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Vanishing islands of Bangladesh

Vanishing islands of Bangladesh
The tranquility on the banks of the Meghna river in Bhola gives no inkling of the scale of destruction this island district in Bangladesh has undergone. Over the past few years, it has been victim of erosion and storm surges. Result: a major part of it is has gone under water. ‘The island may just disappear in about 25 years.’ This is what Rezaul Karim Chowdhury of non-profit Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST) had said before this correspondent set out for the only island district of Bangladesh. Broken shores, half-drowned settlements and hundreds of makeshift shelters standing on barely two-metre wide strips of land resonated Chowdhury’s words.

Bhola stands as an example of the climate calamity that is wrecking Bangladesh. The country has 47,211 sq km of coastal area – 32 per cent of the total land mass of the country. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has identified Bangladesh as ‘most vulnerable’ to tropical cyclones. The greatest damage from cyclones is inundation caused by storm surges –temporary increase in the sea level in a particular area because of extreme meteorological conditions such as low atmospheric pressure or strong winds.

Like many islands in the coastal areas of Bangladesh, cyclone is among the primary natural disasters that visit Bhola. The district, which is bordered by the Meghna and Tetulia rivers and the Bay of Bengal, experiences two to four metre high storm surges. It has a total area of 205,115 hectares (ha). It has nearly 1.8 million people, and most of them depend on fishing or agriculture to earn a living. Officials in the Ministry of Water Resources say the standard method of protecting the district from storm surges is by raising two to three feet high earthen embankments around the district. Embankments protect 1,43,465 ha, about 70 per cent of the total area. But a large part of the district, especially Dhal Char and Char Kukri Mukri, are not protected by embankments and are extremely vulnerable to erosion. Many parts of the earthen embankments are also eroding every year, increasing vulnerability of the islands to submergence. People fear the embankments will not sustain for long. Murubbi, an elderly person in Burhanuddin, a sub-division of Bhola district, says erosion and inundation has aggravated in the recent past. ‘Storm surges were a common phenomenon even in the past, but the water would recede soon. Now, water takes many months to recede. Over the years, cyclones have become more frequent with far-reaching impacts,’ he says.

In Charfasson, sub-division of Bhola bordering the Bay of Bengal, the government placed stone blocks and sandbags in some parts along the riverbank as a measure of protection. The blocks were placed mostly after the devastation caused by Aila in 2009, says fisher Mohammed Shohar. But the work is incomplete, he adds.

About 150 km from Bhola, Kutubdia island in the Bay of Bengal presents an equally grim picture. Located west of tourist destination Cox’s Bazar, it is home to about 1,00,000 people. Natural disasters in Kutubdia are also primarily induced by cyclones. ‘The 1991 cyclone claimed more than 8,000 lives and prompted thousands more to migrate to the mainland of Cox’s Bazar,’ says Ruby Islam. She lives in Kutubdia para, a small colony in Cox’s Bazar inhabited by survivors of the 1991 cyclone. Ruby now teaches in a primary school. Nearly 40,000 people live in Kutubdia para, she says.

The 1991 disaster was not the end of the ordeal for Kutubdia. Cyclones with two to four-metre-high tidal surges hit the island every year. ‘Ten villages of Ali Akbar Dale Union in the southern end of the island have simply disappeared over the past 30 years because of cyclonic storm surges,’ says Moqbul Ahmed, resident of Cox’s Bazar.

Down to Earth
Srestha Banerjee

Srestha Banerjee

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