Nuruzzaman, 43, was driving his auto-rickshaw on the Noapara-Monirampur road crossing the Beel Daharmoshihati and Beel Bakar.
"I miss being a farmer," he said. Like many others, Nuruzzaman had to abandon his ancestral profession of farming, as his cropland remained waterlogged even in the dry season. He blamed the local political elites for cashing in on the waterlogging crisis in Bhabadaha.
Since the late '80s, when polders that were set up to regulate water movement of the surrounding rivers stopped working, the stagnant water attracted influential and wealthy individuals to take lease of these submerged lands and transform them into vast fish farming enclosures.
What Nuruzzaman and other landowners get as 'hari' (lease money) is inadequate for sustaining their families.
For the last three decades, waterlogging during the dry season across the marshy lands of the three upazilas of Jashore and two upazilas of Khulna — better known as Bhabadaha — has been a perennial crisis affecting about a million people in the region.
The crisis emerged a few decades after the 1960-era mega structural transformation with dykes, which was aimed at protecting the cropland from saline water intrusion. Negligence in maintenance of the dykes, as well as the weakening of upstream water flow, rendered the structural change useless.
The resulting waterlogging crisis is still affecting the farmers, who are the majority but poor, and at the same time benefiting the minority - rich fish farmers.
A series of recovery initiatives undertaken by the government over the years have all gone in vain. Locals say that even the latest elevated water conversion system that pumps stagnant water out from a waterlogged side to another, divided by the dysfunctional 21-vent sluice gates, has had little impact and actually benefited the same privileged groups.
Given the series of failures, the affected people cannot see any remedy from the crisis. "Is this unsolvable?" or "Do we need to adapt to this?" they often ask themselves.
People dealing with the crisis for decades often hark back to the Beel Dakatia revolt in the '90s when aggrieved farmers, going against the elites and administration, cut polder 25 at four points to allow a traditional "Joaradhar" or Tidal River Management (TRM) system.
The revolt eased waterlogging in that particular marshy lands and inspired not only the other neighbours, but also the then government to endorse the TRM. Even the latest initiative in Beel Dakatia, introduced through a government project (2017-2020), showed how better maintenance of dykes could minimise the waterlogging crisis. However, a pure Beel Dakatia model might not suit the entire Bhabadaha, some water experts say. That is because the river water flow rates vary between the Western Estuarine System, covering the Bhabadaha, and the Eastern Estuarine System that is connected to Beel Dakatia.
Nonetheless, community engagement, driven by political will, and a science-based holistic structural reformation that is in place in Beel Dakatia area is crucial to resolve the prolonged Bhabadaha crisis. And this is necessary to protect the natural ecosystem of the whole delta belt. But the question remains: who will lead the task?
Never-ending crisis, perpetual poverty
It was a humid noon. The sweet fragrance of paddy pervaded the air, as a few farmers of Abhaynagar had finished harvesting Boro before monsoon. Their sweating lean bodies shone in the midday sun as they were busy spreading wet rice grains to be sun dried on the raised path.
Unlike Nuruzzaman, not all farmers changed their profession in Bhabadaha. But sticking to their ancient profession came at a steep cost. Before starting Boro cultivation in February, the farmers had to rent water pumps to withdraw the stagnant water and prepare the field. They bore the costs even though they were not responsible for the waterlogging.
"Agriculture is no longer a profitable business here. We carry it out only to meet the household demand for food," says farmer Subol Roy.
The 65-year-old harvested around 85 maunds of Boro in the last week of May 2022. But the yield was much lower than expected.
During the third quarter of February, he planted Boro on two plots of land — a 175 decimal one at Beel Daharmoshihati and a 78 decimal one at Beel Bakar.
Usually, farmers cultivate Boro rice across the rims when the Beels go dry in the post-monsoon season.
Although Subol could harvest from the Beel Daharmoshihati, the crop at his Beel Bakar plot was completely damaged as the field went under knee-deep water from the overflowing Mukteshwari River, even though he had planned to harvest the crops nearly three weeks before monsoon season hit.
