Magazine article New Internationalist

Adaptable by Nature

Magazine article New Internationalist

Adaptable by Nature

Article excerpt

The mighty Jamuna

Flat and docile in the dry season, the mighty Jamuna turns into Bangladesh's fiercest river during the monsoon. Starting life in Tibet, it crosses through India before joining forces with the Meghna and cutting down to the Bay of Bengal, taking 2,000 hectares of land along with it. Last year in Jamalpur district, northwest Bangladesh, the Jamuna carried off three health centres, two government offices and four mosques as well as 130 hectares of village land and three kilometres of road.

The shape of the river is changing'

River erosion has forced Suruzzaman to move 18 times. He's pictured here with a grandchild who triumphed over various other contenders to clamber into his arms. Older people say the shape of the river has changed over the last 25 years. The river used to hold its form and erode both banks in turn, but now shifts treacherously from one to the other, and is hard to predict.

While all agree that the river is eroding faster as the tides rise and fall, it is also creating fertile new islands. New crops like chillies, onions and eggplants have brought new sources of income to the traditional groundnut, corn and sweet potatoes. People are unfailingly hospitable, inviting visitors in for cups of hot milk or a plate of puffed rice sprinkled with sugar.

When new land rises, there are fights between families over possession. Suruzzaman remembers when this char was part of the mainland. He explains that families hold on to the deeds for their eroded land, and can lay claim to it generations later when it pops up again in the same spot.

Women and girls last

When there is less food, it tends to be women who go without. This girl, called Lucky, skipped lunch and will only eat tonight if her mother and aunt make successful sales of grass (for cattle feed) on the mainland. Her father is asthmatic and cannot work. Malnutrition runs at around 45 per cent on the chars, and not knowing where the next meal is coming from can lead to a kind of despair.

Women and girls are considered most vulnerable to climate change. Tasked with caring responsibilities, women may be left behind in a flooding homestead if granny can't walk by herself.

Even in times of calamitous floods, strict moral codes apply. Young women cannot be seen to go the toilet. Denied privacy, either in marooned villages or public shelters, girls choose not to eat or drink. Urinary infections and malnourishment are the result.

Early marriage and crippling dowries are other discriminatory practices in this area; some 20 per cent of households are female-headed due to abandonment, divorce or bereavement.

On the way to school

This boy is off to attend class on the mainland. Primary education is free in Bangladesh but villagers can't always afford the 20 taka ($0.25) round trip to the mainland or are cut off by floods.

Where government schools do exist on the chars, teachers are frequent truants due to the remote location. The river doesn't help matters by eroding schools - claiming 10 in Jamalpur district alone last year. NGOs try to plug the gap, but struggle to keep up with demand.

The Char Livelihoods Programme

Shafiqul Islam winces when he sees river erosion forcing families on to a new char, without a raised plinth. He knows that a severe flood could wipe out all their capital. 'If only they could get a 10-year run in one place,' he muses, 'they would be rich, I am sure of It.'

He is the district co-ordinator for the Char Livelihoods Programme (CLP), which aims to give the extreme poor a permanent leg-up out of poverty. An ambitious and wellresourced project, brainchild of British development ministry DfID, CLP has invested $80 million so far, with another $110 million due by 2014. …

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