Sitting and shading ourselves from the sun on a 100-plus degree afternoon, my Oxfam colleagues and I learned from a group of local women about life on Char Shaper, the Bangla name for Snake Island. The sandy island sits in the middle of the Brahmaputra River, also called the Jamuna, which in April meanders as gently as the Charles River in Boston.
But in July, things change dramatically with this river as it fills with snow melt from the Himalayas. Families have to pack up their belongings and head to higher ground before the flood water envelops them. As many as a million people live on islands like this one. They are among the country’s poorest citizens, eking out a living by catching small river fish and planting groundnuts, chilies, and corn.
Most families here survive on less than two dollars a day. Far from market places, they are dependent on middlemen who pay only a small fraction of what crops sell for in the cities. Dried corn kernels fetch less than one US cent per pound. If the flood waters come early, before they can harvest their crops, the char dwellers are left with nothing but debt. Healthcare is virtually non existent, and only one child out of hundreds from Char Shaper has ever attended high school.
Life isn’t getting any easier.
Time and time again I heard that the annual floods are becoming worse. The raised earth platforms which have been constructed as flood shelters by Oxfam and its local partners are now barely above the water level. Everywhere that we visited, we heard a familiar tale. Each year the flood water comes earlier, flows higher, and stays later.
I was told that at its peak flow, the river carries 25 million gallons of water per second. How this is measured, I don’t know. This enormous volume of water pushes around the sandy islands, and sometimes eliminates them entirely. People would return to the island when the water subsided and find their home sites and plots gone. I understood the reality of this when I uploaded my GPS waypoints into Google Earth following a boat trip down the river: Our boat plied through water that two years ago had been land.
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This was my third visit to Bangladesh in six months, since Cyclone Sidr swept through the southwest coast last November. An earlier visit took me to another set of chars, in the southwest of the country. Here, communities were barely recovering from the summer floods of 2007, when Sidr, with winds of 100 miles per hour and a tidal surge, hit them again, wiping out much of the coastal villages.
On Char Majer, in Shariatpur district, erosion had worn away the land on which a village had previously sat. Because of the shifting sands and the near certainty that the island will be covered with flood water each year, it is not practical to build substantial houses on this char. So Oxfam and its partner are helping to rebuild simple houses using locally available materials. These consist of a bamboo frame, split and woven bamboo panels for walls, and metal roofs. The houses sit on a raised platform. Early warning systems have been established, and when flood waters are predicted, families can dismantle their houses and float the sections to higher. When the high waters subside, families are able to return, hoping that their land is still there.
Life on the chars is as hard as it can get.