Millions of people in the coastal areas of Bangladesh are living in constant fear of cyclones and other natural calamities as the embankments built in the Pakistan era have been damaged and no new ones have been constructed since the liberation of the country.
In the 1960s, 139 embankments were constructed in 13 districts of the country, covering an area of 5,810 kilometres, by the then Pakistan government. After independence, Bangladesh has only done repair work on the embankments.
Experts say the dilapidated embankments are no longer capable of saving the coastal areas from the natural disasters.
According to Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at India's Institute of Tropical Meteorology, six out of the 10 deadliest cyclones in history have formed in the Bay of Bengal. Around 80% of the world's cyclone deaths occur in this region.
As per ITM statistics, about five crore people in 19 coastal districts of Bangladesh are at extreme risk due to the increasing trend of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal.
In the 1960s, a 30-km embankment was built in the coastal area of Gabura union of Shyamnagar, Satkhira. But the union has lost a vast amount of its land due to river erosion as the embankment has been damaged.
GM Masudul Alam, chairman of Gabura Union, told The Business Standard, "The size of Gabura has come down to 33 km from 50 km due to river erosion. If the embankment is not repaired quickly, the island will be completely lost from the map of the country."
Agricultural production on the island has come down to almost zero due to salt water intrusion through the damaged embankment.
Nurul Islam, deputy director of Satkhira Department of Agricultural Extension, said, "Once, 20-25 varieties of paddy were cultivated in Satkhira. But the land of this area has lost fertility due to salinity in water. Many people have started fish farming by cutting through dams and introducing salt water in the land. As a result, both the dams and the land have been ruined."
Abul Khayer, executive engineer of Satkhira District Water Development Board-1, said, "Studies have shown that 3% of the topsoil of the dam is washed away in every monsoon. As such, 36 km of dams are supposed to disappear in a year."
Syed Hasan Imam, project director of Coastal Embankment Improvement Project (CEIP-1) and additional chief engineer of Bangladesh Water Development Board, said, "Out of 139, 60 embankments are now at risk. We could not renovate these embankments due to various reasons. The rest have been renovated and rebuilt by BWDB at various times. However, no new embankment has been built."
According to BWDB sources, most of the country's embankments have been damaged due to successive cyclones, including the catastrophic cyclones of 1970 and 1991. Super cyclone Sidr alone destroyed 2,341 km of embankments in 30 coastal districts. Of this, 391 km is completely lost and 1,950 km partially damaged.
In 2009, cyclone Aila destroyed 683 km of embankments in Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat districts and cyclone Amphan destroyed 478 km of dams in 10 coastal districts while 678 km were partially damaged.
Md Abul Khayer said, "The coastal dams expired long ago. At the time they were built, the only goal was to protect the population from the tide. But at present the dams are not able to take the pressure of frequent cyclones."
Irregularities in renovation works
The BWDB undertook a project worth Tk300 crore to build a sustainable embankment on the Banshkhali coast of Chattogram. However, cracks appeared in that embankment before the completion of the construction work. Local residents pointed to irregularities in fund management for the issue.
Aminul Islam, from Khankhanabad union of Banshkhali, said, "I have lost my home five times to the sea due to the great cyclone of 1991. Recently, I built a house with great difficulty. Now the embankment is on the verge of destruction again. Political leaders, contractors and BWDB officials have looted government money by using substandard materials in the name of renovating the dams."
Nahid Uz Zaman, executive engineer of BWDB, said in this regard, "Earlier, we used to work with low cost designs. That's why the renovations were not sustainable."
The work of repairing 50 km embankment and 2 km river management in Dakop upazila of Khulna at a cost of Tk150 crore is expected to be completed next June. However, a proposal has been sent to the ministry to increase the cost of the project.
Ashraful Alam, executive engineer, Khulna Water Development Board, said, "The World Bank project was surveyed in 2013. But as time progressed, the movement of the river changed. As a result, more than six kilometers of land need to be brought under river control. It will cost around Tk152 crore."
Samiun Basir, assistant professor, Department of Water Resources Engineering, Chattogram University of Engineering and Technology, said that the embankment of the Water Development Board is not sustainable for two reasons – substandard work and faulty designs.
"BWDB should come up with effective designs for sustainable dams and look into corruption in embankment renovation works," he said.
BWDB plans eight new embankments
Syed Hasan Imam, project director, Coastal Embankment Improvement Project (CEIP-1) and additional chief engineer of BWDB, said, "The CEIP-1 has been given a fund of Tk3,280 crore by the World Bank to protect the coastal areas of the country. The project covers 10 risky polders in Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat, Barguna, Patuakhali and Pirojpur districts."
"Although the project was initiated in 2013, the work started in 2016-17 FY. At present, 72% of the project has been completed," he added.
Engineer Syed Hasan Imam said, "Twenty more dams will be repaired under the CEIP-2 project. Separate projects will be undertaken for the rest. The number of embankments will increase in the future. We have suggested the construction of eight more embankments."