Aila, Shrimp and Failed Mud Walls
Philip Gain and Shekhar Kanti Ray investigate human misery and ecocide on the southwest coast
Abdul Khalil (60), a day labourer in the coastal village of Patakhali in Satkhira, spends sleepless nights with his wife and five children in a flimsy 8x6 ft. hut which he built from the rubble of his house, destroyed by Aila, a tidal surge that struck the southwestern coasts of Bangladesh on May 25, 2009 with devastating effect. Twice a day, during high tide, the land surrounding his tiny hut becomes a pool of water. From a distance, Khalil's hut looks like a dot in the water. As we draw closer, we see the wind and the waves slamming against his makeshift hut. The floor becomes muddy and sometimes water flows through the hut! The whole family then anxiously awaits the ebbing tide that brings some comfort. All that the family is left with are some utensils, a couple of polythene sheets, and a broadcast net. It is inconceivable that anyone would dare to live in such a flimsy hut which a strong gale could easily blow away like a piece of paper. Khalil could not find a suitable place on the embankment (erected first in the sixties) which we could see at a distance filled with a row of makeshift huts. Khalil has no land to grow crops. His family makes a living by collecting shrimp fry from the Kapotakshi River. At one time, farmers used to grow enough rice here. But for the last 15-20 years, only tiger prawn is cultivated. Most of the commercial shrimp growers are city-based. They make huge profits, but are conveniently absent at this time of crisis. Khalil blames them for his sufferings. "The embankment that protects us from the intrusion of saline water has broken in scores of places, mostly at the points where pipes (called gois by the locals) have been illegally set beneath the embankment to bring saline water into the prawn ponds." Abdul Khalil is just one the thousands of coastal people whose homesteads have been destroyed by Aila. As we enter the Aila-hit area, a month after the disaster, we encounter a sea of misery: destroyed houses and despoiled land.
Noabeki Bazar in Shyamnagar upazila of Satkhira district is a big business centre for tens of thousands of people who live in this most vulnerable zone of the southwestern coast. In the east, the huge Kholpetua River flows into the bay. The fish market, in particular, is vibrant with different kinds of prawn -- Harina, Chali, Bagda, Rashna, Chamni, Chaka, and Galda, etc., harvested from rivers, canals and the Sundarban estuaries. These and other white fish (Telapia, Paishe, Tengra, Bhetki, etc.) are bought by the merchants, packed in ice and sent to Dhaka and nearby cities.
At Noabeki Bazar, we talk to Md. Abu Bakar Siddique, headmaster of Patakhali High School of Padmapukur Union in Shyamnagar upazila. Since Aila, his school, marooned in a sea of saline water, has remained closed. Siddique is upset with the mismanagement of the embankment. "This embankment which protects 32,000 people and cropland has not been maintained or repaired for a long time. Worse, the prawn cultivators have set hundreds of gois that have weakened the mud shield which easily collapsed when Aila hit," says Siddique with resentment. "These gois are illegal. The owners of shrimp ponds (gher) manage to set these up by bribing the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) officials." He also observes that the water level during high tide has been increasing. He suggests: "The embankments need to be higher and stronger. These also need to be protected with concrete blocks and a massive green belt. Extensive and indiscriminate prawn aquaculture must be contained. Prawn cultivation should be confined to areas where paddy cultivation is impossible."
