— Photos Ananta Yusuf
Suborna Mondol still lives on the brink of disasters. Four years after the cyclone Aila wreaked havoc in the coastal belts of Bangladesh in May 25, 2009, another tidal surge on August 8 washed away the bamboo built homes of 23 families including Suborna's, as they remained outside the purview of an embankment built after Aila to protect villagers in Dacope, Khulna.
An unplanned construction of the embankment has left many villagers unprotected. The Star has found that Water Development Board (WDB) made a two-kilometre (km) long dam leaving the lower delta of Sutarkhali Union, Dacope exposed to similar natural catastrophes in the future.
A Union Parishad member claims the dam has left out some 1,300 families exposed to further catastrophes. He adds, “The new dam excludes the eighth and ninth wards of Sutarkhali union which comprise of 2,000 bighas of cultivable land, a huge water body, a school, a madrassah, a temple and a bazaar. We wanted to have this huge land and habitat protected but the engineer claimed it was not possible. And in the recent tidal surge 50 bighas of land was inundated with water. If the government neglects the need then we might be wiped out from the map.”
The dam which was built last July has already lost some of its portions during the last monsoon. Inhabitants blame the dam’s weakness on the poor quality of materials used in the site. A Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) engineer in Dacope, Sutarkhali Union, M Hasib Ahmed explains the use of salt water has reduced the strength of the dam. He tells the Star, “We tried using sweet water but it was difficult as the pond in the area was filled with saline water.”
M Inamul Haque, chairman of Institute of Water and Environment, says that it is completely irrational to exclude a huge population. “Embankments are made to protect people, not to put them into trouble. No doubt people, who are living in the excluded area, are at risk.”
He continues, “Geographically, Dacope and Koyra are vulnerable, as is the case everywhere in the coastline. If they claim that only Sutarkhali union is at risk in particular, either they are not well informed about the prevailing situation or they are corrupt.”
Khulna and Satkhira are the regions hit hardest by Aila. According to the water development board, tidal waves as high as 13 feet damaged over 1,700 km of dams in Dacope and Koyra upazilas in 2009. During full moon and the monsoon, most parts of Sutarkhali, Komorkhola, Baniashanta and Tiladanga union become inundated with saline water. According to official figures, faulty dams and saline water displaced over 200,000 people in the area over the last three years.
Leaving in Ruins
A devastating cyclone called Aila had claimed at least 300 lives and destroyed nearly 4,000 kilometres of roads and embankments. The flood caused by Aila had washed away many homes overnight. Landless people took shelter on the embankments and started living in small makeshift houses. Over the years tidal surges and monsoon have reduced the strengths of the embankments.
Mojid Mia, a farmer says, “I have seen the massive flood of the late eighties and many similar catastrophes since then. Twenty years have passed in the meanwhile and we still live on the brink of similar catastrophes. Every government comes to us with relief but none of them make a permanent settlement of the embankments.”
In October 2011, almost one and a half years after the deadly Aila, the Water Development Board decided to repair the 1,700km-embankment. According to locals of Dacope and Koyra, the cracks in embankments were only 10 to 20 feet long at the time. By the time they started restoration, the breach became 229 feet wide and their efforts went in vain. In the second phase the work became more difficult, because by then the breach turned twice as big.
A high official of the Water Development Board claims, because of bureaucratic red tape and geographical assessment it took time to start the process. “We could not start the project right away. We needed to assess the geographical situation, identify the vulnerable places and prioritise accordingly.”
In Sutarkhali union of Dacope, the Water Development Board made a 52km long embankment strip and another 10 kilometres in blocks to prevent water interception.
Locals claim because of defective construction in the rainy season different parts of Dacope became waterlogged. “We need a sluice gate near Nolian bazaar,” says M Shumon, a local fisherman, to prevent flooding.
The saline water has been poisoning the cultivable lands in these areas every year. Nearly 4,500 hectares of cropland producing the Aush paddy become submerged with saline water.
Atul Roy, a farmer who had lost at least 200 bighas of land in river erosion, says, “After Aila struck, we started realising how hard it is to live without shelter, income and food.” Since then, Atul says, “there has not been any improvement or even a sign of hope.”
Atul’s two sons moved to India with their families due to the starvation, health crisis and lack of accommodation in the region. A distressed Atul says they are passing the most critical time of their lives. Atul and his four other sons who stayed behind with their families, do not want to migrate to India. They want to observe the whole situation for some more months. Even then, if the existing situation persists, they would have no choice but to resettle to another place inside the country.
Ridge of Sorrows
In Kolabogui, a settlement of 1,000 families over the wreaked dam called Jhulanto Para (Hanging Village), makes a living on houses made up on top of bamboos. Including Jhulanto Para two other villages remain out of the new dam.
Shonatul Mondol, a fisherman in Jhulanto para says the people outside the embankment’s coverage talked to the local lawmaker Noni Gopal Mondal about their miseries. The situation however, remained unchanged. Shonatul adds, “The government is probably waiting to see us wiped out of the area.” The poor villager has heard that a lot of funds had arrived to improve the livelihood of the Aila victims and for their rehabilitation, “but except getting relief we didn’t see much development.”
Hasib Ahmed tells the Star that in Kolabogui, the Water Development Board made a two-km long new dam. He also adds, “Because of the turbulent flows of Shibsha River current, the old one (dam) became very difficult to renovate. Moreover, the preceding dam is too long to renovate in short time. During the last Ramadan, we tried to renovate it but our efforts went in vain because of the surge of waves.”
Arun Kumar Roy, a social activist from Kolabogui says, “We heard Noni Gopal Mondal promise to extend the existing embankment at Dacope by stretching it a kilometre up to Pandit Chandra School.” Roy believes it will not help much to contain disasters. The government has to repair the Jhulanto Para embankment first to protect the people. Long strips of dam may not still help contain the high tidal surge unless the holes are mended.
The Pandit Chandra School at Kolabogui remains outside the range of the embankment. The headmaster of the school, Supado Ray says, “There are 453 students who are currently enrolled in the school. It is unfortunate that we are not able to provide our children with safety.”
There is no cyclone shelter in the two wards (eighth and ninth) of Sutarkhali union. During tidal surges, the villagers have to walk at least five to six kilometres to reach the nearest cyclone shelter.
Noni Gopal confirms that the process is going on to establish a cyclone shelter in Kolabogi, however, it may require time to pick a place to construct the shelter.
Embankments in the south west of Bangladesh comprising of Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhira are susceptible to breaches because of the holes shrimp farmers dig into them to let in saline water. As a result of the holes, the embankments become weak and fail to stand against the tidal surges. The shrimp farmers, albeit their contribution in the export, are partly responsible behind the survival of so many villagers put to risk.
Roni Ahmed, a young man from Nolian, Dacope says, “Four years on, the bazaar side of the village has still not found a sluice gate. Heavy showers inundate the whole area with water. Even the bazaar is at risk but no one pays attention to it.”
A subcontractor of Nolian Bazaar says, corruption is rampant in the Water Development Board. He says, “The government sanctioned a budget of Tk 25,000 per metre for the construction of the embankment. However, we only get Tk 10,000 to do the job. So you cannot expect a better quality with such a low budget.”
After the flood in the late eighties, the embankments in the southern coastal belt were not maintained properly. It has been 20 years since then and cracks in the existing dams have let Aila turn into a nightmare. Inamul Haque emphasises that the Water Development Board and Union Parishads are primarily responsible for the maintenance of embankments. He adds, “The two prime organisations have failed to carry out their responsibilities.” The consequence was inevitable.
— By arrangement with The Daily Start/ANN