The Bhabadaha crisis has also pushed up costs for the farmers.
After monsoon, the farmers have to rent water pumps to artificially withdraw the stagnant water from the fields. The pumps run on electricity, so the farmers pay up to Tk6,000 for per 50 decimals of cropland.
"Personally, I spent Tk30,000 to pump out water in the outgoing season. The crops I grew barely made up for the production cost," Subol said.
But they do not see fish farming as an alternative either.
"Farming fish in a small area, say 50 to 100 decimals of land, will return much less than paddy cultivation. If we leave agriculture forever, we will starve, and so will our cattle," Subol added.
There are more than 200,000 farmers in Abhaynagar, Keshabpur, and Monirampur, data from the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) shows. Of 53,685 hectares of arable land in the area, 28,882 hectares are affected by waterlogging, DAE data from 2020 shows.
Officials with knowledge of the matter say the amount of the affected area at present is no less than 60% of the recorded arable land.
Expensive cattle feed and milk drought
Before shifting to masonry, middle-aged Krishna Halder used to cultivate Boro during the post-monsoon season. For the past few years, however, his 208 decimals of submerged land have been used as a fish enclosure.
"Fish farmers took out a lease on my land at only Tk25,000 a year," he said.
Before the crisis though, Krishna's granary would remain full with rice throughout the year. He had dairy cows and the cattle had enough food. In the monsoons, he used to farm fish on a limited scale on his land after enclosing it with ridges.
The Halder family lives on a 14-decimal plot of land in Sundali village. Recently, a semi-pucca cow shed was erected just beside their two-room residence.
The family had four cows three months ago, but now, they have only two underweight cows left.
"How can I survive the entire year with just Tk25,000 hari?" Krishna asked.
Like agriculture, cattle farming around the Bhabadaha region is also threatened by an aggressive fish farming trend. Several families, who were dependent on the dairy business, are now rearing cattle only to meet their families' demand for milk. They sell the surplus milk at prices lower than the cost of production.
Krishna's wife Bichitra said they sold two cows and took out a Tk1 lakh loan to raise the shed after water submerged the previous one.
"Besides, rearing cattle is expensive as the price of cattle feed is very high. If we could cultivate paddy, we could collect feed from our own source. Now, only algae grows in the submerged land," she added.
And with the drop in cattle rearing, milk production has also fallen in the area.
A dairy entrepreneur, Sadhan Biswas from Sundali says dairy owners from Rajapur, Aarpara, Harishpar, Phulergati, Sundali, Moshiahati, Bajiyakul and some other villages used to supply milk in the area.
"Two years ago, daily milk collection reached a minimum of 450 litres, but it has dropped to 150-160 litres now," Sadhan said, adding that production cost of one litre of milk is around Tk60. But the dairy farmers sell milk at a reduced price in the open market.
Origins of the Bhabadaha crisis
Over the centuries, the greater coastal region of Bengal covering Jashore, Khulna, Kushtia, 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, Krishnanagar, Faridpur, and Barishal was formed by alluvial soil from the flow of the Ganges River system.
The majority of the water from the Ganges ran through the Bhagirathi River, and after being divided into eight types of flow, it met the sea over 24 Parganas and Khulna.
In the 16th century, the Ganges changed its course from south to east and the Mathabhanga, the Jalangi, and the Gorai Rivers became the main distributaries, crossing the southwest region and meeting the Bay of Bengal through the Kobadak, the Shibsa, the Passur, and some other distributaries.
The particular region belonged to a unique brackish water ecosystem, flooded by high tide twice a day in harmony with the lunar cycle.
Decades back, the local farming communities under the Zamindari system used to construct temporary earthen embankments called "ashtomashi bandh" around the areas to protect the arable land from saline water intrusion in the post-monsoon dry season.
During the monsoon, farmers used to breach the embankments to allow fresh water from the river to their fields. Since the fresh water minimised the salinity of the land, farmers would get a good harvest and variety of fish. The process also allowed the sediment carried by tidal flow to deposit into the beels.