From Noabeki Bazar, we board our engine boat anchored at Kholpetua River, one of the big rivers in the Sundarban area. It's a two-hour trip to Patakhali Bazar in Padmapukur union. On our way, we stop at Kamalkathi village. We talk with Aila-affected people who have taken shelter in makeshift houses on the embankment of BWDB. As we jump off our boat, we see the sea of saline water inside the embankment. There is no trace of the prawn ponds that had taken over vast agricultural lands since the late 1980s. The people surround us to narrate their stories of distress. The tide was rising in the mighty Kapotakshi River. The water level on the agricultural land would soon equal that of the river. The embankment is no longer a safety net. Most of the houses of the 340 families in Kamalkathi have been completely destroyed. The fallen trees appear charred. "Most people have taken shelter on the embankment. Most of us are landless day labourers. Before Aila, we used to work in the shrimp farms," tells Gourpada Mondal (37), a resident of the Hindu-majority village. Outsiders own most of the land here and they cultivated only shrimp since 1988, the year when a cyclone hit and flooded the area with saline water. Many in Kamalkathi are aware of negative impacts of extensive shrimp aquaculture. "But we at least had a cash income from shrimp cultivation," says Gourpada Mondal. Dipali Mondol (25) tells us about the unusual tidal surge and wind: "On the day of Aila, the water started swelling before noon. The wind was also blowing with a little rain. I was cooking. Then all of a sudden, I saw water flowing over the embankment. In many places, the flimsy mud wall quickly collapsed. I grabbed my children and struggled against the water to get on the embankment. I saw my house washed away." Dipali Mondol, Konika Mondal (35), Anita Mondal (33) and Giribala Mondal (52) were all day labourers on the shrimp farms. After Aila, they have no work. They now survive on the five kgs of rice they get as relief for embankment repair work. However, they say this is not enough. They are also in a constant state of terror. Twice a day during high tide, water floods the entire area. Undamaged parts of the embankment are the only dry areas. A large part of the embankment in the south of Kamalkathi has been washed away. There is little hope for repair of the damaged embankment during this monsoon season. The villagers were trying to construct a ring road or temporary mud wall around the breach. It was apparent from the sea of water rising over their croplands that their initial efforts had gone in vain. Bishawjit Mondal (45), a village doctor of Kamalkathi, has much the same complaints and suggestions as Md. Abu Bakr Siddique of Noabeki Bazaar.
As we walk along the embankment, we find the whole village has settled upon the only dry strip. People show us the high-water mark, which is a mere one to two feet below the embankment surface. We continue on to the huge breach on the southern edge of the village accompanied by about 50 villagers, their faces full of fear and apprehension. As we look at the devastated village, we see that only the concrete Jhapa High School building is standing, its walls battling against the strong current that rushes through the breach.
We board our boat from the southern edge of the village and move further down the mighty Kholpetua River towards Patakhali Bazar in Padmapukur, one of the most severely affected unions in Shyamnagar upazila. We see many hapless fishers casting their nets in the drowned shrimp farms. The water has risen further and at a distance, we see that the mud-walls raised for protection against the high tide are almost submerged. The water is still flowing strongly onto the cropland. We enter the Chowddoroshi River that connects Kholpetua River in the west and Kapotakshi in the east. We see another long column of makeshift houses on the embankment of the Chowddoroshi River. We get down to see the condition of the people. It is the same story: submerged houses, insufficient relief and lack of drinking water, sanitary latrines and construction materials. We arrive at Patakhali Bazar by mid-day. The tide has just started to ebb. Many men, women and children are catching shrimp fry on the banks of the Kapotakshi River. We have already settled into the hold of our engine boat, where we will sleep, dine and change for the next three days. Our food, soon to come, is being cooked in the engine room, which at night, serves as a bedroom for the crew. After lunch we disembark to take a look inside the embankment (polder no. 7/1). Everything -- roads, shops, houses, and cropland -- is submerged in saline water that has flowed in through scores of embankment breaches.
This is the story of the polders -- low-lying coastal land surrounded by embankments. In the early 1960s, East Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (EPWAPDA), which became the BWDB after independence, surrounded coastal croplands with embankments. Some 100 polders were created on the coasts to provide protection to cropland and increase crop yield. Inside the polder, we ride on a small rowing boat from the Bazar. Initially, our boat floats above the main brick-road in Padmapukur that goes under water at high tide. On our right is Chandipur village and on the left is Patakhali. Everything is under water. On the few houses that still stand somehow, we see the mark up to which Aila waters rose, denoted by the damage to the earthen walls. We do not see any undamaged house. Some homesteads have been completely flattened; only the homestead trees mark the places where that once stood. Next, we take a tour of the embankment. Here again, the gois are singled out as the main culprit. Near every goi, a small canal is also dug so that water can easily makes its way through the pipe. We also see some properly built sluice gates that easily survived the tidal surge.
Early morning of June 26, we head for Jorshingh Bazar at South Bedkashi union in Koyra, the last southern upazila in the Khulna district, bordering the Sundarbans. Hundreds of fishing boats are on their routine runs on the river. As our boat goes downstream, we see water pouring into the river through the breaches in the embankment of polder 14/1.
