Back in 2020, I had visited Bangladesh. A few of my friends had taken me to see the massive Jamuna Bridge over the river Jamuna. As we crossed the bridge, we entered a village and a few farms. We stopped near one of them and had decided to take a walk through. This farm was spectacular, yellowing with dense crops. But it was also precariously stretched across the jagged unfenced edge overlooking the river Jamuna; it was literally on the river. It looked like a rooftop to me without any safety railings. A man was working on it, who was also sitting too close to the land’s edge, next to the river. I went up to him and asked his name. It was Ghoni Miah; he said this was his farm.
I found this scenario spellbinding. I asked him if he’d ever felt vulnerable for being so close to the river. He smiled at me and told me that this was his only source of income, a way of life. Although he would describe it as living dangerously, there was another kind of looming danger. That was – what the river was actually doing to his farm? That was far more chilling.
“What did the river exactly do”? I wanted to know.
“The river breaks away small chunks of land by the minute,” Ghoni Miah had said. It sounded too surreal, but I had also witnessed it, standing on its precipice, the waves breaking into its shore and engulfing a piece several feet below where his farm stood. It took small chunks of the soil which were slowly being unplugged from the mainland. They plummeted sluggishly straight into the riverbed. The river was galvanizing the soil bit by bit at its every wavering slap.
What I saw was unbelievable and rare for me. For Ghoni Miah though, this was an everyday occurrence. He observed how his farm took a beating as a result of the riverbank erosions. This was seriously hair-raising, he understood that but was powerless to stop it. His yellowing farm was narrowing by the day, and he was having to live through these experiences. This had been an agonizingly drawn out issue without any long-term solution, not just for him but many farmers like him who had their farms on the brink of such river banks as Brahmaputra and Meghna, too.
I felt, I had trapped myself in some kind of a free-wheeling-down-the-tract, bizarre time warp. I panicked thinking whether or not, this bank slide was preventable in anyway. I gathered that this must have had an effect on his house as well, along with the farmland, and the crops, all at the mercy of nature and God. This country was losing its vital soil, even as we speak.
Such bank erosions happened, typically when rivers meandered, braided and oscillated. The fact that in monsoon prone countries such as Bangladesh, which was also a Delta, was already under the sea level. When the water levels rose during the floods and overflowed the banks, it caused much harm to the soil, depleting it, even at the risk of changing the geological outline to a certain extent.
I asked, “What was a river braid and why did it cause for the banks to erode or slide?” The farmer didn’t have the answer, which lead me to do some research. The Jamuna, for instance, was a braided river. I came across an interesting report written by M Aminul Islam, Environment Land Use and Natural Hazards in Bangladesh, University of Dhaka, 1995; Muhammad Zahir Mamun and ATM Nurul Amin, Densification, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1999; Environment and GIS Support Project for Water Sector Planning (EGIS), Riverine Chars in Bangladesh, The University Press Limited, 2000: National Enclyclopedia of Bangladesh. It said the following about braiding and how it actually effected bank erosion.
“The Jamuna is a braided river with bank materials that are highly susceptible to erosion. Since the Brahmaputra switched to the course of the Jamuna at the western side of the madhupur tract, the average width of the river has fluctuated substantially. The recorded minimum average width of the Jamuna was 5.6 km in 1914. Locally, the maximum width has often exceeded 15 km, while the recorded local minimum width was about 1.1km. The rate of widening of the river within the period 1973 to 2000 is 128m/year (68m for the left bank and 60m for the right bank). The annual rate of widening has been as high as 184m during 1984-92, of which 100m occurred along the left and 84m along the right bank. In this period, the average width of the river increased from 9.7 to 11.2 km (Table 2). The maximum bank erosion during 1984-92 occurred at the left bank, just upstream of Aricha. Both rotation and extension bank erosion mechanisms do occur.”
Gazing down at the bottom, I saw some feeble attempts at constructing a wall against the land mass with sand bags. These were embankments, placed at the foot of that precipice, along with bamboo reinforcements to save the soil. I also saw that the continuous wave slamming, inevitably weakened the embankment; the wall bags were becoming soggy, wallowing in mud and slowly slithering into the river. The river’s ever gentle clash with the land was so persuasive, as was its strong undercurrent, that the embankment was on the brink of collapsing.
Although the river was calm today, it still pulled away some valuable soil out of the gap between the bamboo fortifications: the bamboos were tied to the land mass in such a way that there was ample gap between each bamboo, leaving a lot of the land exposed. This repeated riverine motions were depleting the land.
Community Impact of Soil Erosion
A recent research shows how this erosion impacts the community in general throughout the country. The following was derived from Bangladesh Riverbank Erosion: Disaster Community Sheet.
Displacement is the immediate impact of riverbank erosion. Many people are unable to shift their houses and household items due to sudden collapse of land in the river. Among those whose shelters end up falling into the river, as the riverbanks are pushed further back, only a few people are able to find new shelters while others become homeless for an uncertain period. People often migrate to nearby areas at first and then move further away or migrate to Bogra (the largest nearby centre in the north of Bangladesh) or the urban centres of Dhaka and Chittagong (Unnayan). Along with shelters, people lose basic commodities such as cooking facilities and utensils, measures of prevention for vector borne diseases (such as mosquito nets), as well as other necessities. It is important to support the affected population with these necessities in order to prevent longer term illnesses such as malnutrition or vector borne diseases. Additionally, the loss of clothes is likely to impact women and girls substantially, as it affects their dignity.
And what did this loss of soil mean for our Ghoni Miah? He must move, and inch his abode further away from the outskirts of the river. He had to pull out the stumps of his hut and rebuild new homes on safer grounds as long as the new ground was safe. I asked him where his last hut was before he moved it. He pointed at many different random spots, mostly out on the open river. As a result of this, his farm yielded less crops, and brought in less money. The socio-economic impact was huge, not to mention the constant fear of slowly losing land. Displacements were common. The ground beneath my feet was slipping in real time, as it were, with these steady landslides.
How do the stakeholders engage to address this issue throughout the country?
The following report was sourced from International Organisation for Migration (IOM), titled: Grass Planting Reduces Soil Erosion: Risks of Landslides in Rohinya Refugee Camp which states that: In Cox’x Bazar, over two million vetiver grass plants have been distributed by International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and UN Migration agency.
A further two million plants will be given to local and international NGOs for distribution before the end of May, following the initial success of the project, which has local vetiver suppliers struggling to keep up with demand.
In its slow but sure raid, Ghoni Miah’s loss of the farm was enough to gauge the intrinsic peculiarities of the rivers and their impacts on the riverbank erosions. Ghoni Miah’s threadbare existence imposed a far greater risk for his homeland – a small country of only 148,460 km², which could disintegrate into the depths of the rivers sooner than we think.
That threat was very real.