Discontinuation of the ashtomashi bandh practice, however, left a severe impact on the region's agriculture and hydrology and is often blamed as one of the main reasons behind the Bhabadaha crisis.
After the abolition of the Zamindari system in 1951, there was no one to take responsibility for repair and maintenance of existing embankments or the constructions of new ones. Gradually, the embankments were breached and overrun by the tides, becoming practically useless.
"In the 1950s–1960s, existing embankments deteriorated for lack of proper maintenance so that salinity intrusion and tidal surges caused routine crop damage," said renowned water expert Professor Ainun Nishat.
In the beginning of 1940s, the colonial government had closed the source of upstream Mathabhanga River that flowed into the southern region, while establishing the distillery, Carew and Company, on the bank of the river. Similarly, due to construction of the Gorai railway bridge near Kushtia city, siltation over Gorai rose tremendously. Blocking the upstream Mathabhanga and the Gorai eventually reduced fresh water flow to the Kumar, Nabaganga, Chitra, Kabadak, Harihar, Mukteshwari, Hari, Teka, Bhadra, and other distributaries that fall within or around Bhabadaha.
During the late 1950s, when the country saw a series of famines, the United Nations sent the Krug Mission to investigate the crisis. The mission recommended protecting the tidal floodplains from salinity and to recover more land for cultivation of high yielding variety (HYV) crops.
Following the mission's report, a Water Master Plan was prepared in 1964, which introduced a compartmentalised polder or enclosure system in the southwest tidal areas.
A polder is a tract of land, surrounded by dykes, in which the discharge and supply of surface water are artificially regulated.
Thirty-nine polders and 282 sluice gates were constructed in the coastal area with funding from USAID to prevent intrusion of saline water from the sea.
The primary objective of the project was to convert the low-lying land into dry land suitable for two-crop cultivation in a year.
However, once the dykes were built, water could not enter the tidal plain and the silt deposited along the upper ends of the estuary, gradually causing the river-beds to rise. Meanwhile, the low-lying wetlands inside the polders sank due to non-deposition of silt.
Professor Nishat said the situation turned so bad that due to excess sedimentation, the vertical gates of the regulators became completely clogged. Monsoon water could not be drained out, resulting in water-logging.
The salinity gradually increased and vast agricultural lands lost fertility in phases.
Although the immediate impact of the polder project resulted in bumper rice production for a couple of decades, locals in Bhabadaha started to face severe water-logging problems within a decade of the Farakka Barrage construction on the Ganges in the '70s.
Water diversion from the barrage caused a drastic decrease in water flow below the Ganges River and its distributaries.
"Besides the Farakka effect, some other reasons behind the Bhabadaha crisis include no maintenance of the sluice gates for over 50 years and unabated river encroachment along the up and downstreams," said Amirul Hossain, former Additional Chief Engineer of the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB).
During monsoon season, around 52 beels in Jashore go under deep water. The water is supposed to recede through canals, allowing the Mukteshwari-Teka-Hari river channel and the low-lying areas, which constitute the Bhabadaha, to dry up in the post-monsoon season.
But since the drainage system linked to sluice gates collapsed, the monsoon water cannot drain out to sea anymore.
Bangladesh Water Development Board's (BWDB) Jashore district Executive Engineer Tawhidul Islam said among the 18 existing sluice gates in Bhabadaha, eight are totally dysfunctional while the rest are partially functional.
Curse for crop farmers, boon for influential fish farmers
Enclosure-based commercial fish farming started in Bhabadaha in the beginning of the 2000s.
According to news reports, Jashore has been ranked the second top supplier of freshwater fish in the country. For the last couple of years, fish farmers have been producing two to three times more fish than the local demand.
In September 2021, 72,155.17 hectares of Jashore lands were under commercial fisheries. That year, Jashore-based fish farmers produced 224,858 tonnes of fish — 45% of which was collected from the three Bhabadaha upazilas.
Amid the Bhabadaha crisis, commercial fish farming has become a profitable business in the area, but the wealth has been concentrated among a wealthy few only, while many crop farmers have switched to other professions, reporting a decline in their incomes.
