November 18, 2005

Bangladesh’s rivers are both curse and lifeline

By Anis Ahmed

GANGACHARA, Bangladesh (Reuters) - The mighty Teesta river
that has swept away farm laborer Mohammad Taheruddin's home 10
times in the past five decades is now a picture of calm.

At the end of the monsoon season, the river that brings
misery to thousands of Bangladeshis almost every year looks
more like a big canal, with people and cattle walking across
through knee-deep water.

Children cast nets for fish to add to their meager food or
to sell in the nearby market.

But barely two months ago the Teesta, like many other
rivers in the low-lying South Asian country, was in full spate.
It burst its banks, destroying flood shelters the government
built five years ago for people including Taheruddin, 65, and
washing away a stretch of highway.

"The river has stripped me of everything, my home and
land," said Taheruddin, now camped out in the open on a raised
stretch of highway in Gangachara, 230 miles north of the
capital, Dhaka, along with his wife and three children.

The Teesta is one of more than 150 rivers that criss-cross
densely populated Bangladesh, affecting the lives of millions.

More than 50,000 people on average lose their homes every
year by flooding of the rivers, most of which flow from the
Himalayas through India before emptying in the Bay of Bengal.

But the rivers are also a lifeline for the impoverished
nation of 140 million people.

"We cannot live without the rivers," said Nasimun Nahar,
55. "They give us our sources of living -- fishing, sailing and
ferrying merchandise," she said. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have
even a single meal."

For most Bangladeshis, the rivers provide the only valid
mode of transport across the country, although this too is
hazardous, as seen by the high rate of ferry accidents.


In recent years, the government has been trying to tame the
rivers by building cross dams or dumping concrete slabs along
the banks. Some $600 million has been spent but it has barely
made a dent in the problem.

"The currents in the rivers are often too strong," said one
official in the northern district of Rangpur, of which
Gangachara is a part.

Authorities say they are planning to build a cross dam on
the Teesta at Gangachara that should help reduce the flood

The government should also carry out extensive dredging of
the river where it has become silted, said Syed Ahmed, chief
engineer of the Bangladesh Water Development Board.

"But it depends on the availability of funds," he said.

Bangladesh's rivers carry a huge mass of soil and sand as
they flow from the Himalayas across India. While the waters
eventually reach the Bay of Bengal, most of the silt settles on
the river beds.

"The rivers in our country are silted every year and they
need to be dredged every four or five years. But this is a very
expensive and difficult process," said Selim Bhuiyan, an
engineer at the government-run Flood Forecasting Center.


The rivers are also choked with industrial waste and

Bhuiyan said dredging of the rivers would allow them to
hold more water during the monsoon season and reduce the
intensity of floods. "But the problem is we don't have enough
money to do the job in one go or on all the rivers," he said.

Flood survivor Taheruddin blamed politicians, saying they
had been promising for years to save people like him from the
rivers but it had made no difference in their lives.

"Politicians come and visit us every time before an
election and make lofty promises to build us a heaven on
earth," he said. "But they disappear once the vote is over."

The administration had failed even to build proper flood
shelters for the most vulnerable, Taheruddin said. Several of
the structures put up around Gangachara were washed away in the
recent floods because they were not built on higher land.

"This is an unending cycle of destruction," he lamented.