Bangladesh's Rivers are Both Curse and Lifeline
GANGACHARA, Bangladesh 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.
TAMING THE RIVERS
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 threat.
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 Centre.
The rivers are also choked with industrial waste and garbage.
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.