Elderly Yogmaya Rani is the matriarch of a 22-strong immediate family.
Even seven days ago, she was the proud owner of a large property which stood on the bank of the Padma River in Munshiganj’s Shambhu Haldar Kandi village.
The estate and the large house she built for her large family were devoured by the Padma, which arguably is the second largest river of strong currents in terms of roughness in the world after the Amazon River in Brazil, and rendered Yogmaya and the family homeless.
Rani, however, can find some solace in the fact that she is not alone in this plight.
More than 300 other families have lost their homes as most of Haldar Kandi and the neighbouring Sardarkandi villages have disappeared from the map due to erosion in the last month and a half.
While some families were lucky enough to have been invited by their relatives to take temporary shelters at their places, most of them became rough sleepers overnight.
The actual forecast is grimmer.
The Bangladesh Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services, or CEGIS, is a water resources ministry-funded research centre responsible for water system development and water capacity development. In a recent assessment, it concluded that this season, at least 17 areas across 12 districts are at risk of completely being wiped off by the mighty rivers – the Padma, the Meghna and the Jamuna – and their adjoining rivers.
If CEGIS’s forecast is correct, about 1,800 hectares of land, homesteads, roads, dams, educational institutions, bazaars, cemeteries, orphanages and other infrastructures will no longer be a part of Bangladesh’s map by the end of the season.
Some early signs have already alarmed the experts.
The Padma has gobbled up settlements and homesteads in Faridpur. The bdnews24.com correspondent from Manikganj reported that the banks of Ichhamati and Dhaleswari rivers, which are connected with the Padma near the district, are collapsing in Ghior Upazila.
The Madhumati River, another connecting river, has already devoured hundreds of homes in the Char Pachuria area under Magura’s Mohammadpur Upazila.
Erosion is one of the multiple risks at play in Bangladesh as the country sits on the frontlines in the battle against climate change.
Large parts of the coastal zone face significant erosion, both along the coast and in the tidal channels. Within the tidal channels, over the last 30 years, river migration rates from 50 metres up to 500 metres have been observed, threatening the stability of large stretches of embankments and the people and livelihoods protected within them, according to the World Bank.
Tropical cyclones and floods are frequently recurring events, while coastal and riverine erosion and salinity intrusion are chronic phenomena affecting millions of people each year along the coast.
Large parts of the coastal zone face significant erosion, both along the coast and in the tidal channels. Within the tidal channels, over the last 30 years, river migration rates from 50 metres up to 500 metres have been observed, threatening the stability of large stretches of embankments and the people and livelihoods protected within them, the World Bank said in a report.
The coastal zone of Bangladesh spans over 710 kilometres along the Bay of Bengal and is part of one of the largest, youngest, and most active deltas in the world. The zone is located at the downstream end of the three great trans- Himalayan rivers -- the Ganges-Padma, the Brahmaputra-Jamuna, and the Meghna (GBM) -- and is the world’s largest sediment dispersal system. While over 90 percent of the GBM catchment area lies outside of Bangladesh, over 400 rivers and tributaries of the GBM drain through the country via a constantly changing network of rivers, tidal inlets, and tidal creeks, before discharging into the Bay of Bengal.
Erosion caused by several other rivers, including the Jamuna in Tangail's Bhuapur, the Meghna in Lakshmipur’s Kamalnagar Upazila, the Bhogai in Sherpur’s Nalitabari municipality, and the Bishkhali in Jhalakathi’s Rajapur Upazila, have put over a million people and their properties at risk.
Malik Fida A Khan, acting director general of CEGIS, however, said the risks this season are quite smaller compared to the risks of yesteryears, thanks to myriads of initiatives taken by the government.
“We have been forecasting river erosion since 2005. There were at least 50 such areas under threat at that time. Now it has come down to 17. This has been made possible due to the various river bank protection initiatives taken by the Ministry of Water Resources,” he said. Malik said about 9,500 hectares of land used to disappear every season in the 1980s, but the number has gone below 3,000 in recent years.
“This is happening for two reasons. Firstly, due to natural causes. The Jamuna River has been stable over the last decade. It seems a balance is struck between its water and the sediment composition.”
In Bangladesh, river erosion tends to occur in September, October and November, according to Malik.
CEGIS marked 17 areas this season at higher risk than other areas of being devoured by the major rivers. “The probability of such a phenomenon is 50 percent,” Malik said.
