Kurigram, Bangladesh: Piyara Begum once had a happy life in Garuhara village by the Brahmaputra river in northern Bangladesh, but worsening erosion of the river banks has displaced her family seven times.
Now Piyara, 30, has taken shelter in Panchgachi village, eight kilometres away in the same sub-district of Kurigram Sadar.
“I am always concerned about where Piyara and her three children are living, and how she manages her family expenses, as she has lost everything due to erosion,” said her uncle, Abdul Majid, who still lives in Garuhara village.
The loss of Piyara’s home is taking a toll on her mental and physical health, he added.
Riverbank erosion is a common problem along the mighty Brahmaputra during the monsoon, but scientists say climate change is making the phenomenon worse by contributing to higher levels of flooding and siltation.
According to villagers in Garuhara, about 200 families have been displaced by erosion there in the last two years.
Majid fears that if the trend continues, the whole of the village will go underwater, rendering about 1,000 families homeless.
But some of those who want to escape that prospect cannot – because they are unable to turn their assets into the cash they need to pay for their move.
Abdul Malek, 45, a farmer in Garuhara, had 0.4 acres of agricultural land on the banks of the Brahmaputra, but the river washed away half his plot during the monsoon last year.
“My family had no problem in the past as we cultivated crops on the land to meet our food demand. But now we are facing trouble,” he said.
Malek and his family are planning to migrate to another part of the country after selling their homestead, but they cannot find a buyer because the property is at high risk of erosion.
Other families in Garuhara village who also want to up and leave are trapped there for the same reason.
Erosion rates rising
The Brahmaputra is a transboundary river, originating in southwestern Tibet, flowing through the Himalayas, India’s Assam state and Bangladesh, and out into the Bay of Bengal.
Climate change has contributed to rapid siltation of the river in recent years, which is intensifying bank erosion during the monsoon, Bangladesh water resources minister Anisul Islam Mahmud told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A 2014 study from the International Union for Conservation of Nature showed that the flow of the Brahmaputra is influenced strongly by the melting of snow and ice upstream, mainly in the eastern Himalaya mountains.
This century, as temperatures rise, the river is likely to see an overall increase in flows throughout the year, driven by more rainfall, higher snow melt rates and expanded run-off areas, the study said.
Every year, the river carries silt from the Himalayas and deposits it downstream in Bangladesh, creating myriad islands known as chars.
When floods occur upstream on the Brahmaputra, amid more intense bursts of heavy rainfall linked to climate change, the silted-up river has less capacity to carry the huge volume of water, accelerating bank erosion.
Maminul Haque Sarker of the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), a Dhaka-based think tank, said the erosion rate has increased at some points of the river in Kurigram, Gaibandha, Jamalpur and Sirajganj districts.
A 2015 CEGIS study put the annual rate of erosion along the Brahmaputra at around 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) in recent years.
Bangladesh’s major rivers combined consume several thousand hectares of floodplain annually, destroying homes and infrastructure and leaving people landless and homeless.
A 2013 study by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka and the UK-based Sussex Centre for Migration Research estimated that riverbank erosion displaces 50,000 to 200,000 people in Bangladesh every year.
Those displaced by erosion become isolated from their families and wider social networks, and most have no scope to return to their roots.
Majid from Garuhara village said many of his neighbours and relatives have already left for other parts of the country and do not see each other even once a year.
Minister Mahmud said riverbank erosion works like a silent cancer and can be more devastating than storms or floods because it takes everything people own, including their land.
“People have the chance to return to a normal life if they are hit by a cyclone or flood,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If people once become displaced due to bank erosion, it is quite impossible to return to normal life.”
CEGIS deputy executive director Fida A. Khan said people often have family cemeteries or other religious monuments on the riverbanks that are claimed by erosion. Those structures may not be worth much economically, but have high social value, he added.
Jahera Begum, 45, another victim of riverbank erosion, had a homestead in Balchipara village in Kurigram Sadar sub-district, but the river washed away all the village land during last year’s monsoon, uprooting about 100 families.
“My husband has already gone to Feni district seeking work. I am temporarily taking shelter in my relatives’ house at Garuhara,” said Jahera, who is planning to head to Feni or even Dhaka soon.
Bank erosion has not only claimed all her family’s belongings, but has left them facing an uncertain future, she said grimly.