12-year-old Alomoni lives in Astomir Char on the Brahmaputra River with her parents.
The sixth grader at Notakandi High School wants to go to college. Aware of how challenging it will be to turn this dream into reality, her mother Sufia can only smile wistfully.
It takes Alomoni a 30-minute boat ride to reach school on another nearby char, Notakandi. College is on the mainland – at Chilmari in Kurigram district. It is a two-hour boat ride away.
Many char-grown children like Alomoni dream of pursuing higher studies, but for most of them, dreams never come to fruition. They drop out after a few years of primary studies.
The girls usually get married early, the boys start earning to help their families.
According to a study conducted by Unnayan Shamannay – a non-government research organisation, a student living in the charlands has to travel 2.5-5.5 km to get to school.
In contrast, a student living on the riverbank in the mainland has to travel 0.92-1.7 km.
There are fewer schools in charlands anyway.
For instance, in Kurigram district, Rowmari is a char Upazila with 109 primary schools, 26 high schools, and only 10 colleges – two of them for vocational studies.
The rate of primary education in the charland is merely 30.6%, very low considering the national figure that stands at almost 100%.
Round the year, flooding, poor communication, and lack of employment combine to make the lives of char residents much tougher than people on the mainland.
During the monsoon, they suffer from river erosion and flooding every year. They become entirely dependent either on fishing or social safety allowances. The children cannot go to school.
The rest of the year, some farm, some fish and the rest move to the mainland in search of day-labour jobs.
The scenario in the healthcare sector is almost the same as that in education.
Sonabanu, a 55-year-old widow, has been suffering from different physical problems for three years. Only once, in 2019, could she visit a physician at the Kurigram General Hospital.
In most cases, locals are dependent on the community clinic where basic services like first aid and some emergency as well as cheap medicines are available. But patients like Sonabanu need more expert healthcare.
There are very few community clinics as well. Rowmari Upazila has 27. It has only one hospital.
Sonabanu has been quite ill a few times since 2019. Asked why she had not gone to Kurigram General Hospital again, she replied, “Who will pay for my transport cost? Whatever it takes is costly for people like us.”
Flood and erosion
For a couple of years, the Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS) has been monitoring the erosion of three major rivers in Bangladesh – Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna.
CEGIS has observed that in 2019, erosion by the Brahmaputra engulfed 725 hectares; the Ganges eroded 460 hectares (from the Bangladesh-India International border to Goalondo) and 780 hectares further downstream (Lower Ganges or Padma).
The projected figure for 2020 was 1,120 hectares of erosion by the Brahmaputra, 375 hectares by the Ganges, and 890 hectares by the Lower Ganges.
The eroded area consisted of roads, arable lands, educational institutions, health facilities, and government and non-government establishments and so on.
The same monitoring organisation says that the average width of the Brahmaputra has widened from 8.5 to 12.2 km between 1973 and 2009.
Bangladesh Water Development Board data says every year about 10,000 people in the country living along the rivers have been losing their homes and livelihood because of river erosion.
Dr Maminul Haque Sarker, senior advisor on River, Delta and Coastal Morphology of CEGIS said, “Proper river training could lower the impacts by erosion. But we need to consider many other aspects.”
Md Abdul Hamid was born in 1973 at Astomir Char. It takes about an hour by boat from Rowmari Ghat in Kurigram district to reach the char.
In the early 1980s, the shoal became submerged and all the inhabitants had to move to another char, Notakandi.
In the late 1990s, Astomir Char rose above the river again. The inhabitants returned. Since then, Abdul Hamid has been living there with his family and cultivating 45 decimals of land.
Though the charland was raised, most of his arable lands are still under water. Also, he can farm only in the lean season when the flood water recedes; the harvest seems inadequate to meet his family’s needs.
Hamid grew 10 maunds (1 maund is equal to 37.3242 kg) of Boro paddy this year. This is the only crop produced in a year.
“Pricing is the main problem. Usually, brokers come to our village and purchase the paddy directly from the farmers. This year, I sold the paddy at Tk850 per maund, but the farmers of the mainland sold the similar product at Tk900 minimum.”
“If I want to sell the produces in the mainland market by myself, I would need to travel for at least two hours by boat which is time consuming as well as costly,” Hamid said, adding that the brokers have been taking the burden and making the profit.
Asked how his family survives on these earnings, he replied, “God drives us. In most months, I migrate to the mainland and work there as a day-labourer.”
Hundreds of men migrate to the mainland every day in search of jobs, leaving their family members unattended.
According to National Char Alliance, about 10 million people in Bangladesh are living in 109 charlands in different coastal and river chars. The charlands cover around 10% of 32 districts across the country.
As per the data, 64.1% of people in the charlands are dependent on agriculture for their living.
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics data says the poverty rate among the Char people is 32.4% while the national average is 24.3%.
Data from Bangladesh Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016 says 24.1% of households in the river char areas and 26% of households in the coastal charlands earn less than Tk7,000 monthly, while the national figure stands at 22.6%.
Moreover, only 33.6% households in the coastal chars and 31.3% in the river chars have proper sanitation facilities.
Economist Professor Atiur Rahman, who leads the National Char Alliance, suggested the government double the allocation of safety nets for poverty pockets like charlands.
He also expressed the urgent need for a national designated authority to deal with the problems and prospects in charlands and char dwellers. Otherwise, it could be impossible to bring the region out of poverty and hazards.
The story first published in The Business Standard.