and chief executive of the Bangladesh nonprofit Center for Participatory Research and Development. "Sea level rise will increase river erosion and salinity in coastal areas…and have an adverse effect on people's lives and livelihoods."
These stories are similar to that of the river islands in the Brahmaputra flowing through Assam, a river that then makes its way to Bangladesh, meeting the Meghna and flowing into the Bay of Bengal. The Meghna receives the combined waters of the Padma and Jamuna (as the Brahmaputra is known in Bangladesh). The widest river flowing completely within Bangladesh, the Meghna is 13 km at its widest.
Floods in the Meghna riverine system, just like in the Brahmaputra in India, are common, but these are today exacerbated by human activity. For instance, an extensive system of coastal embankments built since the 1960s have reduced flooding, helped manage water levels and enhanced agriculture, according to an August 2019 study on the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta. But these have, the study noted, led to "prolonged water logging due to silting up of river beds and hence reduced drainage capacity of floodplains", which is further exacerbated by "ill-planned or ill-executed infrastructure projects, such as internal road system, water control infrastructure not being properly maintained and aquaculture and other economic activities obstructing drainage".
The history of Dhal Char and Telir Char
The settlement of Dhal Char began around 1960-65. In 1970, a cyclone devastated the island. After Bangladesh became independent in 1971, the population of the island continued to grow. Its location at the mouth of the sea made it a famed centre for hilsa fishing--about Taka 200 crore (Rs 166 crore or $21 million) worth of hilsa came from this island every year, says the Dhal Char Union Council.
Zafar Mian, 60, was once one of the richest people on Dhal Char. He had come to the island as a child, with his father, and over time the fishing business had made him rich. "I have spent my whole life here," he says.
Locals say that it was around 2003 that the erosion began. Over time, it escalated until the island, around 12 sq km at its peak, has now been reduced to just 2 sq km, said Abdus Salam Hawladar, chairperson of the Dhal Char Union Council.
Trawlers are the only means of travel between the islands and the mainland. Photo from Telir Char, June 15, 2022.
"We did not realise that Dhal Char would disappear so fast," says Hawlader. "About 95% of the families here have become destitute…We have written to the government many times, asking them to take steps to prevent river erosion, but no work has been done. To the south of Dhal Char, there is a huge amount of khas land (government-owned fallow land) under the forest department. I have asked that the people of Dhal Char be rehabilitated there--but again, no action has been taken."
But the 644 acres of khas land is under the forest department Dhalchar, said Abdul Matin Khan, Assistant Commissioner (Lands) of Charfessan sub-district, an assistant land officer of the Charfessan subdistrict, who is handling the matter. As such it cannot be allotted to the landless, unless it is 'de-reserved', and the local administration has sent an application for this to Bangladesh's environment ministry. The forest department is against this 'de-reservation' as it will damage the area's ecology, a Dhal Char range officer of the forest department said.
Life on the Telir Char, which was first settled around 1997, is no different. Wary of tidal surges, the people of the char have built their homes six to seven feet off the ground. "But we can't get out of the house in the rainy season," Master says, "as the river is turbulent. It is risky to go to the upazila headquarters even for essential work such as buying necessities and selling goods--but we have no choice; we cross the river on trawlers, it takes about an hour and a half."
"We have never seen so much disaster before," adds Abdul Matin Majhi, 65. "Water never used to rise up to our homes before, but now the tidal pressure has increased and it sends water as high as our upper rooms. Also, the agricultural land is submerged by the salt water brought by the tides, so we cannot even grow crops."
The World Bank in its Groundswell Report published in September 2021 predicted that 216 million people across six regions of the world will be internally displaced by 2050, if the necessary measures are not taken to prevent climate change. Of this, 40 million people will be displaced in South Asia, and of that, nearly half will be displaced in Bangladesh alone.
Bangladesh has had 15.5 million instances of internal displacement between 2008 and 2021 because of natural disasters, according to the Switzerland-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). In 2020 alone, there were over four million such instances, data show.
The entire coastal region has been adversely affected, according to Qazi Khalikuzzaman Ahmed, an economist, who represented Bangladesh at the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Unless measures are taken to mitigate the effects of climate change, up to 30% of agricultural production in South Asia could be lost," said Ahmed.
About 15,000 people, in the five years to 2019, have been displaced by climate change from Banshkhali and Kutubdia on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh, according to Mohammad Shahjahan, the deputy director of Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), based on a 2019 survey they had conducted. YPSA is a Bangladeshi non-governmental development organisation working in coastal areas. Those displaced live on temporary embankments and on the sides of the roads. About 60% of the people in the area have a monthly income of Taka 5,000-6,000 (Rs 4,237-Rs 5,084 at the current exchange rate of 1.18 Taka for every Indian rupee).
