The scourge of river erosion  

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: August 06, 2018 22:09:53

Large segments of the country's rural areas have long been in a virtual state of siege by the threat of riverbank erosion. Thousands of people living on the river banks emerge as victims every year. They include families finding their dwellings and crop fields collapse into a river under the impact of strong current. Deaths and injuries also follow on occasions. The most distinctively identifiable effect, however, is the sudden onslaught of displacement and poverty. These disruptions to normal life crop up with a crippling force. Many victims remain under the spell of these dislocations for long stretches of time. In spite of the desperate efforts to piece together its fragments, life does not return to the earlier shape. Vast sections of these erosion-hit people end up being slum-dwelling or floating families in the cities. Those who stay back find themselves being shoved into the bottom rungs of society.

From the perspective of geological reality in a country like Bangladesh, the scourge of riverbank erosion comes up as unavoidable. People living along the banks of rivers for generations accept it as something par for the course. Being a land grown on a unique geological composition, the rivers of the country are normally erosion-prone. River experts have identified a dreadful feature in the country's riverbank erosions. It is their heightening intensity.

Along with the continuous changes found in the seasons' arrival and departure, especially the one centring on monsoon, the country's rivers also show newer trends. The cycle of seasons of normal flooding has undergone an alteration lately. Distressingly, it impacts on both floods and erosion, as they go hand in hand. However, the new trends in the onslaughts of floods and erosion are not unusual in the context of Bangladesh. It is the hitherto unknown courses and behaviour of the rivers that trigger these abnormalities. Nowadays many such rivers flow in full spate at a time when they would remain serene in the past. Such new trends have also prompted changes to the occurrence of floods. With the menace of erratic changes in climate increasingly defining nature, predictions on the rivers' short-term behaviour eventually prove difficult. In such a nature-dictated reality, few river-related disasters can be forewarned of in a precise manner.

Like floods, river erosion has been playing havoc with the land's people since the creation of its present geological form. In the past, the phenomenon would trigger yearly trepidation and worries among the rural inhabitants. Most of them would bear with it as a periodic setback coming from nature. The impact of erosion, nonetheless, was hardly negligible. With the land's total population increasing unabated, along with the rise in village-based resource volumes and their economic stakes, the disastrous incidence of erosion occupied a wider national focus. It eventually appeared as a curse for the rural poor. There are ample reasons behind the mighty Padma River's sobriquet of 'Kirtinasha', meaning one which destroys human monuments. The process of river erosion is present in Bangladeh round the year, on varying scales though.  

Organisations dealing with the country's river courses and behaviour portray a grim picture. The Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services is one of them. According to it, Bangladesh may have to part with 2,270 hectares of land this year due to riverbank erosion. With the expansion of the eroding width of newer rivers, 11 districts have been identified as being vulnerable to erosion. They are Kurigram, Gaibandha, Bogra, Sirajganj, Tangail, Manikganj, Rajbari, Rajshahi, Faridpur, Shariatpur and Madaripur. The rivers Ganges-Padma, Jamuna and their many tributaries and distributaries are said to be posing the erosion threats. Surma and Meghna also do not lag much behind. The report says around one million people are directly affected a year by the largely bypassed disaster. Besides, an estimated 300,000 people are displaced by the impact of erosion. A sizeable section of them later face utter destitution.

The people are being increasingly affected by river erosion. It has a lot to do with the erratic courses of nature. The fast changing nature adds to the hazards brewing in over 700 rivers flowing through Bangladesh. Rivers have been integral to the land's survival since ancient times. So have been the floods and riverbank erosion. Like many other realities, a geological truth about Bangladesh is large tracts of its land mass have gone under river waters. At the same time swathes of new lands have risen from rivers. Riverbank erosion has been behind both the happenings.

In the earlier times, three rivers, i.e. Padma, Jamuna and Brahmaputra, were regarded as the three major culprits behind the country's incidence of erosion. The fierce current of these three rivers has for centuries gobbled up hundreds of homesteads, establishments and painstakingly built structures. Immeasurable expanses of croplands vanished into the vortexes of water; dwelling houses with its people deep asleep at night were sucked in by the waves. With monsoon over, the rivers were found flowing quiet again in their deceptive look.

In the second decade of the 21st century, nature of the rivers in Bangladesh appears to be hard to fathom. It becomes evident as more and more rivers begin showing their menacing capability for erosion. Over the last few decades, a number of large and small rivers in northern Bangladesh have been found turning ferocious every year. Erosion affecting the banks of rivers like Tista and Dharla continues to play havoc with rural and suburban localities. Embankments and levees and town protection dams are being washed away. The Ganges-Padma and Jamuna have reverted to their earlier state of ferocity. The catch is erosion cannot be forecast in detail. But the water condition of rivers at a given time can help the experts and experienced people predict the possible intensity of erosion. Since Bangladesh is financially hamstrung in building adequate numbers of protective structures, putting to use experience and wisdom can also help it avert the damaging impacts of erosion to a great extent. In order to cushion the socio-economic fallout of erosion, the nation ought to go for a pragmatic solution.

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