Landslides in hill districts
12:00 AM, July 22, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:55 AM, July 22, 2017

Disaster warning falls on deaf ears

After last month's deadly landslide, authorities hardly took any effective steps to prevent deaths; 5 of a family perish in latest incident in Sitakunda hills

It is a glaring example of how ineffective measures by the local administration and people's carelessness can lead to loss of lives.

Only five weeks ago, rain-induced landslides killed over 170 people in the hill districts, 120 of them in Rangamati alone.

Such a high death toll should have been an eye-opener both for the administration as well as for those living precariously in the hill slopes. But yesterday's deaths of five people in a Sitakunda landslide are evidence that last month's warning fell on deaf ears.

Settlements by cutting hills have been rising in the port city, like in other hill districts, but the local administration hardly took any effective measures to stop such risky living, environmentalists say.

The administration's role in evacuating people from hill slopes has been limited mostly to giving warnings, they add.

Read More: Horror strikes hills

After receiving early warnings of landslides in Chittagong and elsewhere on Thursday, the administration asked the people through loud speakers to leave their homes and take shelter at government shelter centres.

But the people took the warning lightly and remained in their houses, which led to the latest casualties, officials said.

Edris Ali, vice-president of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), Chittagong unit, said it was saddening that five more people lost their lives just weeks after so many deaths in the hill areas.

“Had the administration worked sincerely, it could have prevented these deaths,” he told The Daily Star yesterday.

Read Also: Call for rehabilitation, relief gets louder

“To prevent deaths in landslide, permanent eviction of risky hill dwellers is a must. But the administration is not doing that,” he noted.

Contacted, Director General of the department of disaster management Reaz Ahmed said, “Together with the local administration, we tried our best to evict people from the risky hill slopes after learning about the possible landslide.” 

The administration evicted most of the people from vulnerable areas, he said, adding that many people did not pay heed to the warning.

“Time has come to apply force to evict people for the sake of saving lives. And time has also come to relocate and rehabilitate the people living near risky hills,” he said, adding that it might take some time.

The Chittagong district administration snapped the connection of utilities during the rainy season and locked 200 houses to prevent people from entering their houses, he said.

But locals say the administration never took any effective measures to relocate the people living in the hill slopes, which is why they continued to live in risky conditions.  

After the death of 127 people in 2007 landslide, the government formed the Hill Management Committee (HMC) to protect the hills in the district and to avert future loss of lives from landslides.

The technical committee of the HMC gave 36 recommendations and identified 30 hills where around 666 families lived in the city and its adjacent Sitakunda upazila. A key recommendation was the eviction of the people living in risky hills. 

Ten years later, the number of people living there has only gone up. The exact number is not available, but thousands of people are believed to be living on and around risky hills. 

Take the example Jungle Salimpur Bastuhara area, the very place where five people were killed yesterday. The area was identified by the HMC as vulnerable (No 6 on the list). 

Even in the last meeting of the HMC on July 10, one of the five agendas was rehabilitation of the risky hill dwellers in Jungle Salimpur area. In the meeting, the DC gave the upazila administration 72 hours to update him about the area. But the upazila administration did not comply.

Contacted, Ruhul Amin, assistant commissioner (land) of Sitakunda, said around 8,000 families lived in the hilly area of Jungle Salimpur, where people started building houses on government Khas land in 2000.

Asked why they were not relocated, Ruhul said around 32,000 people lived in the area. “Is it possible to evict so many people?”

There was an 1100kv power connection in the area. “How could the Power Development Board provide the power line in the illegal establishment?” he asked.

“We will now disconnect the power connection and water connection [from Wasa] so that the people leave the area,” he said.

Chittagong Deputy Commissioner Md Zillur Rahman Chowdhury said around 600 families lived in the risky hills in the city area, but could not immediately say how many people live in hill slopes in upazila levels.

Asked how long it would take to rehabilitate the people of Jungle Salimpur, he advised this newspaper to visit the area and make that assessment.

After last month's landslide, the deadliest in the country, the government formed a 27-member strong committee, whose job is to determine the cause of the disaster and give recommendations as to how to prevent such disasters in future.     

THE LANDSLIDE

It was around 3:00am yesterday. The family members of Rafiq were fast asleep in their tin-roofed house on the hill slope. It was raining heavily and the hilltop became vulnerable, but Rafiq's family members were sleeping like they did on other nights.

All of a sudden a big chunk of earth fell on the rickety house from the hilltop at Lotkan Shah Ghona, killing five of them and injuring four others.

The dead are Rafiq's wife Bibi Fatema, 30, their son Yunus, 10, Rafiq's sister Rabeya Khatun, 25, and her daughters Samia, 7, and Lamia, 2.

Rafiq, his daughters Jannat, 14, and Salma, 11, and his brother Gias Uddin, 27, narrowly escaped death.

Locals said the family came from Noakhali around two years ago and built the house there. Fatema was a machine operator at Shirina Garments and Textiles Limited in Bayezid Bostami area.

“She [Fatema] worked till 7:00pm on Thursday … When we came to know about the accident in the morning, it was a blot from the blue. We instantly closed the factory and rushed here,” said Sheikh Harunur Rashid, manager of the factory.

Nasima Begum, a neighbour, said they woke up to repeated knock at the door around 3:15am. “When I opened the door, I saw Salma in a distressed state,” she said, adding, “She somehow told us what happened and asked for help.”

Then her son, Imran, and other locals rushed to the spot almost on the top of the hill to rescue them.

Salma herself was rescued by her uncle Gias from under the debris.

“First, my son rescued Jannat and then locals recovered the bodies of others,” Nasima said, adding, “Rafiq came out of the debris by himself.”

Rabeya and her two daughters, three of the dead, actually came to visit Rafiq from Noakhali around a month ago. Rabeya was thinking about buying a piece of land to live permanently in the area, said Firoz Alam, Fatema's father.

Talking to The Daily Star, Imran, who was first to reach the scene, said he could see nothing but pile of soil when he went there.

“All of a sudden, I heard a faint voice of a girl. Instantly, I started to dig the soil and found the hands of Jannat. I then dug further and rescued her,” said the 19-year-old, also a garment worker.

“But I could not rescue anyone else live,” he lamented.

RISKY LIVING

Around the accident spot, some 20 families still live on the hill slopes, including the family of Nasima.

Nasima and several other locals said they knew it was risky to live there but they had no other alternative. 

“Does anyone want to risk his own life?” said Ambia Khatun, who too lives at the foot of the hill there.

“We bought the possession of the land from the leaders of Chhinnamul Samiti to build houses,” she said.

Locals, however, admitted that the administration asked them to move out from the area through loud speakers but no one paid any heed, fearing they would lose their possession.

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