Senior fisheries officers at the Abhaynagar, Monirampur, and Keshabpur upazilas said there are around 15,000 fish farmers under their jurisdiction. Most of the fish farmers work in joint ventures where big businesses provide the capital.
Amirul Hossain reminisced about a BWDB seminar at Phultala in late 2016 where the upazila chairman said that commercial fish farming at a beel could return Tk90 lakh in a year, when agriculture on the same land can hardly bring Tk45 lakh.
"Fish farming, in theory, is more profitable than traditional agriculture. The problem is that the profits are not shared fairly among the affected farmers," Amirul said.
Some local politicians have money, the fish farmers' support and muscle power. They do not even live in the affected area. On the other hand, the local poor farmers possess nothing but the land. And they have no political support.
"So, they are compelled to keep their mouths shut and accept the meagre hari," Amirul said.
Shaymal Sigha of Noapara controls two large fish enclosures in the area. The size of each enclosure is around 40,000 decimals. Asked about the rate of hari, he said it is "set through bargaining".
"If they [affected farmers] want Tk5, we offer them Tk4, for example," he added.
As the Bhabadaha crisis attracted attention in the late '80s, the government took up the Khulna-Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project (KJDRP) in 1993-94 with financial and technical assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
The Tk229.5 crore project aimed to solve the waterlogging problem for increasing agricultural production and alleviating poverty in the area through farm-based employment generation.
"However, representatives of the affected farmers did not accept the project as it lacked a nature-based solution, i.e. TRM," said Chaitanya Paul, Member Secretary of Bhabadaha Pani Niskashan Sangram Committee — a regional group protesting against the man-made causes behind the waterlogging crisis.
ADB prepared a Performance Evaluation Report on KJDRP in 2007, which revealed that continued tension between local stakeholders and the BWDB, from the start of the project due to BWDB's resistance to adopting non-structural solutions in favour of structural solutions caused a more than three-year delay in project implementation.
ADB assessed the project as "less effective".
Since the early '90s, several structural interventions with investment of crores of taka have been taken to address the Bhabadaha crisis. But almost all of the efforts ended up being "less effective" as the initiatives lacked community engagement and natural science-based solutions, activists say.
With the lessons taken from the positive impacts of indigenous knowledge-based TRM, the government in 2012 initiated a new project worth Tk115.86 crores, but according to BWDB, it could not be implemented due to opposition from "vested interested groups" who were against TRM.
Construction of peripheral embankments, outlet structure, re-dredging of the Hari-Teka-Mukteshwari rivers and bypass canals, installing vertical gate regulators, acquiring lands, and purchasing computers were among the project components with the objectives of TRM at Beel Khukshia and Beel Kapalia.
According to BWDB's evaluation, the project could not be implemented due to opposition by "vested interested groups" who were against TRM.
In 2017, the government undertook another project worth Tk49.77 crore to eradicate waterlogging in Monirampur and Keshabpur. Objectives of the project included dredging in the rivers Upper Bhadra, Harihar and Buri Bhadra, and eight connecting canals to ensure navigability and minimise waterlogging in the two upazilas.
The Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) under the Planning Ministry evaluated the project in 2020 and concluded that weaknesses of implementation were: no direction for dredged soil management; not having options of closure to prevent sedimentation during the dry season; and not applying TRM to ensure navigability of the rivers.
Organisers of Bhabadaha Pani Niskashan Sangram Committee, as well as locals, complained that all projects to address the Bhabadaha crisis went in vain because of non-adoption of the nature-based solution and irregularities of the BWDB.
According to BWDB documents, at least 15 projects were taken by local administration between 2016 and 2020, spending more than Tk4 crore. All the projects were aimed to create navigability of the water bodies.
During a recent visit to the Bhabadaha area, we saw dredged soil dumped in the water bodies.
"Look at how they have dumped the dredged soil, in lines, and transformed a river into multiple canals," local youth Shibapada Bishwas said, talking about Hari and Teka Rivers.
Local BWDB officials did not clarify the reason behind the dumping of the soil.
