With rising seas and storm surges due to frequent cyclones swallowing up their land and destroying livelihood options, families scraping a living through farming crab and shrimp in one of the world’s largest mangrove forests are fighting to survive.
Datinakhali rests on the edge of the Bangladeshi Sundarbans in the town of Shyamnagar, Satkhira. The small village is a gateway towards the great Sundarbans — one of the most beautiful places on earth, but the families eking out a living in its waters are buffeted by one problem after another.
Being on the frontline of the climate crisis, rising sea levels and erosion due to the hungry storm surges claim more and more land each year in Datinakhali. Salt infiltrates the drinking water and imbues the vegetables with a sharp tang. There was no one in this village whose houses and properties didn’t wash away in the cyclones like Aila and Amphan in the past decade.
Around Datinakhali, the aquaculture industry dominates the landscape, surrounded by an earthen patchwork of shrimp ponds and soft-shell crab farms. Livestock, goats and chicken-common in almost every household in rural Bangladesh is also a rare sight here. The smell of crab and fish waste permeates the hot and humid air as children run barefoot through the barren area just alongside the river.
Mosammet Asma Khatun from DatinaKhali has watched the river swallow up 20 bigha (0.6 acre) chunks of ancestral land in the past decade as an aftermath of Cyclone Aila in 2009 and Amphan in 2020. Her family struggled to survive after a crumbling riverbank forced them to abandon their home and move to a new part of the river bank. She now lives on rented land in a makeshift shed pieced together with iron sheeting with a constant fear of her remaining shelter being washed away. As she does not have a piece of land to call home, thereby cannot afford the luxury to raise livestock due to not having a safe space to rear them.
Every year, Asma faces climate-induced natural disasters in the form of cyclones, river erosion, flood, tidal surges, and sea-level rise, bringing countless overbearing socio-economic challenges, increased risk of poverty and emotional stress for her family. She broke into tears when recollecting the memories from Amphan last year, which took everything she had.
"The tide took everything from us”, says Asma Khatun as she points to a missing arc of land from the muddy embankment. “We build our properties with hard-earned money, but all is lost."
On May 20, 2020, a strong cyclone Amphan hit coastal Bangladesh destroying a total of 440 kilometres of road and 76 kilometres of embankment in the coastal area, affecting many families like Asma’s. The tidal water entered the village unhindered through the collapsed embankment inundating the roads and people's houses on its way-tearing down the village into pieces. More than 55,600 homes were completely destroyed, and at least 162,000 homes were partially damaged. Amphan displaced over 100,000 people — with more than half still sheltering with friends and relatives at the end of May.
When the storm subsided and Asma returned along with her family, it was already too late. She found nothing but waist-high water. Not even the remnants of her old house. Persistent erosion by the hungry tides had gobbled up huge chunks of land and washed away several houses situated along the river bank. All she could see was river water, under which all her savings, belongings and shelter went away. “I have no soil beneath my feet,” she said. “My relatives' homes are now under water too.” Asma said.
Road communication in the area had been weakened after the cyclone. The paved road was broken into pieces, the brick soling road had been washed away by the tidal waters. In many places there were no roads left at all. The whole area seemed to have become a remote village further hampering the relief and rescue missions.
Furthermore, surface water, the main source of water in the coastal region of Satkhira became contaminated by saline water intrusion from the river. Collecting drinking water seemed to have become as difficult as collecting three meals a day. Displaced locals struggled to manage roofs over them. Many people of the area had to live temporarily in different places for the next six months after the cyclone. Some in cyclone shelters, some in school or madrasa buildings. Asma’s brother still lives temporarily near the road embankment and her father lives in the school building losing all his land. Others were not lucky enough. After losing their houses to the river, the boats have become their last refuge. They managed their cooking in temporary stoves and a gas burner attached to a propane tank in the corner of their boats.
Apart from making people homeless, the dual attack of Amphan and the impact of Covid 19 had triggered the livelihood crisis of low-income people in the area. Two crops were hit hard. Shrimp farmers suffered major losses. Exportable items like crab and shrimp with high demand on foreign markets remained in a stand-still. Locally they had to be sold at half prices. “I had a crab farm where I earned a monthly wage of taka 10,000 by selling them, the pandemic followed by the cyclone, has left us with nothing and I am struggling to provide three meals to my family,” Shahjahan told the research team of ICCCAD.
Despite major damage, very little relief has come to support the locals. Many had to buy their necessities or repair their broken homes by borrowing money from shops. Eleven months later, the embankment was repaired. Local authorities have placed sandbags to reinforce riverbanks near Datinakhali village. But the embankment is still very weak, not adequately strong against high tides- let alone severe cyclones.
Locals feel that the authorities need to better prepare for erosion and embankment protection, rather than reacting to disasters as they happen. “If the Embankment was strong enough, then such damage could have been avoided” Asma added. The houses that were far away from the river are now very close to the river. The remaining families whose land survived the erosion are living in a constant wait and fear.
Asma Khatun is just one example among thousands. There are many similar stories of people who cannot accumulate their strength to withstand those big waves due to a tormented everyday life that mostly remain unnoticed. Every year in Bangladesh, tidal surges and storms swallow hectares of land and homes. Living on the edge, these cyclone and erosion-affected people are now looking toward the authorities with the hope that serious steps will be taken by the government to stop their lands from being eaten away by the water.
Sumaiya Binte Anwar is a Research Officer at ICCCAD working in the Urban Resilience Programme. She is a Civil Engineer and a Climate enthusiast and an aspiring photographer. She can be reached at [email protected]