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.