But a Jashore-based journalist Masud Alam summed it up as simple corruption.
"For example, the tender document requires four excavators to be deployed: two for excavating the water body and two for removing the dredged soil, but the contractors actually use only one excavator," he explained.
Since the beginning of 2021, BWDB has been trying to solve the waterlogging at Bhabadaha by pumping out stagnant water using 20 pumps.
BWDB officials say that the new project helps reduce water level in the affected zone while creating artificial tides and velocity of water necessary to wash away silt.
However, the Bhabadaha Pani Niskashan Sangram Committee organisers have termed the project "impractical" and "a waste" of public money.
According to local BWDB officials, annual electric bills for the water pumps rose to Tk1.80 lakhs in 2021.
Despite being operational round the clock, this particular "elevated" water diversion system had little impact on the rivers Hari and Teka as the river water stays almost flat all the time, a recent visit revealed.
Shibapada, also an activist for the Bhabadaha Pani Niskashan Sangram Committee, termed the project as "eyewash".
"Because of leaks in the Bhabadaha sluice gates, the withdrawn water again fills up the Hari River," he said. "Opportunists see the Bhabadaha crisis as a goose that lays golden eggs."
Debates surrounding TRM and sustainable solution
Bhabadaha residents initially thought waterlogging would be a temporary problem and expected the authorities to solve it. When the situation worsened and the authorities turned a blind eye to the problem, the locals themselves took the initiative to organise and mobilise the community and devised plans to solve it.
As they found the polder system problematic, they cut the dykes to allow unrestricted tidal flows into their lands.
In September 1990, at least four cuts were made at Beel Dakatia to connect the water body to the Hamkura River.
Through regular tidal actions and alluvial accumulation, the land formation process of the Beel resumed. Locals were partially successful in ridding the area of waterlogging.
Inspired by the Beel Dakatia revolt, Beel Bhaina land owners in 1997 initiated TRM by cutting the polder at one point near the Bhaina sluice gate. This move eventually widened the Hari River as the tidal flow deposited silt at the low-lying beel and in the ebbs, fresh water with great force dredged the Hari riverbed naturally.
The Beel saw similar positive results like Beel Dakatia, and drew the attention of policymakers and donor agencies. BWDB took up TRM and continued it for four years. However, the landowners did not get any compensation (It generally requires six to seven years for a land to be raised through siltation after a polder has been cut, during which time the land is unfit for use.) And this was marked as the main bottleneck in the system.
Mahadeb Sarker and Nakul Sarker, two farmers from Beel Bhaina area, said they have benefited as their land became fertile with silt deposits. But some other farmers were not as fortunate, since the TRM in Bhaina remains incomplete.
On January 31, 2002, BWDB initiated TRM in Beel Kedaria but a group of influential people involved in fish farming were against the move. They instigated the landowners, particularly the farmers, and showed them the negative impacts of TRM, such as no compensation for those in Beel Bhaina.
As a result, TRM in Beel Kedaria stalled in the middle of implementation.
TRM was initiated in Beel Khukshia too in April 2007. But delays in compensation, leaving agricultural land unused for years, and negligence in embankment repair turned the stakeholders against TRM in the end.
The BWDB also failed to initiate TRM in Beel Kapalia due to opposition from locals; TRM was suspended following a clash in 2012 when local farmers, allegedly influenced by fish farmers and politicians, attacked the then Parliament Whip Sheikh Abdul Wahab as he went there to inaugurate the project.
Since the Kapalia incident, the government has been reluctant to implement TRM in the Bhabadaha-affected areas.
Indrajit Baidya of Kapalia village explains why he was also among the people opposing TRM at the time.
He has around 150 decimals of land in the Beel. He cultures carp fish on 125 decimals of that land inside the polder. Ten years ago, he himself spent Tk50,000 to build those.
"As TRM was partial, only a selected area was under the project. Moreover, we did not trust the authorities, as we knew about the lack of compensation in the other beels," Indrajit recollected.
