As climate change increases the frequency of natural disasters, people in the coastal areas of the south-west are increasingly being forced into temporary migration for survival and work
Piyara Begum, like other Lebubunia villagers, took shelter on the Gabura embankment when cyclone Amphan hit on the night of May 20. The cyclone had destroyed a portion of the polder and sank it into the River Kobadak, inundating the Piyara's home, and that of thousands of others.
After three days, Piyara returned to her corrugated iron roof hut, while it was still under water. Ever since cyclone Aila in 2009, Piyara has been moving back and forth between her home and temporary shelters several times in a year, as saline water regularly inundates her little hut. She wonders if there is a permanent solution to her problem.
"If our houses were built on raised pillars, saline water would flow underneath without forcing us to become homeless every time," Piyara said.
But that would be an expensive solution.
To lift her house on a five-foot pillar would cost at least Tk 1 lakh. The maximum a family receives as relief is Tk5,000 and a bundle of corrugated iron sheets.
So far, none of the government's rehabilitation projects involve building raised houses. The newly-built cluster village in Burigoalini went under waist-deep saline water during Amphan.
Like Piyara, millions of people around the country are temporarily forced out of their homes every year because of natural disasters like Amphan, which have increased in frequency as a result of climate change.
Several studies suggest that increasing sea surface temperature causes frequent tropical cyclone in Bangladesh.
Since 2007, at least seven cyclones hit the coastal zone of Bangladesh so far, damaging more than four million houses, partially or fully.
Hasan Mehedi, chief executive of a local NGO Coastal Livelihood and Environmental Action, said that because of the absence of climate resilient embankment and housing, coastal people are more vulnerable to climate change.
The earthen wall in Lebubunia, on the bank of the River Kobadak, was merely two feet wide. It should be a minimum of 13 feet. The wall stands for whatever is left of the Gabura embankment.
"One after another cyclone puts us in peril. We need a long-lasting embankment. Otherwise, we will be killed someday due to frequent cyclonic assaults," said 65-year-old Shafiqul Gazi.
He can recall cyclone Aila, especially because of its devastating impact. Each emergency repair of Gabura embankment since 2009 has mostly been patchwork.
Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) engineers in Shyamnagar confirmed that in the last 10 years, no major renovation was undertaken in the three Shyamnagar polders with 350km embankments, including the one encircling Gabura.
"All the emergency repair work was done on a temporary basis," said Rashidur Rahman, BWDB's sub-divisional engineer. Due to unavailability of budget, the necessary repairs are often left half-done.
"With the current fiscal year's budget allocation, we are now repairing 15km instead of 33km embankments affected by Amphan," Rashidur said.
In the countryside surrounding Gabura embankment, enclosed shrimp farms dotted the landscape. Protected by haphazardly laid out sandbags and concrete blocks, and a few swamp trees of the green belt, the embankment seemed too weak to resist the powerful tidal waves threatening to engulf it.
The tides in coastal rivers in recent times were two to three feet above the average water level, according to BWDB engineers.
According to design specifications of the BWDB, the height and width of coastal embankment in the south-west of the country should both be 4.26m. The BWDB, however, recently proposed the height and width be raised another 1.5m, through an amendment.
The embankments are being affected from both sides – rising water of the river and water enclosures in the countryside, according to BWDB.
In the late 1950s, the coastal zone was divided into polders to protect agricultural land from saline water intrusion. However, the embankments in time became enclosures for shrimp culture.
At present, shrimp culture takes up almost 80% of the 85sqkm Gabura island, robbing it off its agricultural fertility. Crab culture is the latest fad.
At least 15 labourers are needed to complete paddy cultivation on a 10-bigha land. On the other hand, shrimp or crab culture on the same land requires one worker on the same amount of land.
"Frequent cyclones and tidal surges are intensifying salinity in the area, bringing more land under aquaculture as well as reducing the scope for agriculture," said ecology and biodiversity researcher Pavel Partha.
"If the situation continues, more people will migrate, though temporarily, to other places."
Three of Rafiqul Gazi's six brothers moved to Jashore and Shyamnagar from Gabura after Aila fearing further damage to their homestead and livelihood.
Rafiqul, 70, said, "What is the benefit of living here? There is no work."
Although few people from Lebubunia have permanently displaced, many young people temporarily migrate to Dhaka, Pirojpur, Barishal, Gopalganj, and other places for seasonal employment.
The migration takes place particularly during winter when the rivers dry up and saline water intrusion from the sea increases. The migrants work in brick kilns and agricultural farms as day labourers from mid-October to mid-April.
"I can earn more than Tk10,000 per month from a brick field. I have to depend on the savings for the next six months as there are no jobs in Lebubunia," said Didarul Islam, 40.
Gazi Mohammad Masudul Alam, chairman of Gabura union parishad, said, "It is tough to return to agriculture. As success in aquaculture still depends on luck, people have no choice but to do seasonal jobs."
Cyclone Amphan washed away almost all crab farming boxes of Burigoalini resident Abeda Parvin. Although crab farming was profitable for her till last year, losses she incurred due to Amphan made her a loan defaulter.
Her husband Jahangir Alam collects fish and crabs from the Sundarbans during monsoon. He is now planning to join the migratory workers of brick kilns.
Abeda's house was located just at the bottom of Burigoalini embankment which was breached by Amphan. Her two-room residence had totally collapsed, forcing the family to move to a neighbour's house.
Instead of feeling safe about living adjacent to an embankment, Abeda feels more scared. The fear permeates the entire village of Gabura.