How a joint effort to rebuild the Goroikhali-Gangrothi embankment shows the need for locally led adaptation
The Khudkhali point of Goroikhali-Gangrothi embankment located at Goroikhali union in Paikgacha, Khulna is a very important site for the locality. The embankment is on the fast-flowing Shibsa river, a 100 KM long river forming much of the boundary between Paikgacha and Dacope sub-districts. This particular Khudkhali part of the embankment has saved thousands of households within and surrounding unions from disasters mainly cyclone, tidal surge, salinity, and waterlogging.
“The embankment at ‘Khudkhali’ point was severely damaged during cyclone Aila in 2009. Around 200 metres of the embankment was damaged, but it affected thousands of households in more than 20 villages. The devastating experience we had in a couple of years that followed, completely changed the livelihood of the community in the surrounding villages in that short span,” said Sahabuddin Gain, the Union Parishad member of that respective ward.
The damage of the embankment resulted in the villages of Gorolkhali and Loskor union to be fully inundated, while Amadi, Bagali and Moheshwaripur Unions were partially inundated by cyclone Aila in 2009. With the embankment not being taken care of for almost next two years during high tide and the area being flooded every day resulted in salinity intrusion. With regular saline water intrusion, the salinity both in water and soil had increased in the area and, it changed the agricultural pattern drastically. “You have probably heard about ‘Watermelon from Shanta’ – that was very popular all over the country. The wholesalers from Dhaka would come here and procure the watermelon even from the ground. But it has almost been a history now, and that’s because of Aila. Though year by year we’re recovering, it is a slow process compared to the way we did previously”, said Sahabuddin Gain.
So, how are they recovering?
The embankment is under the portfolio of the Water Development Board (WDB). So, WDB is the sole authority to do any work on the embankment. The Union Parishad (UP), the local government structure cannot take any initiative except minor repair for the embankment. “But local people always put pressure on us; they demand repair and rehabilitation of the embankment which is a demand that we can not fully satisfy. So, each year we do some repair work through the ‘cash for work’ program as we find it very important. Besides, we try to mobilize the block fund for early action from upazilla parishad which is distributed immediately before the disaster. This falls short of the the demand on the ground”, said Ruhul Amin Bishwas, the Union Parishad Chairman.
Since Aila, the UP with the support from the community has tried hard to repair the embankment to save these large communities and villages. But with the resources and voluntary services, the maximum they could repair is raising the embankment by 2-3 feet. But the embankment starts getting eroded as soon as the monsoon starts. “The soil quality is not that good here, it contains low moisture. It gets dry rapidly but as soon the water drops, it gets melted like ice-cream, and the soil salinity is also a concern. So, whatever we repair, it is get nearly completely lost again during the next monsoon. It will sustain if the embankment is developed with additional materials such as wood, bamboo, sandbag, and concrete blocks”, said Bishwas. But it does not necessarily mean that they have been waiting for the WDB to come forward with these. They have capitalized on a disaster as an opportunity for the repair work of this embankment.
“It was 2019, you can probably recall ‘Cyclone Fani’. We were very worried as soon as we started getting the early warning. We all knew that if there is any damage at Khudkhali point, all the villages will get inundated again and all the crops will be lost overnight. I feel lucky that we had very active Disaster Management Committees here”, said Ruhul Amin Bishwas. The Disaster Management Committee at the Union level had emergency meetings, and then there were Ward-level disaster management committees as well, which were active and functional with the support from NGOs and different projects working here. The committees had a consensus to work for the embankment jointly as this would save almost all of them in the union. They communicated with the upazilla administration as well for support for the work.
“We have allocated an amount of block fund for early action, as the UP appealed. I supervised the work very closely and I was excited at the power of the community. It was unbelievable that thousands of community men and women arrived there to do voluntary work. They worked for 24 hours over day and night. That’s impressive”, said Julia Sukayna, the then Upazilla Nirbahi Officer (Sub-district Administrative Officer) of Paikgacha sub-district. The embankment was raised around three feet at that time. Immediately after the cyclone, the UP allocated ‘40 days cash for work program’ for additional work. And, then it was raised around five feet high in total, which is quite resilient against such types of cyclone and tidal surge. With the joint effort from the community, ward and union level disaster management committees and support from the upazliia administration embankment was saved from cyclone Fani.
“See, we worked for 3-4 days, it was hard work, but we knew that if we could save the embankment, our life and livelihood would be saved for all year-round. You can see it now as you look into the field, it was different two years ago”, said Rita Mondol about the agricultural land. Within the last couple of years before the cyclone they could cultivate only bitter gourd, eggplant, ladies’ finger, spinach and pumpkin; but after that cyclone watermelon, onion, sesame, almond, sweet potato, sunflower were added. With hope in his eyes and full of pride Nimai Sana, a farmer from the Goroikhali union said, “We hope we will be able to recover the history of watermelon from this area again, if the embankment is well-maintained.”
“This was a joint effort; it was a comprehensive work. See, all were here, the community without whom we UP itself could not manage it. How were they motivated? There is a number of projects that are on-going on climate change and disaster preparedness by the NGOs. These make them aware and sensitized to taking actions. So, they joined us actively. The projects were also supported from backstage. The Disaster Management Committees at ward and union level were active because of support from different sectors”, said Sima Rani Bishwas.
There were community risk analysis and risk reduction action plans which were incorporated in the local development plan of the UP. Then the community and different disaster management committees advocated for resources and actions with different stakeholders including UP, upazilla administration, WDB and other line departments at upazilla level. From time to time, the civil society platforms submit petitions, organize public hearing which creates peer pressure on the mandated authority. “But we don’t have any scope to be happy only with this. This is important to look forward to as we know the intensity of cyclones is increasing because of climate change; we’re experiencing a higher level of tidal surge gradually. So, we must influence the respective authority to take action considering those issues. Nonetheless, our efforts will go in vain”, added Bishwas.
Joint efforts are important to address the ongoing impacts of climate change and disasters. The account of comunity living along the Goroikhali-Gangrothi embankment and how they used their knowledge to locally adapt to their problem only reinstates the need for locally led adaptation, where acions should be locally owned.
Ashish Barua is working with Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation as Programme Manager, Climate Change and DRR, his research interest lies in Empowerment, Justice and Social Equities. Can be reached at [email protected]
Md Kamruzzaman Khan is working in Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Center (BDPC) as a Field Coordinator, his research interest lies in Climate Change and DRR. Can be reached at [email protected]