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Bangladesh debates resettling stricken area

Bangladeshi farmer Mohammed Siddik says he knew a cyclone had been forecast the weekend of May 24 and 25. But he did not leave Urirchar Island in the Ganges delta -- because he had nowhere else to go.

Bangladesh Radio had broadcast warnings on the impending cyclone and tidal wave. On Hatia Island, Red Cross workers broadcast the warning through battery-powered megaphones, an engineer of the volunteer international aid organization, CARE, reported.

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But, because such forecasts had proved wrong on several occasions in the past, many people did not take the latest one seriously.

Some, like Mr. Siddik, had nowhere to go. Others did not heed the storm warnings, an official in Noakhali district said, because they were reluctant to leave their homes and land for fear of being dispossessed.

So, despite the warnings, some 10,000 to 15,000 people were killed in the cyclone and tidal wave, according to preliminary estimates. An estimated 12,500 square miles along Bangladesh's Ganges delta and coast were affected.

The question now being asked all over Bangladesh is whether people should be allowed to live in exposed, unprotected areas like Urirchar Island at all.

``People here are now moving into marginal and hazardous areas,'' says Susan Tuckwell, an Australian journalist who writes about development issues and has spent many years in Bangladesh.

``They go there because the return they get is certain, while the risk factor is in the realms of possibility. As these people live for the day, they take the risk.''

It appears that a large number of people had settled on the newly emerging alluvial land in the coastal areas. Many of them had once possessed land but lost it, because of economic reasons or river erosion and were thus hungry for new land. Previously landless farm workers make up another group. They were lured by the promise of land.

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Some of these people moved to the new lands on their own, becoming illegal settlers. But the majority were brought to these lands by wealthy landgrabbers, backed by corrupt officials.

These officials in turn ensured that the new lands did not show up on government records.

Urirchar was one such place. Officially, the settlers there did not exist. Consequently neither shelters nor embankments had been built.

The present government's policy seems to be officially to let the illegal settlers stay where they are.

``We have so little land, where will these people go?'' asks Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, Bangla-desh's military ruler.

General Ershad has announced that the inhabitants of Urirchar will be legally settled there and a dike will be built around the island.

The Bangladesh Society for Enforcement of Human Rights challenges this approach.

``To allow people to live in known dangerous places is a violation of human rights,'' spokesman Saiful Islam Dildar said.

``Let the government now evacuate people from the calamity-prone areas, then let it take measures for safety in those places and then let the people return.''

The areas that were worst affected by the storm are very flat and susceptible to inundation by high waves. Being newly formed, they have hardly any forest cover to provide protection against water and wind.

A small mangrove forest which was raised at Urirchar was credited with helping to save a lot of lives. On Sandwip Island households that were surrounded by trees were relatively unharmed, but those that did not have trees were flattened.

In some areas, illegal settlers had also been living outside the embankments that have been built since the mid-1960s as protection against repeated tidal surge. In Noakhali district many such settlers died.

The May 24 cyclone struck almost exactly where weather forecasts of the Bangladesh Meteorology Department had predicted.

Since the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Meteorology Department has set up 11 observatories in the coastal region, and acquired sophisticated radars, including one that is computerized. The department gets weather data from a satellite every three hours.

But many outlying islands like Urirchar have poor communication ties with the mainland or the bigger islands.

Ali Hassan Qureshi, secretary general of the Bangladesh Red Cross, sums up the situation as learning to live with realities.

He says, ``People will inevitably move to new land irrespective of natural hazards, so the best thing to do is to try and give them protection.''

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