The forgotten people of our wetlands
There is something surreal about Bangladesh's wetlands. Miles of beautiful scenery, of sparkling shallow waters surrounding patches of land full of greenery. The waters teem with fish that the local fishermen can make a living out of. We are naturally blessed with several types of wetlands too—rivers, haors, beels, baors, chars, coastal islands, marshes, you name it. Yet the plight of the people who live on these wetlands lies almost invisible and forgotten to us beneath all this beauty.
Picture this: You live in a tiny makeshift hut with a family of four on an island in the coastal areas. You wake up every day to have nothing but panta bhaat and daal, (plain soaked rice and lentils) and get to work at a farm or a fishery. After a long day of gruelling work that hardly pays, you count yourself lucky to be able to afford something like fish, or meat if you somehow manage to afford that luxury, for lunch with the staple rice in the late evening. Drinkable water is rare, and you pray that water levels around the island you live on do not rise and contaminate your food, drinking water and crops with saline water, as well as hoping that the ground beneath you does not vanish into the waters that keep closing in.
This is a common scenario for the everyday lives of people living in the remote wetlands of our country. The Household Income and Expenditures Survey 2016-2017 pointed out that the poverty rates shot up from 2010 to 2016 in places like Kurigram, Dinajpur, Sherpur, etc. Some places, like Kurigram (71 percent) and Dinajpur (64 percent), had shocking levels of poverty. Terrible nutrition values and diseases are commonplace in our remote wetlands, and the people find it impossible to escape the poverty trap. Environmental hazards like storms and soil erosion are norms, too.
To add to that, people in the wetlands are also helpless against natural disasters, as evidenced by the havoc unleashed upon our coastal areas by storms and tidal surges triggered by Cyclone Yaas. To quantify the damage, about 6,000 families' homes were flooded in Koyra upazila, nearly 2,570 houses were damaged in Cox's Bazar, 727 kilometres of roads were damaged in Patuakhali, and so on. Tens of thousands of people living in shelters—5,000 in Koyra upazila alone—suffered from a lack of food and water. All this, after seeing their homes and whatever little belongings submerged or destroyed, and their crops and livestock killed off as collateral damage by the cyclone's wrath.
Relief groups, mostly non-government ones, often try to help these people through raising awareness about their rights, safety measures and providing food relief to impoverished families. They also get to see the terrible states of the people living in the wetlands first-hand.
Mohammad Amirul Huque Parvez Chowdhury, one of the founders of Upokul Foundation (one such relief group), spoke of some heartbreaking details when interviewed about his experiences. He commented that it is very difficult for the people living in the coastal islands to earn livelihoods. The power dynamics in these regions are very wide. The money that, for example, the fishermen earn from selling the fish they catch is proportionately very small compared to what the middlemen earn from reselling them. None of the equipment (neither the boats, nor the nets) belongs to the fishermen, so they are completely dependent on the middlemen for their livelihoods, as they cannot afford the equipment themselves.
Amirul Huque confirmed that the people in the coastal areas also find it very difficult to move around from one place to another, as transport systems are either perilous or non-existent. So, essential facilities like schools or hospitals are out of reach for the inhabitants. He added that the income potential in these islands is huge, but the people who are making it possible are not earning what they deserve.
To present an example, he pointed out that he had visited a char once that had managed to fish hilsa worth around Taka four crore in a single year. The chars, however, are not regulated optimally, and thus extreme poverty and low living standards plague the inhabitants. So the relief and the spread of awareness that Upokul Foundation and other relief groups provide are just not enough. If the government were to step in, things would take a turn for the better for the lives of the poor.
From an agricultural point of view, the people in our wetland areas produce mind-boggling figures when it comes to agricultural and fish-product yields. These wetlands are ideal breeding grounds for many sorts of fish stock such as rui, katla, mrigal, etc. According to the USAID statistics on Bangladesh's wild fisheries, our fisheries contribute about seven percent of the world's inland fish productions. As for agriculture, an ongoing research abstract by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) pointed out that the haor region of the Meghna basin in northeastern Bangladesh alone manages to produce 27 percent of Bangladesh's total boro production and 15 percent of our total rice production.
We would not be wrong to expect, then, that the segments of our population which contribute a huge chunk of the Tk 2,874.26 crore in exports (Fiscal year 2019-2020, upto January 2020)—through fisheries alone—deserve to live with some form of certainty about their lives and livelihoods. The people who live in and around the wetlands either have poorly managed facilities (schools, healthcare institutions and clinics), or no such facilities at all.
NGOs have tried to help these unfortunate groups, but it is not enough. Our government has the resources to provide them with properly maintained schools and healthcare facilities—and physical roads to get to these places. Strong embankments can be built to prevent tidal waters from posing so much of a threat. Awareness campaigns on how soil erosion can be slowed down or stopped through mulching and laying down sandbags on the banks and backyard gardens can be carried out or funded by the government, too. Proper regulations of fixed and fair prices to fishermen and farmers could be imposed as well, with consequences available for middlemen that try to underpay the people in need.
The people of the wetlands, despite their contributions to maintaining the food security of the country, are neglected and forgotten, as if punished for their ill fate of being born in such remote areas. The government and non-government organisations must make concerted efforts to provide these people with the basic rights of food, shelter and education, as well as fair earnings from their livelihoods.
Araf Momen Aka is an intern at the editorial department of The Daily Star.