On our right is Gabura union (in Shyamnagar upazila), nestled inside one of the worst affected polders (No. 15). As we reach the southeastern corner of Gabura, we see hundreds of people catching shrimp fries. The southeastern end of the embankment also marks the end of Napitkhali village.
Our boat anchors in the muddy confluence of the Kapotakshi and Kholpetua rivers. We disembark to take photographs and speak to the fry catchers. Most of them are children. They are usually in the water from around five to nine every morning. Everyone is thoroughly soaked and red-eyed, a result of prolonged exposure to saline water. The fry of tiger prawns they catch are raised in shrimp ponds on their cropland. When mature, the prawn is harvested and sold for export. "Most of the 430 families of Napitkhali are landless. We work on the shrimp farms or catch shrimp seedlings from the river," says Mizanur Moral (30), a shrimp fry collector of Kholpetua.
Aila has thoroughly devastated Gabura union. As far as we could see, all the houses had either collapsed or been washed away. "Earlier, commercial shrimp farming had displaced all the crops and most of the vegetation. Now Aila has also devastated the shrimp farms, making us jobless. We survive on cereals that come from outside," says Moral. "Aila has taken our houses and whatever assets we had. We all have taken shelter on the embankment and are surviving on relief from government and NGOs. Whatever small earning we have is from shrimp fry harvesting."
Daud Gazi (65) has six members of his family to feed. He complains, "Aila has flooded all the shrimp farms. Buyers are not coming here nowadays and we don't get a fair price for our catch. Yesterday, I earned only Tk.50." Before the invasion of the shrimp culture some 15 years back, he had a fairly good income from the little land (30 decimals) that he owned. "Times were much better then. When landlords used to cultivate rice, we had lots of work. This area was self-sufficient in food," recollects Gazi. The people of Naptakhali have many grievances against shrimp cultivators. "The saline water trapped inside the polder for growing shrimp is at the root of our misery and poses a serious threat to nature. Better days will come again only if shrimp farming stops."
Next, we head south for South Bedkashi union in Koyra upazila. The embankment on our left is crowded with makeshift huts of Aila-affected people. To our right are the Sundarbans, the single largest mangrove forest in the world. We turn left at the confluence of the Kapotakshi and Sakbaria rivers and enter the Sakbaria River where we face a strong ebb tide current. The river is crowded with small boats, harvesting shrimp seedlings with stationary gears. Many women and children are harvesting shrimp fry with push and pull nets. Our boat pushes on toward our destination, Jorshingh Bazar. On the left we pass Angtihara, a coast guard station and customs checkpoint. Ships going to and from India stop here for customs clearance.
Soon, we reach Jorsingh Bazar. We see hundreds of people trying to repair the damaged embankment at two locations. Last October (2008), when we visited Jorsingh, it was under water. A rupture in the embankment had flooded all the shrimp ponds. The village has since remained under water. Now Aila has thoroughly destroyed the whole South Bedkashi union of 24,000 people. It becomes a sea of water at high tide.
As we walk south along the embankment from Jorshingh Bazar, we are shocked at the scene of devastation. Everything is ruined. The embankment is now their only refuge. At one spot, we see some people racing against the rising tide to repair the embankment to save some houses from being inundated.
