Erosion is an inevitability along the tumultuous rivers three - Padma, Meghna, and Jamuna. No amount of proverbs or cultural artifacts can encapsulate the personal suffering or the economic loss wrought by the rivers over the centuries. With nearly 10 sq km area disappearing in the Naria municipality, Moktarer Char union and Kedarpur union combined, the Naria upazila in Shariatpur is experiencing a case of soil erosion hitherto unrecorded in the history of Bangladesh.
Over the past one month, thousands of families – rich and poor alike – have had to flee their ancestral homes as they disappeared in the river’s churning maw. Not only homes, but farmlands, homesteads, offices, schools, hospitals, mosques, temples, roads, and power poles have been unceremoniously claimed by the unyielding Padma.
The displaced people have found themselves destitute and disheveled as there has been little to nothing in terms of relief and rehabilitation. With barely two meals a day and an alarming lack of medical facilities, Naria is on the verge of a disaster unfolding as the Padma flows furiously.
Cries in the skies
Imam Hossain Dewan was the chairman of Kedarpur union for 15 years. His uncle was the chairman for 50 years. He lived in a lavish home built over five acres of land adjoining 50 acres of farmland. His day started with holding audiences of hundreds of people in his massive drawing room.
But today, his well-furnished rooms and ornately decorated halls lie at the bottom of the Padma.
Today, his cries pierce the blue of the sky. Left with barely anything to his name, he has taken up refuge at a relative’s house. Instead of advising people and mediating disputes, he bawls and laments the loss of all his assets.
Barely legible through his inconsolable tears, Imam spluttered: “My tears have run dry. I have wept, like thousands of others who have lost everything to the ravages of the river. The government had allocated over a thousand crores to protect us, but delaying the embankment project has ruined our lives.”
The former chairman shuddered as he blurted: “All we want now is for the government to declare it a disaster area.”
Imam Hossain and his five brothers, along with other members of their family, have lost millions in property to the river.
The village of North Kedarpur is heavily populated by Hindu fishermen. The 100-feet-high Satya Narayan Seba Mandir was the house of worship and a reason for pride in the village.
The temple’s custodian Kartik Chandra and his wife Beena Rani saw the pinnacles of the temple plunge beneath the raging waves as the Padma, unwavering and unreasonable, claimed the temple grounds and surrounding areas for itself.
Kartik was barely conscious as he repeatedly swooned in despair and shock. Between his tear-jerking lamentation and embittered grievances, he shouted: “I lost everything to the Pakistanis in 1971. But we stayed, because we held on to the land. But this monster of a river has taken away what the Pakistanis could not. Where will I stay? Where will I eat? Where do we go? Where do we perform our rituals?”
Funding approved, action stalled
On January 2, the government approved a whopping Tk1,097 crore budget for a 9km long permanent embankment from Kunderchar in Zajira upazila to Sureshwar in Naria upazila.
However, due to unforeseen complications, there was no progress in the embankment’s construction in the dry season.
When the recent erosion tore down a 4km stretch of area, local authorities appealed for Tk20 crores of urgent aid, but received only Tk7.2 crores in three instalments. The aid came too late and was too little to be of any significance.
Banks, offices, medical facilities, warehouses, educational institutions, houses, everything has been lost to the depths of the Padma.
According to Sanaul Haque, acting chairman of Kedarpur union, 3,000 families in the union have lost everything over little more than a week.
“The only government aid we received was 30kg of rice. That is not nearly humane assistance.”
Abul Kalam Azad, a lawyer and convener for the embankment implementation committee, said that multiple quarters were being willfully negligent regarding the issue and their negligence has cost them greatly.
He said: “They are dumping sand bags to tackle the erosion as an emergency measure. This is an unplanned fiasco. At the current rate of the river’s expansion, Naria town might disappear within the next month. The map of Naria will be irreconcilably changed.”
Naria Municipality Mayor Shahidul Islam Babu said: “We have lost our lands and homes. We stand on the brink of annihilation because of the ineptitude of the Water Development Board (WDB) and conflict of interests between political leaders.
“If construction does not begin on the permanent embankment right now, then this town will be wiped off the map. Not a single building will survive.”
Shariatpur WDB Executive Engineer Sheikh Shafiqul Islam said: “We are nearly done with dumping sand bags to halt the erosion as part of our emergency response. The Bangladesh Navy’s Khulna Ship Yard submitted a tender bid for constructing the embankment. After the Cabinet approves, then the orders to proceed will be issued. That might take place sometime after September. After all the formalities, construction will start around December.”
When asked why the embankment was delayed, Shafiqul responded that due to legal complications, the work could not commence in the previous dry season.
Party infighting costs people
According to local ruling party insiders, a central Awami League leader seeking nomination and the incumbent local MP have clashed over the project.
Civil leaders have confided to the Dhaka Tribune that the central Awami League leader wants to generate support for his nomination bid by claiming the glory for the embankment project.
The incumbent MP wants to ensure his seat for himself. Hence, their attempts to one-up each other in order to accumulate the most goodwill to bolster their chances of being nominated have cost the locals greatly.
What experts have to say
Shamsun Nahar, director of hydrography at the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), said the organization had carried out a survey recently in the affected area.
“Our survey team reported facing much difficulty as the survey ship found it hard to hold position due to strong currents. According to their reports, new land has risen in the Padma just across the shore from Naria upazila. The emergence of this new island is affecting the flow, hence the erosion. The river current hits the island, and rebounds on the Naria coast at 5.53 nautical miles per hour. The sheer natural force has increased the depth near the shore to 22-32 meters.
“We need to divert the flow from the island to save Naria. We have submitted our findings to the Ministry of Shipping.
Mahfuzur Rahman, director general of the Water Development Board, could not be reached for comments.
Hydrology expert Dr Ainun Nishat said: “The Padma flows of her own accord. You cannot understand Padma with mathematics or science. River erosion is a natural matter. The erosion may continue for two years in this location. In order to take preventive measures, we have to understand the scale of Padma. What works to prevent erosion in the Gorai, Madhumati, or other small rivers will not work on Padma.”
Edited by- Niloy Alam
Managed by- Adil Mahmood