River bank erosion affects economy

Having abandoned their brick-built school nearby, students at the government primary school in Shibchar sub-district, Madaripur District, in south-central Bangladesh, take their lessons under a large banyan tree. The River Arial Khan, which was over 50 metres from the school before this year's annual monsoon floods, now flows against its plinth.

"It is very unsafe to take classes inside the building," explained headmaster Nasirul Islam. "You can hear the rumbling sound of the flowing water from inside the classrooms. So I have shifted the classes from the threatened school building to the shade of the banyan tree," he said, warning that the building might collapse.

Such nightmares haunt 60-year old Haji Yasin Ali of Farazi Kandi, a nearby village. Just three years ago, the same river devoured their family home, as well as the local mosque - prompting him to move his family to Kadamhati village where his in-laws live.

Today, Haji Yasin is among some 60 villagers rendered homeless by erosion in the villages Duttapara and Sanyasir Char of Shibchar - and the Arial Khan shows no sign of relenting.

Economic effects

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River erosion can have devastating economic effects.

Over the past four weeks the Arial Khan has moved a few hundred metres westward, eroding a swathe of agricultural land along 50km of its bank from Tarabunia to the Mangal Majhi ferry launch.

Reports gathered by IRIN from affected districts confirm that river bank erosion has got much worse along the Padma and its distributaries in the western, south and south-central regions of the country.

The River Brahmaputra is also causing large-scale erosion in the Sirajganj, Bogra and Kurigram, Jamalpur and Tangail districts in the north, northwest and north-central regions of the low-lying nation. At the same time, the Dhaka-Sariatpur highway, one of the major roads that link Dhaka with the south-central region, is also under threat.

Government estimates

"The current flooding eroded 140km of river bank fully and another 1,345km partially," A.K. Azad, chief of monitoring for the government's Water Development Board (WDB), said.

"The floods also completely eroded 17km of flood protection embankments, and another 48km partially, across the country. The assessment on 19 September showed 313 structures, such as irrigation sluice gates and culverts, were damaged by river erosion," he said.

The WDB estimates the damage caused by erosion at more than US$75 million.

Monzur Hossain, director-general of the Flood Situation Monitoring Cell at the chief adviser's office, estimates infrastructural damage at over $240 million, with the floods affecting 28.5 million families in 263 sub-districts within 46 affected districts.

The flood damaged 6,189km of non-metal rural roads, 7,524km of rural roads and 1,323 bridges and culverts, the chief adviser's report said.

Flooded rivers consume land, roads

Major rivers such as the Brahmaputra, the Padma and the Meghna consume several thousand hectares of land on both sides of their banks making thousands of people landless and homeless every year.

In addition to agricultural land and homes, each year Bangladesh loses several kilometres of roads and railways, along with flood embankments. Some major cities and towns such as Chandpur, Rajshahi and Faridpur are also threatened by erosion.

While the rate of erosion along the major rivers may vary from one period to other, during the last three decades the Brahmaputra and the Padma rivers have consumed 180,000 hectares of agricultural land.

From the 1970s to early 1990s the extent of mean annual erosion was about 3,300 hectares along both banks of the River Jamuna. During the last decade erosion along the river seems to have diminished slightly ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 hectares per year.

The mean annual erosion along the River Padma was 1,400 hectares per year while it increased to 2,200 hectares per year in the 1990s, according to the WDB.