Coastal People: Not merely at mercy of nature
"Many are leaving this area and going someplace else to live. Their homes are submerged and they have no means of livelihood here. It is hard even to get drinking water sometimes."
Gautam Das looks apprehensive as he says this standing by the Shakbaria river near Gatirgheri village in Khulna's Koyra upazila.
Around 80 families of the village have been living on the embankment in the open, around six months after severe cyclonic storm Yaas breached parts of the embankment, flooding their village.
With their homes damaged and livestock washed away, many are now considering to leave everything behind and migrate elsewhere in search of livelihoods.
Sitting in the southern coastal district of Khulna, one of the climate-vulnerable regions, Koyra faces climate-induced hazards frequently. When cyclone Aila lashed the coastal belt in 2009, the tidal surge flooded village after village, forcing many families to live out in the open.
Back then, too, the protection embankment caved in and the authorities took two years to fix it. All the while, many homesteads remained under water, and the embankment was the only home for many families.
After the embankment was repaired in 2011, they returned to whatever was left of their "homes" to start from scratch. But when Yaas struck in May this year, all they had built over the last 10 years were gone under the saline water again.
"They cannot go back home until the earthen embankment is repaired. Even if they do return home, they will have no work. They have lost everything to saline water. That's why many of them want to leave this place for good," said Gautam, a college student from the same village.
A World Bank report, released in September this year, said salinity, rising sea levels and other adverse climate impacts could cause as many as 13.3 million coastal people of Bangladesh to leave their homes by 2050.
However, the situation in Koyra should not be directly linked to climate change, said Prof Ainun Nishat, a leading climate expert.
"If the embankment breaches, saline water enters the villages and people lose everything they have. So, they leave the area finding no other means to survive," he said.
"But we should not blame climate change for damages to embankments. They breach is due to negligence of the authorities in maintaining them," he noted, adding he visited Koyra to see the situation for himself a few months ago.
Talking to The Daily Star, several locals said almost all the 90 homes in Gatirgheri village,where some 90 families live, go under waist-deep water every time there is high tide in the Shakbaria river. In normal times, they remain under knee-deep water.
The embankment is seven to eight feet wide and these families took shelter there with their cots, some utensils and a few pairs of clothes. They left everything else back home.
Bijay Sarker and his wife Ayna Sarker were sitting on the edge of the dam near their hut made of Nipa plum leaves and polythene sheets.
"That's my home, now under waist-deep water," said Bijay, pointing to a distant place where part of a tin-shed house could still be seen.
He said the saline water increases during high tides and it happens frequently.
Bijay and his family have lost all means of livelihood. "My son had a shrimp farm, a big house, and some goats, ducks and hens. But everything is now gone," he said.
"Also, winter is coming. We don't know how we will survive in the cold, right here under the open sky," said a visibly anxious Bijay.
Sunita Das, another woman living on the embankment along with her family in a makeshift hut, is one of those now looking to migrate from here. "Like many other villagers, we should leave this area".
The woman, in her late 50s, said the area got submerged for months at least five times since her marriage 30 years ago.
"We want to sell our land, which is our only property. But no one wants to buy it. Maybe, we will have to leave without selling it," she said.
All the 90 families in the village were going through similar predicaments, Sunita said, adding that around 10 families took shelter elsewhere.
Harasheet Mandal, ward commissioner of Dakshin Bedkashi union, said many people have already left the area. "It has been happening since Aila."
After cyclone Amphan and Yaas, more than 100 people left the area and moved to cities and other villages, he said, adding they did not find 42 out of the 292 voters before the union council election over a month ago.
"People are leaving this place because they don't have any work here. Their homesteads remain partially submerged and their shrimp farms get flooded."
Meanwhile, victims complained of getting inadequate support from the government and NGOs working in the area.
They said after any natural disaster, they initially get some relief items such as rice and other dry food. But the support stops at some point.
Asked, Koyra Upazila Nirbahi Officer Animesh Biswas said the victims were given rice and other dry food after Yaas hit the area. "Now we will distribute two tonnes of rice immediately after the oath-taking ceremony for the newly-elected Union Parishad chairman.''
MANY LEAVING KOYRA?
Koyra is surrounded by the Kabadak, Koyra and Shakbaria rivers. The upazila has six unions bordering the Sundarbans. The worst affected union of this upazila is Bedkashi where Gatirgheri village is located.
According to the Upazila Statistics Office, the population of Koyra was 1,93, 656 in 2009.
"If we go by our estimates and take the nationwide population growth of 1.47 percent into consideration, then the population in the upazila was supposed to increase to 2,26,000 in 2021," said Monoj Mondol, the Koyra upazila statistics officer.
But at present, the population is 1,95, 292, he said, citing their surveys, as he tried to prove a point that many people have already relocated from the upazila.
Aser Ali Moral, chairman of Dakshin Bedkashi union, told The Daily Star they found that some 3,000 people left the union between 2009 and 2020. Aila struck in 2009 and Amphan in 2020.
A few of them returned, but most of them did not, he said.
Upazila Chairman SM Shafiqul Islam said many locals migrated to city areas and nearby districts due to frequent natural calamities.
The situation is similar in three adjacent upazilas of Shymnagar, Kaliganj, Ashashuni in Satkhira.
Chief Executive Hasan Mehedi of CLEAN (Coastal Livelihood and Environmental Action Network), who has been working on climate-distress issues for years, said, "The entire area would become non-livable if the embankment is not properly repaired."
He urged the government to repair the embankment as soon as possible and hand it over to the local government and local people, instead of to the water development board, for maintenance. "This way, the embankment will be in a better shape."
He said they carried out a survey after Aila in 2009 and found that 1,20,000 people were displaced only from Dacope, Koyra and Paikgacha upazilas of Khulna and Shymnagar and Ashashuni upazilas of Satkhira.
"After Amphan, we surveyed again in Koyra and Shymnagar and we found around 18,000 to 21,000 people were forced to migrate from the areas,'' he said.
The number of "climate refugees" must have reached 50,000 after Yaas, he added.
"The government does not have any specific strategy to stop such migrations. We also urge the government to establish a 'coastal development board' to handle the issue," he said.
"Hundreds of people have been facing a shortage of drinking water. There is saline water everywhere."
Contacted, Deputy Commissioner of Khulna Md Moniruzzaman Talukder said they asked the contractor to complete repairing of the embankment as soon as possible.
"Besides, food support is being provided to those who are in distress and are unable to find work. We will continue to provide such food assistance," he said.