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Precarious lives of river island dwellers

A river island in the Kaliganga River approximately 100 km from Bangladesh's capital Dhaka.
(Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN)

The Brahmaputra river that burst its banks twice last year, devastating villages and crops in nearly 39 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts and killing over 600 people, is a shadow of its former self.

In the north of the country, the six-kilometre wide river in Sariakandi sub-district has subdivided into several narrow and meandering flows that crisscross the now dry river bed, while the rest of the river has turned into huge sand dunes and sand bars dotted with makeshift homes, cows, water buffalo and green patches of rice paddies.

From Lalmonirhat District where the river enters from India down to the Bay of Bengal where the rivers of Bangladesh empty, the Brahmaputra, the Ganges (Padma in Bangladesh), and the Meghna rivers, have all given birth to hundreds of river islands called ‘chars’ in Bengali.

Home to over 600,000 inhabitants, the `chars’ - prone to acute erosion and flooding and a by-product of the rivers’ hydro-morphological dynamics - are periodically submerged.

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In September 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals that challenged the global community to reduce poverty and increase the health and well-being of all peoples. In September 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg reaffirmed these goals and added access to basic sanitation as a centerpiece of the poverty eradication commitments. The target to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2105 was defined in the Johannesburg Plan of Action (JPOI).

Despite significant efforts by governments, progress on sanitation targets has been slow and uneven. Recognising the impact of sanitation on public health, poverty reduction, economic and social development, and the environment, the General Assembly decided to declare 2008 the International Year of Sanitation (GA resolution 61/192 of 20 December 2006). The General Assembly encouraged member States as well as the United Nations system, to take advantage of the International Year to increase awareness of the importance of sanitation to promote action at all levels.

They flood in July as the rainwater from the Himalayas rushes southwards, only to reappear in November. Most of the river island displaced live along the river banks until the rains stop and the rivers begin to recede.

Others move to neighbouring `chars’ where they may have to wait months or even years before being able to return.

So precarious is the fate of such islands that most `char’ dwellers lack the most basic amenities and services such as health, education, and electricity - with inhabitants having no choice but to commute to the mainland which can be kilometres away.

Sanitation, health

But it is the issue of sanitation and access to clean drinking water on the `chars’ that is particularly dire, according to health experts.

“In the `chars’, only 11 percent of households have closed latrines as opposed to the national figure of 85 percent. In most of the small and shifting `chars’ the figure will be below 5 percent,” said Mohiuddin Ahmad Bulbul, a senior researcher for BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), the world’s largest non-governmental organisation (NGO), who has been studying the lives of `char’ dwellers for the last 15 years.

“This explains the high incidence of diarrhoea in the `chars’ - 18.5 percent, as opposed to 7 percent on the mainland,” Ahmad said.

This situation is further exacerbated during the annual monsoon floods when many tube wells, vital to clean drinking water, become submerged, leaving a large percentage of islanders with only polluted river water to drink, he said.

Such realities, coupled with the collapse of sanitation facilities, places whole communities at risk to a host of water-borne diseases.

Fisherman Niranjan Haldar’s family, residents of Chaluabari river island in the Brahmaputra in Sariakandi, is indicative of the plight of many `char’ dwellers.

Their home has no latrine and the family continues to defecate in the open.

More Asia water and sanitation reports
NEPAL: Activists call for decisive action to improve sanitation
PAKISTAN: Open defecation-free communities - one village at a time
AFGHANISTAN: Poor sanitation, bad toilets cause deaths, misery
BANGLADESH: Towards "sanitation for all by 2010”
PAKISTAN: Mindset change key to changing rural toilet habits

Lack of awareness

“We don’t need a latrine. My wife and daughter go in the bushes in the backyard,” the 50-year-old father-of-three said. “We males have no problem. We can do it whenever nature calls. There are bushes all over the island,” said Niranjan, as he collected the night’s catch - some small clay fish - from a net.

Niranjan is largely unaware that diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid, dysentery and other gastrointestinal diseases are caused by human faeces, and open defecation is a leading factor - all of which highlights the need for better awareness.

“For seven years now, we have been educating the `char’ people on the necessity of using covered pit latrines so that they could live a healthy life. The situation is improving, but at a very slow pace,” Rubol Ludhi, a volunteer of the Bogra Rural Development Academy’s irrigation and water management project - a government entity working among the `char’ dwellers - conceded.

The picture is not as dismal everywhere, however.

Fatema Begum, 25, lives in Char Kazla, another remote Brahmaputra island under the administration of Sariakandi sub-district.

Her family uses a sanitary latrine and keeps it clean.

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Returning to the shore after a day's catch on a Brahmaputra river island in Gaibandha District

Though her 30-year-old husband Moti Mia dropped out of school, he too knows and understands the need for using sanitary latrines, as do their two young children, both of whom wash their hands properly with soap before eating.

“Using [a] latrine stops germs from spreading. It keeps us healthy. Moreover, it protects the dignity of grown-up men and women. No one wants to be caught defecating in the open,” she said.

But families like Fatema’s are still few and far between on the `chars’, home to the poorest of Bangladesh’s poor.

“Sanitation is not merely the building of a latrine; it requires a change in our attitude and behaviour too,” Abdul Majid who retired from the UN Children’s Fund some years ago and is now working to promote sanitation and health in the `chars’ of the Brahmaputra and Padma rivers, said.

“People need to be educated on what germs are, how they cause harm to us, and how we can save our children by resorting to good health and hygiene practice,” he explained.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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