A number of men are fishing with broadcast nets in the Sakbaria River. After Aila flooded all of the shrimp ponds, millions of grown Tiger Prawn were dispersed in the rivers and canals. Tiger Prawns caught are immediately sent for sale at the rate of Tk.600 per kg. On the embankment, we come across a group of some 20 people under the shade of a house made from bamboo and Nypa palm, selling and buying shrimp fry caught from the rivers and canals of the Sundarbans. Here, a tiny syndicate, locally called SET, controls the prices. We find that the price of per thousand fry of Tiger Prawn, or Bagda, is fixed for the day (June 25) at Tk.210; before Aila, the prices were Tk.500 to Tk.600 per thousand. Harvesters are helpless against this mafia. We move further south along the embankment, crowded by makeshift houses. All 12 villages in South Bedkashi union have been equally damaged by Aila. "Aila destroyed everything we had. Our house has been washed away. The trees that had survived the shrimp farming have now been destroyed by Aila. We can go home only if the embankment is properly repaired; otherwise we will have to abandon our homes," says Rafeza Begum (34) who has taken shelter on the embankment with her husband, daughter and three sons. Satbaria River separates Rafeza's polder from the Sunderbans, home to some 500 Royal Bengal Tigers. Rafeza has only once sighted a tiger across the river but she often hears them roaring in the distance. The people of South Bedkashi have always braved the Sundarbans for fish, honey and wood. After Aila, the people of this area have become more dependent on the forest. "Aided by our eldest son, who has stopped attending school, my husband regularly goes into the Sundarbans to fish. Although his income usually ranges from Tk 100 to 500 Takas a day, there are days when he comes back empty-handed," says Rafeza who waits anxiously for the return of her husband and son from Sundarbans. She and her two school-going children also contribute to the family income by catching shrimp fry from the river. This is a risky undertaking as crocodiles have taken four lives in this area in recent years. However, the tiger is the most feared predator. Most of its victims (averaging about 100 every year) are fishermen, honey-collectors and woodcutters of the Southwest region known as the "man-tiger conflict zone."
The people in Jorshingh and other places in the southwest coast of Bangladesh have similar complaints about shrimp cultivation and the corruption and mismanagement of the BWDB officials. They do not mention global warming and they have no idea if the changing climate has caused the disaster.
"Dakshin (South) Bedkashi union with a population of 24,000 is protected by 27 kilometres of embankment, of which 9 kilometres have been completely damaged by Aila and the rest are partially damaged. The embankment has ruptured [in 23 points] mainly at the gois," complained Shamsur Rahman, chairman of Bedkashi union.
Another serious concern in this union is that all of its cultivable land is now employed only for shrimp farming. The land, protected by embankments since the 1960s, once produced surplus rice, vegetables, and other crops which could be sold for cash. But today, nothing is grown. Everything has to be bought from outside. Households that once reared cows, goats, and other domestic animals have none left today.
Nasir Gazi (80) of Jorshingh led a prosperous life with 26 acres of land. Ten years ago, he grew plenty of rice and vegetables and sold the surplus, he had many cattle. He was comparatively rich.
"Today, nothing is grown on our land. In the past, people from other districts would come to assist us, especially during rice harvest. Now we have to work for others during harvest for some cereal. Our cow-sheds are empty," laments Gazi. "We are in such a dire situation due to prawn cultivation that brought us good cash in the beginning. Now we understand it was a fatal mistake to get into the business of extensive shrimp cultivation." He gazes at the mangrove forests across the Satbaria River.
"We now depend on the Sundarbans for firewood, timber and fishing. But the mangroves are getting depleted rapidly," says Gazi. "We want to return to farming but the current government policy does not help us in this regard."
"We must go back to agriculture," concurs Shamsur Rahman. "This is urgent both for our survival and the protection of the Sundarbans. In the absence of agriculture, everyone has become dependent upon the Sundarbans."
According to Rahman, the embankment has ruptured in some 23 places. Some of the breaches developed after Sidr in 2007 and were never repaired by BWDB. "Worse, the BWDB starts work in the rainy season which is a very inappropriate time for repair-work. Also, the outside contractors do not supervise the work regularly," criticises Rahman.
In the afternoon, at high tide, we take a boat ride through the floating Jorshingh village. As our boat paddles through the village, we sometimes stay on the submerged main road and sometimes on the cropland. We find all houses severely damaged. Almost all of the villagers have taken shelter on the embankment, their only remaining lifeline. In some places, parts of the embankment have been completely washed away, creating isolated strips. We visit one such strip in the southern part of the village where 12 Hindu families have taken shelter. Here we meet Gita Mondal (53) catching shrimp fry in the river. Her daughter-in-law, Shaibya Rani Mondal (25) helps to sort the catch. Gita's family once owned 16.5 acres of land, most of which has been swallowed up by the river. Aila robbed them of their remaining one acre. Now they have nothing and fishing is their only means of survival.
In Bedkashi union, there are 85 Munda (an ethnic community) families, all of whom, save one, are landless. They make a living by catching crabs and fish from the canals of the Sundarbans and working in the shrimp farms. They have also been severely affected by Aila, although 13 houses with concrete bases built by an NGO have survived.