RIVER EROSION AT A GLANCE
CEGIS marked 17 areas in 12 districts at risk of river erosion, mostly by three major rivers- Padma, Ganges and Jamuna.
The probability of these areas being completely wiped off the map is 50 percent, CEGIS said.
The areas on the bank of the Jamuna are- Ulipur, Sundarganj, Gaibandha Sadar area, Saghata, Shahjadpur, Charrajibpur, Fulchari, Dewanganj, Kalihati, Tangail Sadar area, Chouhali, and Nagarpur.
The areas on the bank of the Ganges are- Doulatpur Bheramara, Mirpur Bheramara, Pabna Sadar area, Rajbari Sadar area, Goalando, Charghat, Rajshahi Sadar area, Sujanagar.
The areas on the bank of the Padma are- Pabna Sadar area, Sadarpur, Charbhodrason, Shirchar.
CEGIS highlighted at least 600 hectares of farmlands, 15 hectares of settlements, more than 2.25 km of roads, 2.8 Km of embankments, 27 educational institutions, 17 mosques, 5 markets, two cemeteries, an orphanage and some other establishments are at risk this season.
THE AREAS AT MAXIMUM RISK
Areas in four districts, as Malik described, are at maximum risk: Sirajganj, Tangail, Rajbari and Madaripur.
The districts which are at medium risk: Kurigram, Jamalpur, Gaibandha, Manikganj, Pabna, Kushitia, Rasjshai and Faridpur.
Nine of the 17 marked areas at risk are on the bank of the Jamuna river, six are on the bank of the Ganges and the rest two are on the PadmaRiver.
In these 17 areas, CEGIS highlighted at least 600 hectares of farmlands, 15 hectares of settlements, more than 2.25 km of roads, 2 km of embankments, 27 educational institutions, 17 mosques, 5 markets, two cemeteries, an orphanage and some other establishments are at risk this season.
Malik, who is also a member of the National River Commission, said the CEGIS forecast data can be put into use to take three kinds of precautionary measures.
Designing embankments to protect river banks.
The government and local administration can take preparation in advance to send relief to the affected areas.
People living in the area can take preparations to move some of their tangible assets elsewhere, and local administration can take measures to move some of the establishments and crops at risk.
RISKS OF FLOOD AND SAND EXTRACTION
The Bangladesh Meteorology Department has already forecast that the northern and southeast parts of Bangladesh are at risk of flooding in September.
This year, Bangladesh experienced less rain during the usual monsoon. In July and August, the rainfall was 58 percent and 36 percent less respectively compared to the previous years.
BMD’s Director Md Azizur Rahman said parts of the country’s northern, northeast and southeast regions will experience some floods by the end of this month.
At least 18 districts, including Sylhet, experienced massive floods in June which, according to a government estimate, damaged assets worth Tk 870billion.
Dr AKM Saiful Islam, a professor at the Institute of Water and Flood management of BUET, said it became a norm that if areas in the major river upstream experience heavy rain, the downstream regions get flooded.
By blaming climate change for this norm, he predicted that such phenomena will only intensify in the future and will follow no pattern.
“As a delta region, Bangladesh’s flood management system should be as such that the water can be drained as quickly as possible with minimum damage. But due to urbanisation, it takes more time for water levels to go down and cause more damage,” he said.
He also blamed unplanned embankments for navigability issues.
“We have to manage everything by managing floods so that we can live with floods,” he said.
Stakeholders agree with Dr Saiful.
They pointed out that every year river erosion intensifies as soon as flood water goes down and illegal sand extractions from rivers cause more damage.
Experts believe though the damage caused by floods this year was less compared to the previous years, some risks still lie ahead. They stressed advanced emergency measures to stop erosion along with long-term planning to protect and recover the rivers.
Dr Saiful emphasised setting up an advanced early warning system which will be monitored by the Joint River Commission.
“We need a detailed study to pinpoint the navigability situation and to mark the unplanned establishments which have been acting as a blockage for the flood water to go down naturally,” he said.
CEGIS’s Malik believes that unregulated sand extraction is a major cause of river erosion. He stressed proper monitoring of sand extraction.
“The district administrations must conduct a scientific study before leasing out parts of rivers for sand extraction from the riverbed.”
[Writing in English by Md Taif Kamal and Adil Mahmood]