A few years ago, he used to cultivate Boro on the land during the dry season. He could withdraw the water by pumps, but it has been impossible since then as the catchment canal also has become silted. Now, he sticks to fish farming only.
"But I do support TRM now, because the process will make our land fertile and suitable for fish farming of the best kind. But it should cover the whole area and the authorities should ensure timely compensation," Indrajit added.
Professor Ainun Nishat also puts his faith in TRM, terming the system "nature-friendly".
"Additionally, and more importantly, a comprehensive master plan is required as only TRM alone cannot solve the crisis. Construction of the Ganges Barrage, navigability of the upstream and downstream and more on are crucial for a sustainable solution," Nishat concluded.
Former BWDB officer Amirul, however, thinks that implementation of TRM, particularly for the Bhabadaha, will not work since the land setup of the area has changed. He fears it will create water-logging in the end.
"The Bhabadaha region lies on an active delta and the tributaries-distributaries are changing their courses all the time.
"Due to the decreased upstream flow, the tide and ebb cycle rolls on unusually. For example, tide takes three hours while ebb takes nine hours, resulting in increased sedimentation in the southwest rivers. In this situation, I have my doubts about the effectiveness of TRM," Amirul.
Five years ago, Amirul worked as a director of the BWDB project for eradication of waterlogging in Beel Dakatia.
Under the project, BWDB restored all the dysfunctional sluice gates of polders located in the Beel Dakatia area with the support of local representatives and influential fish farmers.
"A similar measure cannot be effective for Bhabadaha until the natural water bodies of the affected area's drainage capacity is restored," he added.
According to BWDB studies, water velocity in the Western Estuarine System covering the Bhabadaha is very low because of the death of the Mathabhanga. On the other hand, the Eastern Estuarine System covering the Beel Dakatia receives more water from the upstreams which are connected to the mighty Meghna.
"Restoration of the drainage capacity is a must for conserving the natural ecosystem of the region," Professor Nishat added.
Lack of political will?
Amirul had led the restoration of canals, sluice gates and dykes around the Beel Dakatia while implementing the government's Blue Gold project. Under the project, around 50km of different canals were dredged, Beel Dakatia drainage routes were restored and dysfunctional sluice gates were repaired or replaced by new ones.
And all these tasks were done by collaboration between government officials and people's representatives who were presumably the protectors of elite fish farmers. The outcomes were positive though.
The dredged canal could contain more runoff and became the major source of irrigation water during the Robi (winter) season. Waterlogging almost disappeared. Farmers could even cultivate and harvest crops and vegetables in 2020, the year that witnessed cyclones like Amphan and Bulbul and the pandemic.
"If the people's representatives kept opposing the initiatives, we would not have succeeded," Amirul recalled.
Former Principal of Bhabadaha College Motaleb Sarder, a long-time campaigner for sustainable solution of Bhabadaha crisis, believes that political will is crucial to solve the crisis.
"Unfortunately, ruling politicians as well as the campaigners are divided into multiple factions. And the victims have no other option but to seek God's blessings," Motaleb said.
Affected people say that the political elites and businesses in the region do not want an immediate solution to the crisis because they can cash in on it, as it brings quick money through fresh development projects.
Bhabadaha Pani Niskashan Sangram Committee organisers often accuse the local lawmakers, including Swapan Bhattacharjee, the State Minister for Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives, for taking the side of the elites.
"Swapan Bhattacharjee supported the fish farmers during the inauguration of TRM at Beel Kapalia. Later, he became the parliament member in 2014 with the support from the fish farmers. Now he controls the majority of the canal cutting projects," said a local, preferring anonymity.
Swapan told TBS that he was against the TRM because the "locals were against TRM at that time as they feared being deprived of compensation."
When the government made a commitment to the landowners that those in the TRM project area would be compensated properly, he said he gave his support to TRM.
"Now I see no alternative to TRM, at least in the short-term. But the Water Resource Ministry does not want TRM any longer," Swapan said.
He added that the ministry and its wing BWDB are focused on river dredging and canal cutting, which are nothing but "hoaxes".
"I think the water authorities want a continuation of the crisis," said Swapan.