At Water’s Edge

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

A woman struggles to save her jute crop as the river eats into her land. Photo: Syed Zain Al Mahmood.



Syed Zain Al Mahmood


As the ground gives way beneath her feet, the woman hacks frantically at the green jute stalks. They’re not ripe yet, but the woman has no choice. She’s rushing to salvage what little she can before the mighty river Jamuna claims her land.


Sickle in hand, she wades into the tall jute as chunks of soil break off and fall into the water.  Her pre-teen daughter ties the severed stalks into a bundle. The effort is futile. The river advances faster than they can cut. Soon mother and daughter admit defeat, and their little plot of land –with the jute plants still on it – disappears into the Jamuna in front of their very eyes.


Such scenes are common in the chars of north-western Bangladesh. The chars are shifting sandbar islands within the great Jamuna-Brahmaputra river system. Here everything is flat, and the water is constantly rewriting the geography. These islands, many covering less than a square mile, appear and vanish with the floods and the flow of sediments from upriver.


When the rains come in June, the chars shrink to patches of land dotted with a few banana trees, with villagers and their livestock often forced on to rooftops to survive the floods. In the heat of the dry season, the walks to the villages are often as long as five kilometers from the river across unforgiving sand.


Home to an estimated six million people, the chars are in a blind spot of the government system. Government officials don’t want to be stationed in the remote and inhospitable sandbars where it takes hours of traveling by boat to get anywhere. Few NGOs come here. Working in the chars is time consuming and overhead is high.


The river gives, and it also takes away. On Manush Mara Char (The char of the dead men) in the Rowmari upazila of Kurigram district on Bangladesh’s border with India, farmer Rahmat Ullah explains that he has moved house 20 times in his 65 years, and expects to move again soon.


“I lived over there 5 years ago,” he says, pointing to a location half a kilometre down river. “The chars come up; we come and build our homes. Then suddenly it breaks up. No one knows when the river will take our land. No one can tell.”


Rahmat’s village is less than a hundred metres from the fast-eroding river bank. “At night, we lie and hear the crash of land falling into the water,” says Rahmat’s wife Dilara. “It sounds like thunder.”


A tin-roof mosque with bamboo walls stands at the very edge of the char. “We will move that tomorrow,” says Rahmat with breezy confidence. “I hope we can rebuild it in time for prayers the next day.”


Despite being extremely fertile, and despite the industry of its inhabitants, the silt islands are among the poverty hotspots of Bangladesh. Lack of infrastructure, poor communication and little or no access to markets mean the char dwellers are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty.


Scientists say things are going from bad to worse due to the effects of climate change. Extreme weather, flooding and altered habitats will affect lives and livelihoods in low-lying areas like the chars, according to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Far north of the chars, global warming has begun to affect Himalayan glaciers, which feed the major rivers that eventually braid their way through the delta.


The multitude of problems faced by the islanders has led some researchers to view the chars as “ground zero” for climate change adaptation. The char dwellers are masters of adaptation in an ever-changing environment. But runaway global warming means they will have to adjust quicker and more drastically than ever before.


Experts say that adaptation must go further than just coping mechanisms. “Good adaptation allows communities to cope, but also supports community members’ efforts to become social actors and take command of their own development path,” explains Dr Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of the Centre for Global Change and a former IPCC scientist. “Linking adaptation with livelihoods is vital to ensure the long-term sustainability of climate change response.”


No project exemplifies this holistic approach more than the Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP). Since 2004, CLP, a collaboration between the Bangladesh government and the UK’s department for international development (DFID), has been helping islanders cope with their uncertain terrain. Currently in its second phase, CLP is funded by the DFID and AusAID and sponsored by the Bangladesh government’s local government division.


One of the innovative community-based solutions that are having an impact in the chars is what CLP calls its Asset Transfer Programme, in which CLP gives income-generating assets ranging from cows to rickshaws to goats to deserving individuals.