"All my three houses have been destroyed. Our 1.65-acre shrimp farm has been completely damaged. It is difficult for me to maintain my large family (six sons and two girls) in this situation. A Catholic priest from Shyamagar has given shelter to my sons. The others collect crabs and shrimp fry," says Phulbasi Munda (50).
We anchor at Patakhali Bazaar for the night. When we wake up on June 26, the tide is ebbing. We see hundreds of men trying to repair a huge breach in the embankment in the northern side of Patakhali Bazar. This repair effort has been going on since Aila, but has not yet proven successful. People doubt whether the embankment can be fixed before winter when tide pressure is minimal.
One of the workers, Shawkat Hossain (53), says accusingly, "It is the 18-inch diametre pipe set illegally underneath the embankment that has caused the rupture at this location."
Wahiduzzaman (31), one of the supervisors, says, "Around 200 labourers are working under my supervision. Each gets 5 kgs of rice per day, worth Tk.100. This pay is insufficient and should be raised to Tk.150. These labourers are all locals and struggling to protect their homes."
On the way to southern Patakhali, we meet S.M. Wahiduzzaman (40), a carpenter by profession, who is collecting mud at the mouth of a goi on the banks of the Kapotakshi River. Like everyone else, he blames the gois for the embankment breaches.
Mobarak Ali (52), a local shrimp farm owner and supporter of shrimp aquaculture, recounts the history of shrimp farming: "Some twenty years ago, we opted for shrimp farming because rice yield was not satisfactory due to drought and excessive rain. Shrimp has brought us cash; we can buy all we need from nearby Noabeki Bazar." Ali does not agree that the the gois are solely to blame for the embankment ruptures. According to him, the inaction and mismanagement of the BWDB is also responsible.
As our engine boat heads down the Kholpetual River, we see water rushing in through a huge breach in the embankment beside Jhapa village. Some 670 families (mostly Hindus) have taken shelter on the embankment. Here, Provash Chandra Mondal (58) narrates the same tale of Aila devastation of shrimp farms and the severe lack of basic amenities. He also blames the gois for their plight.
As we finally set off for Noabeki Bazar, the rising tide is at its peak and there is water everywhere. The only piece of dry land is the strip of embankment in the distance, hardly two feet above water- level.
Gabura, with 38,000 people, is the last union in Satkhira district facing the bay and bordered by the Sundarbans in the south. Surrounded by the Kapotakshi to the east, Kholpetua to the south and west and Choddorashi to the north -- the union has 27 kilometres of embankments surrounding it, the only defence against intrusion of sea water. A month after Aila, when we enter the Union at Mallickpara ferry jetty in the east, we find it reduced to rubble. We walk along Kachharibari CARE road. On our left is Jaliakhali village and on our right, the remains of Gabura village.
"Around 75% people of this union are engaged in the shrimp business. Poor people work in the shrimp farms and collect shrimp fry from the river. The day Aila hit, the embankment around our union collapsed at 26 points. About 70 people died in my ward and many are still missing. We still find skeletons of unidentified bodies in the field," says Atiar Rahman (34) of Gabura village. Since Aila, there has been a severe drinking water crisis. "Ours is the only ward out of nine in the union that has a source of pure drinking water," says Rahman. Like others, Rahman also holds the gois primarily responsible for ruptures in the embankment. He wants shrimp cultivation stopped and rice cultivation resumed. The eastern part of Gabura union is a scene of complete destruction. At high tide, everything is submerged. There are no crops and the once lucrative shrimp farms have been destroyed. Didarul Islam (27) of Lebubunia village recollects, "The embankment in front of our house broke and houses of forty families in our part of the village, including mine, were completely destroyed. My 2.5-acre shrimp farm and a 19-acre white fish farm I bought this year have been flooded. My losses amount to Taka half million (US$7,200). I don't know how I will start my business again. I can resume only if the road is repaired."
