Flood aftermath in Sunshi and Suvagachha - October 21 - 22, 2003

We had several objectives for this Environmental Monitoring Information Network (EMIN) field trip:
  • maintain liaison with communities in the study areas
  • get community and local government feelback on a flood warning system we're calling the "flag network"
  • demonstrate to CIDA our participatory approach to community needs assessment
We drove from Dhaka to Tangail in two hours, stopping at the CEGIS Tangail office to meet some District officials and have lunch. The facility is a walled property among rice paddies on the outskirts of town, close enough for security but comfortably far from the noise, dust and density of the town centre. It's a two-storey building with a couple of bedrooms, kitchen, a big meeting room, a director's office and a big open office area with a LAN, copy machine and several workstations. A little ac here and there would be an improvement. There's a K-band dish antenna on the roof, complete with high-gain amplifier, in pretty good shape. The other half of the property is an orchard of mango, coconut, lychee and other fruit trees. Hanging out there for a few weeks to do field work will be fun.

In the meeting we learned that flood forecasting information isn't being distibuted into the community as well as it could be. Some institutions, such as the Local Government Engineering Department, responsible for maintenance of infrustructure vulnerable to flooding, don't get it. Hasan Ali presented the flag network idea, which was positively received in spite of our apprehension that the administrative powers would be reluctant to support a process that by-passes them, over which they'd have no control.

The next itinerary item was Sunsi Village in Mahmudnagar Union, Nagarpur Upazila, so we set off in the vehicles again for about 45 minutes, to a landing place on the Dhaleshwari River called Elasin Ghat. We were behind schedule but the boat was even later, providing some photo-ops:

Motto of Bangladeshi ferry operators: "No full, no go". The contraption in the foreground is a fish netting rig.

We drew a crowd, mostly men as usual, but some women stood in the background watching us pigment-challenged people.

Andrea Horton, CIDA Project Development Leader for our project

The boat came. It wasn't as well appointed as some I've seen; in particular its 20hp desiel engine had no muffler so its operators were doubtless stone-deaf. The motor and propeller shafts were so misaligned that leaning against the side of the boat was like being clamped into a paint-shaker. We stuck to the eroded side of the river where it's deepest. This man is operating some sort of fishing aparatus.

An hour down the river the boatman nudged the vessel onto a muddly beach left by the receding flood and we tip-toed to drier land. The next travel mode was to be rickshaw but none appeared so we set out on foot on the path along a levee. Presently rickshaws arrived and we cambered aboard our respective rides and set out at breakneck speed, bouncing over the irregularities of the path, with brief glimpses into domestic scenes among the wattle hovels. A family strolls the other way.

We came to a spot where rickshaws fear to wheel, a slender bamboo bridge thrown up to cross a stretch of eroded levee.

This was apparently an unanticipated setback because we waited there for some time, accumulating a substantial audience as the word went out that alien beings have landed. Check out the kid on the right: many Bangladeshi babies are annointed with a soot-mark on their forehead to avoid the hubris of being too beautiful, inviting misfortune.

After quite an interval, a country boat hove up and we all piled on. Some of us are better dressed than others: the lady in mauve, Deena, is wearing high-heeled sandals, while Mary has sensible shoes.

We wound along a narrow bayou that might have been a filmset for "Apocolypse Now", ducking under low-hanging vines and bamboo bridges, holding our noses past latrines and a bloated goat carcass, gliding deeper into the heart of darkness until we burst forth into another river.

Vive le diference!

Hasan Ali explains the flag network.

The village of Sinshu gathered to hear us and tell us what they think.


The Sunshi community meeting ended just as the sun sank behind the trees so by the time we threaded our way back through the bayou to the bamboo bridge, dusk was deeply apon us. Night transformed the rickshaw journey back to the river into a dim flight by lamp-lit shanties and marshes sparkling with fire-flies, under hazy starlight obscured briefly by wing-beats of enormous bats.

Back in the country-boat the boatman felt his way up the river channels toward the vehicles. In spite of intermittent inspections of the way ahead with a powerful flashlight we still struck another boat a glancing blow. Distant lightning illuminated cloud-worlds, spilling enough our way to strobe the banks sliding by. After a long time we glided into the ghat by the vehicles and dumbly dragged our sweaty selves into their ac coolness for the last leg toward dinner and bed.

Next day we crossed the Jamuna River, called the Brahmaputra in India, on the Banglabondhu Bridge going west to the district of Sirajganj. We revisited an NGO there to stay acquainted and then continued on to the erosion-blighted Kazipur Upazila, specifically to a village called Suvagachha devastated this year by a breach in the river embankment. The river poured in and dug itself a new distributary through the settlements. It extensively flooded the cultivated land, ruining this year's crop and those for several years to come by depositing a deep layer of coarse sediment everywhere.

We hired another country-boat, better-muffled, to take us from where erosion had cut the levee and the road on it, to Suvagachha Village. Dr. Riaz Khan is the Executive Director of the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), which is the Bangladeshi partner executing the EMIN project.

The river has cut its way inside the spars intended to shelter the bankline from erosion, isolating them from the increasingly distant shore they were designed to protect.

A vestige of the embankment remains, surviving this flood season at least.

This woman may work for a week on this embroidery and sell it for the equivalent of a dollar, to be resold in Dhaka, perhaps, for $10.

A cooking stove that burns dung or firewood and holds a pot.

Young fisherman.

The floodwaters recede and life slowly returns to normal.

Snake-oil mountebank

Note: this journal is for my own personal enjoyment and does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of my employer or of the Canadian International Development Agency. 1