The Bangladesh government has several parts under its safety net programme, which includes relief goods such as blankets and food and housing for the homeless. However, the study found that 93% of those displaced by natural disasters did not receive any assistance related to permanent rehabilitation, including housing.
"We select the site of the shelter project keeping in mind the convenience of the people," and the homeless are sheltered there, said Mohammad Mahmudul Hoque, the deputy project director of Asroyan Prokalpa, the government's housing programme. There are many such projects in coastal areas, as well as training and credit facilities for the homeless, he added.
Another study, conducted by the Department of Environmental Sciences at Jahangirnagar University, led by Prabal Barua and Syed Hafizur Rahman, found that 574,000 people were displaced from Kutubdia, Sandwip and Maheshkhali islands on the southeast coast of Bangladesh between 1960 and 2016 due to various natural disasters.
According to the communities in this study, cyclones are the main destructive force in the island region. In addition, salinity intrusion through dilapidated embankments has damaged agricultural areas and this damage accelerates during tidal surges and heavy rains. Coastal communities also suffer from erosion, a regular feature of the monsoon when the rivers are in spate.
Mohammad Shahjahan, the deputy director of YPSA, said, "The first thing to do is to collect data of people displaced due to climate change and make a database. Awareness and technical education should be ensured for the displaced people. They need sustainable and community-based planned resettlement (including land and houses). Agriculture and alternative employment should be created in accordance with the climate."
Trawlers from the coastal island of Telir char arrive at Alexander Bazar in Ramgati Upazila of Laxmipur district. Islanders have to cross the Meghna to access medical services and for government work as those facilities are available on the mainland. Photo taken from the banks of Meghna River near Alexander Bazar, June 16, 2022.
The last address is the city slum
So where do they go, these people who have nowhere to go?
A large portion of the people displaced by the loss of coastal islands move to the country's major cities, causing overcrowding in cities such as Dhaka, Chittagong and Khulna. In the cities, they live in slums and look for work.
IndiaSpend visited Kallyanpur slum in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and found many families who had fled from the vanished villages in the island district of Bhola. Several of those had come from a village in Patuakhali district, which was engulfed in salt water. After losing their homes, they first built small houses next to the embankment. Then they sought shelter in the slums of the district and upazila. Eventually, they came to Dhaka in search of work and food.
According to a survey of women who were climate migrants, by the Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra and Change Initiative, 21% of those surveyed came from cyclone-prone Barisal district to Dhaka, 10% came from Noakhali and 7% from Bhola, all vulnerable island states. About 93% of the people lost their livelihood, and 52% have lost their homes. Only about a fifth have formal employment in Dhaka.
Meanwhile, more displaced people flood into Dhaka every year, adding to the pressures on the city. Every year 300,000 to 400,000 new migrants come to Dhaka, including climate refugees and mainly settle in more than 5,000 slums in the city. The Global Liveability Index of 2021 puts Dhaka on the list of the least livable cities in the world.
It is desperation and not choice that brings hundreds of thousands of people into Dhaka and other cities, despite knowing they are unlikely to find work.
Eskander Ali Mollah, president of the Kalyanpur Slum Rehabilitation Unity Council, says that "95% of the people in this (Dhaka) slum come from different coastal districts of Bangladesh. They came here after their land was lost in the river. The slum was formed in 1998 with only five houses."
A market in Dhal char, where fishermen sell their catch. Four such markets have already disappeared and one market has been moved to another island. Photo taken from Dhal Char, June 19, 2022.
The Bangladesh government is implementing various projects for the rehabilitation of landless and poor people, with priority given to those affected by natural disasters. But these projects have not been able to ensure shelter for the affected people, for reasons ranging from irregularities in compiling lists of affected people, resettlement on isolated islands, local people's negative attitude towards resettled people, lack of transparency, etc., say local residents.
"Dhaka North City Corporation has been working with the national government to improve living conditions in the city's informal settlement, including the provision of a more reliable, improved and climate-resilient water and sanitation services," said Mohammad Atiqul Islam, Mayor of Dhaka North City. "This programme will benefit North Dhaka's most vulnerable residents, including households who have moved to the city from other parts of the country due to climate impacts."
"Compact townships need to be planned in coastal cities for the welfare and rehabilitation of people displaced by climate change," says Zakir Hossain Khan, executive director of Change Initiative and a climate finance analyst. "Therefore, it is necessary to formulate strategies and implement area-based plans," including for training the at-risk population and by creating small entrepreneurs with the help of Bangladesh's own resources as well as through international funding.
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