We return to Gabura in September (2009), only to find the area in worse condition. This time we enter from the west. Local people report that the major rupture has widened and the mud wall, the lifeline of the people of Gabura, has further eroded and narrowed. Our engine boat heads for Khalishabunia, a village about two kilometres east of the embankment. Everywhere, we see the ruins of houses, roads, and vegetation. In Khalishabunia, we find the only concrete shelter, built by Caritas Bangladesh years ago, extremely crowded. As we stand upon the shelter roof, we are appalled at the scene of devastation.
"53 people were killed by Aila in this union; 91 went missing. There are no houses, apart from the concrete ones, left intact. Everyone in this union -- rich and poor -- has been affected," says G.M. Nawsher Ali Gain, former chairman of Gabura Union. He also blames prawn cultivation for their plight and suggests that a stronger embankment and a green belt should be built immediately.
Sitarani Mohaldar lives in the coastal village of Singhertali. The onslaught of water unleashed by Aila breached the embankment and obliterated her house and kitchen garden in a matter of minutes. After Aila, a ring road (curved mud wall) was built around Sitarani's part of the village to prevent intrusion of saline water. Everyone worked together to raise the ring road and repair the damaged parts of the enbankment. This was a unique achievement which other affected unions have not been able to replicate.
Her village, already barren due to extensive prawn aquaculture, had now gone through an unprecedented catastrople. Sitarani and her family took shelter at a schoolhouse; she was still there in September 2009. She was then hoping to settle on some khas (government) land. Eight years ago, Sitarani's father and four siblings left for India after they lost their cultivable land to river erosion. In all, 25 families from Singhertali migrated to India. They now live in Gouranga Nagar near the Dum Dum Airport, reports Sitarani who often visits her father. "Life is risky here, but we can at least earn some cash. In India it is difficult to make a living. My father and others want to come back," says Sitarani, who sometimes catches prawn fries from the river and often braves the Sundarbans for collection of firewood. During these outings, man-eating tigers and crocodiles are an ever-present threat.
Kanika Biswas (30), an Indian girl married to Ambika Biswas blames the gois for the destruction of her three houses.
"Shrimp cultivation has finished us. We will survive only if shrimp farming stops," says Gunadhar Biswas, secretary of the Singhertali Eco-committee of Caritas Bangladesh, a national NGO that developed an eco-village here under the UNDP-financed Sustainable Environment Management Project (SEMP). The eco-village was rased to the ground by Aila.
Even many of the shrimp farmers acknowledge the negative effects of shrimp cultivation. Uday Kumar Mondol of Singhertali has been in this trade for the last 12 years but admits, "Shrimp farming has robbed us of peace of mind. This will be restored only if shrimp cultivation stops and rice cultivation resumes. We could even produce two crops a year using fresh water from the tubewells."
Some shrimp farmers are trying to revert to traditional agriculture. Parimal Mondal of nearby Harinagar Village started shrimp aquaculture on his 3-acre cropland in 1982. The majority of farmers in his village did the same. Years later, they started feeling the detrimental effects. Farmers stopped producing crops and vegetables; livestock disappeared from the entire village. In 2003, Parimal, with the aid of a shallow engine [donated by Caritas Bangladesh] resumed rice and vegetable cultivation on half of his land. His cowshed is once again filled with cattle. About 100 families in Harinagar have followed Parimal's example. "Villagers now realise that we must stop extensive shrimp aquaculture and go back to our traditional, sustainable agriculture if we want to live in a healthy environment," says Parimal.
Sanjib Mondal, an agriculturist based in Munshigonj Union, reiterates the importance of stopping (or at least containing) shrimp cultivation and returning to sustainable agriculture and better maintenance of embankments.
Padmapupur Union (Shyamnagar Upazila, Satkhira): village-15, Population-31,895; voters-14,000; Polder No- 7/1, division-2, Water Development Board, Satkhira; Chairman- Amjadul Islam Amjad;
Gabura Union (Shyamnagar Upazila, Satkhira): village-17, Population-37,651,000; voters-23,000; Polder No- ; Chairman- Shafiqul Islam Lenin;
Dakshin Bendkashi (Koyra Upazila, Khulna): village-14, Population-36,700; Polder No- 23, Water Development Board, Satkhira; hairman- Shafiqul Islam Lenin.
Philip Gain is the Director of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) Shekhar Kanti Ray is a training and program officer, SEHD.