The country’s marshlands or haors have been inundated with flood waters over the past few days and crops have been destroyed. Innumerable people are suffering in the face of the devastating floods.
A few years ago when there had been frequent cyclones and tidal surges along the coast, I had written an article, ‘Mud Slinging in Flood Waters’. This time too, politics have flooded the haor region along with the water. We seem to be fine without food, but can’t survive without politics.
The haors make up one of Bangladesh’s special ecological regions. These marshes have a unique ecosystem, with fishes, trees, crops, settlements and even a very different system of land measurement.
I have visited all the marshes of Greater Sylhet and Mymensingh in the various seasons and stayed there too.
Villages normally refer to human settlements and the local farmers cultivate the tracts of land around the villages. The flood embankments prevent water from entering the croplands during the rains, averting floods and considerably changing the character of cultivation.
Haors are a bit different. The villages are at a greater distance from each other with stretches of vacant land between them. Crops are grown on this land in the dry season. Towards the end of the Bangla month Baishakh, the water begins to arrive and the land is inundated. The villages pop up like islands in the midst of the watery expanse. It’s like this for six months. Some take to catching fish. At the end of the month Kartik the waters begin to recede and fresh cultivation begins.
Some places are submerged the year round. These are the marshes or water bodies. The government leases these out to fish traders. Many fishermen have settled in the villages of the haors. Most of them work almost as bonded labour for those who have leased the marshland. The Hindu fishermen are referred to as ‘koibart’ and the Muslims as ‘maimal’.
A haor resembles a large bowl. According to the 1990 Flood Action Plan (FAP) survey, the haors stretch out for 6,000 sq km or 600 thousand hectares. At that time the population of the haors was 4.8 million. It was projected that by 2015 the population would be 6.1 million. This population now faces disaster. When such disaster strikes, instead of trying to determine how to help the people, we tend to take up a blame game.
It is not as easy to build embankments and prevent floods in the haors as it is elsewhere. The haors are water bodies controlled by nature. We have to keep this in mind when planning disaster management and how to alleviate the sufferings.
Bangladesh Water Development Board has designed appropriate technology for the haors. They have made submergible embankments.
The haors normally have one crop, with various types of rice grown during the Boro season. If there is incessant rain over a few days in Meghalaya or if there is a sudden surge of water from upstream, the crops are at risk. The submergible embankment keeps the floods at bay for a few days, giving the farmers time to hurriedly cut their crops. If the floods do not come early and the water arrives at the normal time, then the crops are not harmed.
This time the floods have arrived unusually early. Had the embankment not broken and allowed the waters to enter in just a matter of hours, then even this time some of the semi-ripened crops could have been salvaged. But there were faults in the embankment repairs. The weakness was in the monitoring. From the ministry down to the field level, the chain does not function properly.
There are quite a few rivers in the haor region. These include Jadukata, Kushiara, Kalni, Kangsha and Baulai. The rivers can’t carry all the water when the floods rush down from upstream. Silt and sedimentation gather on the river bed and so the river overflows. The answer is to revive the rivers through regular dredging and rapid draining away excess water.
Why are no sustainable measures being taken for the haor region? Insiders say the fund allocation is insufficient and delayed, and it is hard to get the contractors to work because of their political affiliation. There is an unholy alliance among the contractors, officers and politicians. This is hard to penetrate.
The Haor Development Board of the water resources ministry is now the Haor Development Directorate. It is a paper tiger and this needs to be rectified.
Most of the people in the area are poor. They take loans in Kartik and repay when the harvest comes in. Unofficial loans are perhaps higher than bank loans. The government announced that the bank loans will be rescheduled, but what about the personal loans? Things look bleak. Thousands of people lose everything. They sell their land, lose their homesteads. Bereft of all possessions, they come to the cities in search of work.
This time too, the haor floods will create such refugees. The governments ‘return home programme’ or ‘one home, one farm’ will remain as empty rhetoric. After all, many of them have no homes where they can return.
A few years ago the agriculture minister had spoken about crop insurance. The haors do not face such disasters every year, perhaps once in every five to ten years. Crop insurance would have provided some form of security. Can life depend on aid and relief? Where is the dignity in that?
*This article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.