Bangladesh: a volatile life on a volatile island

Monday, March 08, 2010

70-year-old Rahim Bakosh lives on the edge of a char island in the Teesta River. Broken homesteads, the loss of livestock and constant movement is the rule of life in the char islands of northern Bangladesh. DanChurchAid’s partner Rangpur Dinjapur Rural Services (RDRS) in Bangladesh helps the inhabitants in the floodplain of the Teesta River with survival strategies.

Isolated and far from the mainland, Rahim Bakosh lives on a char with his family of seven. His family includes his wife, five children and his 90-years-old mother. He also has three daughters, who are married and live on another char in the vicinity.

Chars are flat, low-lying islands of silt within a river. Silt raises the riverbeds, not only creating chars, but also gradually destroying them again through erosion. Siltation also makes the rivers shallower and may cause the rivers to spill over their banks resulting in floods, and sometimes even carving out a new course.   At the area where the Brahmaputra and its tributaries run through flat alluvial plains and becomes several kilometers wide, there are lots of chars, inhabited by hundreds of thousand people.

Rahim was born on these chars and has lived on several different ones. He presently lives on the edge of a new char, which emerged 15 years ago.  Rahim moved to this char only two years ago, but already the river is cutting into the land he cultivates. The last floods in November 2009 took away 30 percent of his cultivable land. The floods in June 2009 destroyed his home. He escaped with his family and livestock to higher land.

Rahim is a landless farmer. He cultivates a small piece of rented land and has to give half of what he produces to the master of the char. Floods, sparse rains and less crop production do not give him any immunity.

The char owner is a businessman, who lives in the mainland, but monitors his land through musclemen. There is a heavy price to pay if his crops fail.

Education is hard to come by in the chars. The primary school, the only one in the vicinity, has been moved many times.  During the regular floods, the school is inaccessible for the children living on the char. Rahim’s children can neither read nor write.

Early warning against floods
The people on the char use a combination of early warning techniques – both indigenous and scientific.  An increased volume of water is an obvious indicator of impending floods. So are the loud calls of animals.  More ants on the surface is another indication of impending floods. Northwesterly wind accompanied by clouds accumulating in the horizon in the month of February is a certainty for floods.

Apart from this, the villagers also get information from government bodies. With scientific data available now, the sub-district office sends out flood warnings, but river floods are typically also flash floods and sometimes the warnings do reach the islanders in time.

The chars flood at least two to three times every year. The entire area is inaccessible when floods set in. Most of the people go to higher land when water rises, and make shelters out of banana leaves and survive on meagre supplies.

The char people have recently formed a village disaster management committee and a village task force with the help of DanChurchAid’s partner RDRS. Rahim is a VTF member. He believes that being part of this group will empower him and better equip him to help himself and others in flood preparedness and relief.

Increase in floods
Rahim points out that the water level in the river has increased. “The river bed has risen,” he explains, “because of excessive silt deposition. As more and more trees are cut in the higher lands, the sand gets washed downstream. When the river bed rises, the water spills over to cut into the landmasses and an increase in floods. The new bridge built by India has also added to the problems. When there is excess water on the Indian side, they open the bridge gates and the water floods the char land,” he says, and continues: “The flood patterns have also changed. Earlier the floods used to start in the month of July, but now they come much earlier – in the beginning of May or June.”

Rain patterns have also been affected. There has been significant decrease in seasonal rains with lowered and untimely patterns.

Life of struggle
Life on the char-islands is hard. There is always a shortage of food and the constant threat of the river.

“Should we people who live on the chars migrate to the mainland? We are poor people. Where will we get land to cultivate rice on the mainland? How can we feed our families there? It is better that we stay on here on the char islands, even if we go through some trouble and pain. Let the others in the cities and towns live in peace,” says Rahim.

Rahim Bakosh has seen many floods in his lifetime. His old mother can recall more than 15-16 times when her house was swept away. The two big floods in 2004 and 2007 affected a number of people, many drowned – and two died of snakebites – and a number of cows and livestock were lost.

Rahim is hopeful of the future, though. The newly formed VTF has had two meetings so far.

“When floods occur, no one can access these islands, but with the assistance of RDRS, we have constructed safe shelters. As a VTF member, I will work to save my family and others with all the skills I learn”, he says.