River erosion and displacement: How to address the twin issues

Mohammad Zaman | Published: June 22, 2019 21:37:40 | Updated: June 28, 2019 21:33:45

The Government of Bangladesh has recently announced an allocation of Tk 10.0 billion in the 2019-2000 budget for rehabilitation of families displaced by river erosion in the country. This is a welcome step by the government; however, the initiative may prove too small in dealing with the huge and complex issues involved in river erosion, displacement and resettlement.

At present, there are no reliable data on the extent of erosion displacement in the country. Experts, academics and those in the media refer to estimates that vary from 50,000 as quoted recently in the print media to an estimated 200,000 reported in a 2019 study to as many as one million people annually in a study conducted in mid-1980, based on surveys in Chilmari, Kazipur and Bhola - places known for endemic erosions.  A total of 66 out of 492 upazilas in the country are located along the banks of the Ganges/Padma, Teesta, Brahmaputra/Jamuna and the Meghna rivers that are either affected or prone to annual erosion. The proportion of land already eroded in each of the affected upazilas may vary from about one-third to about two-thirds of the total area of the upazila land. For instance, Kazipur upazila in Sirajganj has lost close to 50 per cent of its land area to erosion over the last four to five decades.

There are few riverine areas in the world that have such unstable river courses. The changes in the river courses carry away valuable cultivable land, destroy village settlements, markets and town/ ports. Indeed, there are close to 300 erosion-prone locations, 100 towns/local markets and hundreds of villages along the 2400 km of banklines that are liable to annual erosion. Since the banklines include much of the most densely populated land in the country, it is suggested that somewhere between 10 to 15 per cent of population of Bangladesh (i.e., 15 to 20 million) live in areas exposed to severe erosion. Thus, there are large numbers of people in the country who are at the risk of displacement. Those who are affected by loss of land and homes due to erosion practically become paupers - "it makes the rich man of the morning, a destitute by dark" (shokal belar raja, ar bhai fakir sondha bela) -- so goes the proverb.

There is very little help for the erosion-affected families, and in many instances, no emergency relief or assistance are available as in the case of flood victims. In contrast to bonna or high flood, which occurs every few year, river erosion is endemic; for instances, places like Chilmari, Kurigram, Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Sariakandi, Kazipur, Sirajganj, Lauhajang, Chandpur, and Bhola experience erosions year-round. Despite wide ranging impacts such as loss of land, homes and livelihoods, there are no official standard operating procedures (SOP) to respond to and assist victims of river erosion as it is for flood responses. In the case of flood, there are warnings, evacuation, relief and assistance, but erosion victims rarely receive any assistance from local administration. They are left to fend for themselves in disaster and crisis.

There is also another equally important side of the erosion story. The erosion of land also ultimately leads to accretion of new lands, called chars, as new resources for survival in the floodplain and the delta.  In most instances, the newly accreted char lands are immediately put to use as much as possible by people from neighbouring chars or mainland. So, erosion and accretion are two sides of the same coin. The major rivers in the floodplain continually eat up bank lines and deposit the new silt on the other side (nodir ekul bhange okul ghore eito nodir khela), making islands and chars of considerable size. The new chars become "frontiers" for agriculture and livelihoods. This is why, among other reasons - including kinship, social relations, and attachment to places - erosion displaced families rarely migrate beyond the immediate vicinity. People live in hope and despair and wait for the chars to emerge. Many studies have reported that only between five and six per cent of the displaced households migrate outside the districts.

Resettlement of the erosion-affected or displaced families has never been a top priority of the government of Bangladesh. In the past, programmes such as Ashrayan Prakalpa, Adarsha Gram Project and Guchchhogram resettled at various phases a mix of landless and homeless families, which also included erosion victims. According to available statistics, over three hundred fifty-five thousand landless and homeless families across the country have been resettled to date under the Ashrayan Prakalpa, one of the Prime Minister's 10 priority initiatives. Although these programmes did help the erosion victims to some extent, they are not exclusively designated for erosion-displaced households. As a result, having no alternatives, hundreds and thousands of erosion-displaced families live on flood control embankments in various parts of the country.

River erosion disaster should be addressed as a national priority in Bangladesh because of its wide-ranging impacts. The following steps are crucially important to reinforce the current approaches to erosion displacement and resettlement. First, the government must take steps for preventive displacement of at-risk people in various upazilas or hotspots as a risk reduction measure. Second, there should be a dedicated SOP for river erosion and displacement with clearly defined role and responsibility for the local administration. Third, the government must replace the existing laws related to alluvial and diluvial lands with improved legislative and institutional framework for use and access to newly emerged char lands reflecting a paradigm shift for the benefit of the displaced people. Finally, there should be more protective works to control river erosions, particularly in the floodplains to save and secure valuable agricultural land from future erosions.

Mohammad Zaman PhD is an advisory professor, National Research Center for Resettlement (NRCR), Hohai University, Nanjing, China. He carried out ethnographic research on erosion and displacement in Kazipur-Sirajganj area in the Brahmaputra-Jamuna floodplain.


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