Julian Francis, Partnerships Director of CLP says: “CLP has undertaken one-time transfer of assets to 55,000 extremely poor island char households in the five districts where we worked in the first phase between 2004 and 2010.”


Cattle are often the preferred choice for char households as they are considered good investments. Families not only gain a sustainable asset but also benefit from the sale and household consumption of livestock and poultry products. Cattle can swim during high water and be relocated easily.


On Manush Mara Char, Rahmat Ullah shows off the four cows in his shed. “We started with that one cow. Now both my wife and I work full time taking care of them. I no longer have to leave my family to look for work in the city.”


What makes the scheme truly innovative is that in addition to providing money to buy cattle, CLP trains char dwellers in livestock management. “We are there when they buy the cows,” says Julian Francis. “Our vets check the animals for disease. We train them to look after the asset, especially during natural disasters.”


To prevent people being forced out of their homes by floods, CLP helps them to raise their homesteads – called plinths – approximately 60cm above the highest known flood level. This means that even during the flood season, families will have a safe place for their cattle, can continue horticultural activities and, most importantly, can continue to live in their own homes.


The plinth-raising project employs local labour, giving char dwellers some much needed cash, and easing the seasonal hunger that people in these parts call “Monga”. CLP also provides specialised gardening training to its beneficiaries and provides them with seeds so they can grow plants suited to the uncertain environment.


The livelihoods programme hasn’t been an unqualified success. In some areas, people have sold off their cattle to pay for medical treatment or for dowry. The raised plinths and the sanitary latrines provided by CLP haven’t been properly maintained in some cases. But Selim Moral, Social Development Manager of CLP for Rangpur district, says the programme has undertaken vigorous social awareness campaigns to root out these problems.


“Before receiving their income generating asset, our core beneficiaries, most of whom are women, are formed into groups of approximately 22 people,” says Moral. “Over 2000 of these groups are meeting regularly to receive training on socio-economic issues from rights awareness to financial management.”


Attempts at adaptation are everywhere in the chars. There is no electricity, but solar panels adorn many of the better-off houses. Thousands of fishermen in the char areas are now enjoying solar power thanks to the work of several NGOs, including that of Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service (RDRS), a CLP partner.


“Our field research has shown that children from char houses that have a solar panel do much better at school compared to those that don’t have it,” said MG Neogi, a development consultant with RDRS. “People can now watch TV and charge their mobile phones.”


Along with education, access to healthcare is a major problem in the chars where government health complexes are few and far between and are often “taken by the river”. To solve these problems, CLP and its partners are trying out innovative solutions. “Instead of spending money on infrastructure, we are focusing on satellite clinics which are simple to build and easy to dismantle when the floods come,” said Julian Francis.


Friendship Bangladesh, another of CLP’s partners, has gone a step further.  It started operating a floating hospital more than ten years ago on a specially outfitted barge, brought from France by French sailor Yves Marre.  Now, run by Marre’s Bangladeshi wife, Runa Khan, Friendship operates two hospital ships and an ambulance boat that ply the rivers spending a month or two in each location, offering primary healthcare at a nominal cost as well as affordable basic surgery to the region’s impoverished inhabitants.


Friendship’s work with the vulnerable communities in the chars has gained international recognition. The environmental campaign group Greenpeace recently donated its flagship the Rainbow Warrior to Friendship to be turned into a floating hospital.


“The char people may be the most resilient on earth,” says Runa Khan whose organisation has now expanded into education and microcredit projects. “We listen to the communities, hear their needs and respond in ways that are appropriate. Simplicity – simple solutions always work best.”


Back on Manush Mara Char, farmer Rahmat Ullah says he has scouted a new location and will start chopping down the fruit trees around his homestead soon. “The tin roof can be taken down, the cows can be moved, but the trees will have to be cut,” he says philosophically. “We must move while the earth is still firm.”


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