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River erosion: A sordid tale of displacement and migration

Climate Change
© Shathi Akter (13) goes to school who migrated at a slum in Dhaka from Bhola with her family due to loose her homestead to the mighty Meghna river.

By Akram Hosen

Dhaka, 06 February 2017: The constant fear of losing her homestead to the mighty Meghna river has haunted her throughout childhood.

Shathi Akter, 13, grew up hearing about the river “eating up” houses and trees and saw how the bank had eroded by the tides in monsoon. But when her entire neighbourhood, including her school in a sleepy village in Bhola, disappeared into the river in the course of a week, she was all but incredulous.

"I kept looking and looking, but failed to find any trace of our village in the vast expanse of the water. The river is crazy," Shathi says, recalling the monsoon of 2013.

River erosion is a common problem along the Meghna river basin during the monsoon but scientists say climate change is making the phenomenon worse as it contributed to rapid siltation of the river, displacing thousands. Many have migrated to the capital Dhaka and other cities located further inland.

Massive chunks of earth was still being swept away by the river when Shathi and all members in her family took whatever belongings they could carry before the house was gone and left their hometown Bhola, an island district in the southern part of the country and came to Dhaka.

Like Shathi and her parents, most residents of the neighbourhood in Charnanda village in Bhola who became homeless, migrated to Dhaka in the hope of making a modest living.

Between 2008 and 2014, a staggering 4.7 million people were displaced due to natural disasters in Bangladesh, according to 2015 estimation by Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Another estimate by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says by 2050, around 50 million people will migrate from the coastal districts like Bhola due to climate change.

In fact, so many residents of the southern island district lost their villages to the ever rising tides of the Meghna estuary and migrated to Dhaka in the last couple of decades that a slum in

Mirpur where many of them ended up living, became known as Bhola Bosti (slum of Bhola).

Shathi’s father Shajahan Miah and his ancestors were fishermen who once had a happy life near the banks of Meghna. In the last couple of decades, he lost his homestead to the river a staggering seven times.

"But I became completely broke when it happened the last time. So, we left for Dhaka with two other families from our village and came to Bhola Bosti with them," he recalls.
Much to his surprise, Shajahan found out that he knew most of the residents of the slum as they were also farmers and fishermen of Bhola. He eventually managed to get a job as a security guard at a residential building at Dhaka’s Mirpur area.

Shocks of urban slum life
Over a couple of decades ago, newly migrated families made homeless by river erosion in their native Bhola diastrict began to landfill a swamp in Dhaka's Mirpur, bit by bit.
In places where the muddy water was too deep to landfill, families constructed dwellings perched on bamboo stilts.

As multi-storey buildings were constructed on all sides of the swamp over the years, what now remains of it is a long strip of low landfilled by corrugated tin shanties on every inch. A senior resident of the slum who ran a cooperative of the residents says the population here is over 3,000.

The darkness, heat and dampness inside the rows of tin shacks are a stark contrast to the scenic beauty of the windy green village by the Meghna. In one such shack, Shathi’s three siblings and parents live in one small room.

A total 2.23 million people live in city slums in Bangladesh, found a survey by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) conducted in 2014. Of them, 1.06 million live in the slums of Dhaka.

The study also observed that the population in the cities living without the civic amenities in the country had increased by 60.43 per cent since 1997.

Nearly all socioeconomic indicators for children living in urban slums are worse than remote rural areas in Bangladesh, according to evidence.

This is a concern, since the country is going through a rapid urbanization process. Data from the 2009 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) in Bangladesh make it clear that conditions in slum areas are much worse off than those in most rural areas. Despite their proximity to metropolitan areas where basic services are available, access for slum dwellers is denied.

Many families rely on the income generated by their children for survival so child labour is often highly valued. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are nearly 8 million working children, aged 5-17 years, in Bangladesh.

Education takes the backseat
"When you lose everything you owned overnight and have no clue as to where you will find shelter for your children, you can hardly think about their education," says Shathi’s father Shajahan.

Shathi was in Grade III in her village school when she had to come to Dhaka with her family. She remained out of school for over about a year. Education of her three older siblings, only one of whom is aged over 18, was regarded a luxury the family could not afford.

In another part of the slum lives Jahanara, a mother of six. She moved to the city with her four children a couple of years ago. Her two oldest daughters were already married.

Having spent her life near the Meghna estuary in Bhola she can't even remember how many times she had to evacuate from her home because of high tides and floods.

"It happened almost every year in about the last two decades. But in recent years, the river has become too aggressive,” she says.

Several months before she lost her house to river erosion five years ago, her husband left her with the children and got married somewhere else.

Her daughter Julekha, 14, is in Grade IV. She lost three academic years when her family moved to Dhaka several years ago. Her older sister Maleka used to work in a readymade garment factory while her two younger brothers work in motor workshops. After a severe back pain rendered her unable to work, she had to quit work a couple of months back.

As the brothers earn almost nothing, Jahanara who works as a domestic help at a well-off family, has become the sole breadwinner.

"I think the kids will have to starve in a couple of weeks when Maleka’s little savings run out," she says.

Judged in terms of per capita carbon emissions that drive climate change, Bangladesh contributes only 0.4 metric tonnes while the industrial countries like the United States produces 17 and the United Kingdom 7.1.*

Despite this, it is Bangladeshis who are bearing the brunt of a changing climate.




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