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Global warming sees Bangladesh river destroying villages
Sunday June 16, 2013 6:18 PM, Sahana ghosh, IANS

It is time for Mohammed Qader of Bahuka village in Sirajganj district to move again. For the seventh time in the last 20 years that he has been residing in Bahuka, Qader will be forced to rebuild his life from scratch as the mighty Jamuna river continues to erode its banks and destroy everything in its wake - all thanks to global warming.

According to inhabitants of Bahuka, 110 km northwest of Bangladesh capital Dhaka, the Jamuna has swallowed 10 embankments - artificial banks built above the level of the original banks to hold back excess water - and with it all buildings built on the banks, since 1968.

"This has been going on for years. The Jamuna breaches the banks throughout the year and this has accelerated in recent times," the 56-year-old Qader told a visiting IANS correspondent.

Mashfiqus Salehin, professor at the Institute of Water and Flood Management in the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Dhaka, said the constant shifting of Bahuka's residents is not uncommon since erosion is a "very big" issue in the region.

"Because of the flood and erosion problems, they have to shift to a higher elevation. For an adult to shift 6 to 10 times in his lifetime is not very unusual," Salehin said.

The Jamuna, one of the main rivers of Bangladesh, has numerous criss-crossing channels. It is the main distributory of the Brahmaputra as it flows down from India to Bangladesh. Flowing south, it joins the Padma river and then merges into the Bay of Bengal as the Meghna.

Experts attribute the worsening erosion to the widening of the river - a phenomenon which could be a result of global warming.

"If you stand here for a while you will see more and more chunks of earth falling into the river...this was not so frequent... the bigger the Jamuna gets, the more it erodes. Our school was at Chandnogor village.. now that has disappeared and the current building is at east Bahuka. Soon that will perish too," Abdus Salam, headmaster of the primary school, told IANS.

"It had an average width of 8.2 km in 1975 and in 2000, that was close to 11.7 km. The Jamuna has been widening and the same thing has been happening in the upper Brahmaputra valley," Salehin noted.

Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies (BCAS), said it was possible global warming may be playing a role in the havoc the river is causing.

"There is no doubt that temperature has increased in South Asia. Somewhere it has increased by 0.8 degrees or 0.7 degrees. Due to this, an ecosystem shift has been observed too. The increase in temperature has led to glacial melting ..it may have increased the river's volume..all these factors have contributed to the erosion caused by the river," Rahman said.

According to Sabber Ahmed of the BCAS, who works on tectonic evolution of the Jamuna since the river downstream in Bangladesh is comparatively flatter than that in upstream India, the slope lowers the velocity and results in sedimentation.

"Over time this sedimentation forms bars, which are visible throughout the channel. Because of the bars, water splits and hits both banks of the river. As a result, we see excessive erosion on both banks. If we analyse satellite images, we would find that the width of the river has increased and the depth has decreased....the increase in erosion is due to this," Ahmed pointed out.

For the villagers who have adapted to this vicious cycle - by making residences out of tin and asbestos as they can be disassembled and pieced back together at another location - dams are the solution, even as the 11th embankment on the Jamuna is on its way.

"We have told the government to construct dams, but they are not listening," 70-year-old Bahuka resident Hafizul asserted.

However, Indian river expert Kalyan Rudra pointed out that instead of opting for artificial structures that are not viable, land use must be adapted according to the river's behaviour.

"It's a futile exercise...it's a short term measure but doesn't sustain for the long term. Moreover, planning land use should be in line with the river's nature. But the reverse has been happening. not only in Bangladesh but in India as well," Rudra told IANS.

"This type of protection is a local method guided by electoral politics. The population has gone up so much that people are encroaching upon the flood plains," Rudra added.

For headmaster Salam and his family, the clock is ticking away.

"We can only hope for a miracle," he said ruefully.

(Sahana ghosh can be contacted at sahana.g@ians.in)

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