Coping with riverbank erosion disaster

In Bangladeshriverbank erosion is a regular phenomenon which is located in the delta of some of the world’s largest rivers like the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. According to CEGIS, 88,780 hectares of lands had been eroded along the Brahmaputra, 27,990 hectares along the Padma and 38,510 hectares along their distributaries between 1973 and 2007 .About 15 to 20 million people are at risk from the effects of erosionin the country while about 1 million people living in 94 Upazila’s are directly affected by riverbank erosionevery year. As per different sources, 500 kilometers of river banks face severe problems related to erosion. The northwest part of the country is particularly prone to river bank erosion which turned the region into the most economically depressed area. About 1 million people are directly affected by river erosion disaster each year and landlessness could be high as much as 70% in these areas.
River bank erosion contributes immensely to the marginalization process of a large number in the population of the country by displacing households, and adversely affecting their social and economical circumstances, triggering the flow of migration and increased urban poverty as consequences. Although numbers of policy and acts have been formulated with the aim of addressing of needs of marginalized people, the country is far behind in developing appropriate guideline for addressing the causes and consequences of river bank erosion disaster. Unfortunately, river bank erosion does not draw the attention of the government and non-government agencies as the other disasters do.
The affected people do not have enough access for the institutional supports, are in any rehabilitation programmes only in a small scalewhile the issue gets overlooked most of the time. In every case, the issue has been overlooked that the affected people loss their materials as well as their social status, dignity, neighbours and communication. When they are displaced from their birth places, they immediately get disconnected from their income sources, rights of the lands, food production and other livelihood options which force them to engage with new livelihood activities through distant migration resulting in loss oftheir social dignity, contacts and communication, level of income. Their children are also disconnected with education and they are denied water-sanitation-hygiene and other basic needs.
As part of their coping mechanism, the affected people depend on their local knowledge and strategies. When rainy season comes and if erosion begins, they startshifting their belongings to other safer places. The households experiencing river bank erosion first send away their women and children to safety. Those who have access to boat and manpower may save partly their belonging while others lose everything.
Immediate post-disaster settlement is temporary where households move and few of them have the capacity to buy new lands while most of them continue in temporary shelter for long. For coping in post disaster, most of the households are forced to sell their personal belongings to survive after displacement. Place of resettlement completely depends on their networks, availability of the options, social kinships while other factors impact on the choice of destination. They get inappropriate supports from government and NGOsto relocate.Creditand loans from relatives and neighbours are also woefully short of need.
Government initiatives for these unfortunate people are mainly focused on some subsidy programs like relief distribution, Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF), Vulnerable Group Development (VGD), etc. However these programmesare often inadequate, disorganized, politicized, adhoc and ineffective. Thus, there is much scope for improvement of government initiatives. A close coordination is the prerequisite to reduce the problems among different local government institutions. On the other hand, a very few Non-government Organizations (NGOs) have specific programmes targeting those affected by river bank erosion although NGO provide enormous efforts for addressing the other disasters both natural and man-made.
The government of Bangladesh should include river bank erosion disaster in its five yearprogramme and a clear vision should be set for addressing this silent disaster. A data base is required to assess the magnitude of river bank erosion and the number of people affected from this. A national habitat policy should be formulated that would ensure the shelter needs of thousands of people displaced every year. In all these phases, local government agencies should play the lead role while they should have the statistics of possible affected people who are living in risky sides of rivers. Along with these, local government agencies should be decentralized and have the capacity along with accountability mechanism with the aim of reducing vulnerability, quicker and effective response.
Besides these broader aspects, it is immediately needed to implement some activities in the river bank erosion prone areas. The same should include early warning systems in all the critical zones and monitoring at critical periods using the local knowledge, establishment of embankment or spurs in the whole erosion affected areas, alternative employment opportunities related to fishing and industry and initiatives to distribute ‘khas’ land to most vulnerable people. This ‘Khas’ land distribution programme may reduce the flow of migration to urban areas.
During rehabilitation of the affected community in the erosion prone areas, there should be addressed the resettlement plan with income generating activities, developing of health care facilities, services and education needs. NGOs can extend supports for providing flexible credit schemes to the affected people so that they can immediately restart their income generating activities. NGOs can provide their effort for right based advocacy campaign so that affected people can be encouraged to demand their access to education, health care, water-sanitation and work opportunities as part of their rights, not just relief.
Considering the magnitude and intensity of the problem, it is high time to develop national level strategies for better adjustment with riverbank erosion disasters. It is fact that river bank erosion is a silent disaster and the major reason for this comes from nature. But we can fight against the forces of nature and develop strategies to ward off the consequences.