The lives of littoral people in Rehania

by Tamanna Nazneen

Rehania, a coastal village of Bangladesh in Hatiya island, Noakhali. Cyclone, coastal flood, water salinity are some of the common natural hazards in Rehania. Recently, a research survey named DECCMA (Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation) under RMMRU (Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit) has been held in this area. For this reason, I had the great opportunity to go to Hatiya and observe the lifestyle of the people in the Rehania village.

Most of the people of Rehania are the victim of natural hazards like flood, river erosion and cyclone. They migrated here from other coastal areas of Noakhali, Lakshmipur, Bhola and Sandhwip (Chittagong). They lost everything from river erosion and cyclones. Government re-habilitated them on the two sides of river dam and gave two decimal lands per family. But it was inadequate for them.

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There is lack of effective livelihoods. At first, they earned their livelihood by farming and fishing, but the farming lands in the surrounding areas are also affected by floods more than three times in a year. Flood water is very saline here and as a result, the farming lands become saline. During dry season, a white layer of salt is visible on the land. So farming becomes difficult here. Farmers grow Aaush paddy (a variation of paddy, grows in summer and be harvested during monsoon), chilli and ground nut, but in the most cases crops were destroyed because of flood and water salinity.

Due to global warming, sea levels are rising and salinity of the sea is entering up stream through rivers and feeder canals. Most of the farmers thus leave farming and change their liveli-hood. In recent years, they earn their livelihood by fishing and doing other jobs through migra-tion. Seasonal migration is an important livelihood strategy to these families. More than 70% of their incomes are derived from outside the village. Among the seasonal migrants most of them work in brickfields in Chittagong. They always go there under a contract and after a working season they come back to home with their wages, of which a mentionable amount is spent for buying fishing nets and boats (in share). They also send some remittances for their family. Fishing is their monsoon season job and during dry season they always migrate for other work (specially in brickfield).

In Rehania, many women are self-employed by animal husbandry. They lease cattle and tend. In exchange, they get some money and can sell milk after giving a specific portion to the cattle owner. When we went to Rehania village for the survey and wanted to interview them, at first, they thought of us as government workers who had come to them for reporting about their life conditions so that they could get their desired governmental help like, materials for building more sustainable house and sanitary latrine. They were eager to take effective training about cultivation method of flood prone areas and also wanted subsidy for agriculture, saline water tolerant crops’ seeds and fishing materials.

When they came to know about our research and its aim, they became tamed, but most of them spread their helping hand and cordially responded to our questionnaire. Though their life is afflicted with lots of pain, they never give up their smiles and hospitality. Whenever we went to any respondent’s house they treated us with green coconuts, ground nuts, mangoes and whatever they had. We were amazed with their cordial behaviour and realized again the hospitable nature of the Bangladeshi people.

We were also amazed with the children of Rehania. They were very interesting. They cu-riously stared at us, what we were doing with our tablets and questionnaire paper. They wanted to follow us whole the time, but we insisted that they not follow us and instead that they go to their school. Whenever it was possible we offered them chocolates, biscuits, juice to have with us. They also gave us red hibiscus flowers. This flower is available in every house and road sides.

Natural disasters are a part of their life. They always have to face it and struggle against it just like other littoral people. Naturally, they are brave and have adaptational capacities in such a hostile environment. They know how to keep their house safe from cyclones by planting banana and coconut trees around their houses. For a better livelihood they migrate to other places and try to send remittances. They are optimist about their life. They just want some governmental help to make their livelihood more sustainable. The days may be hard, but their hopes and aspirations never be tamed. The always-smiling face is the symbol of their life spirit.

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Trees and tender-heartedness in Borguna

by Shihab

Now a days, migration and climate change are talked regularly. When one person goes from one place to another, this is called migration. My long dream was to come to work with RMMRU. I think that these days were some of the greatest days of my life. As a supervisor, my main task was to supervise and monitor the field.

First of all, RMMRU selected a team. That team consisted of seven members (including myself). My first trip was to Assassuni in Satkhira Districts. After a long journey, we came Satkhira, but when we disembarked from bus, we faced different types of problems that came one after one. Due to the strong bond of my team, we overcame all the problems. Every member of my team was kind and our sophisticated thinking allowed us to handle any type of problem easily. After Assassuni, we went to Kaligong in Satkhira. Kaligong was excellent area. After completing our work in Kaligong, we reached Satkhira Sadar.

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As usual, we woke up early in the morning, and after completing our breakfast, we went to field, but we didn’t find anyone. After searching, we came to the conclusion that there was a listing problem. So, we came back to Dhaka with the work unfinished. After four days rest, we went to Borguna. Borguna field was very much enjoyable compared to the other areas. Every village of Borguna was covered with trees and informants were so friendly to us. Right now we miss those people. That was the story of two fields, they are Hoglapasha and Borguna Sadar. But Gendamara was different field and also difficult. I’ve never seen a village as massive village as Gendamara. There was no transport systems in whole village. Villagers were used to walking. So, they have no problems, but we are not accustomed to walking. We worked here easily and were enthusiastic about being there. After completing our Taltoli field, we went to Patuakhali Kalapara. After completing Kalapara field, we got one day vacation, we use it to visit Kuakata where you can watch sunset and sunrise. We saw some nice nature and water. In this same way we finished our Patuakhali Sadar and Mirjagong field. Banajora Boufol in Patuakhali was so dif-ferent from the other places. We encountered some folks who held strong views and this created some difficulties. Still, we enjoyed afull moonlit night with the river blows. That was amazing. After four days rest, we prepared to go a new field in Chandpur. We know Chandpur was abounding with fish. Above all, I like to describe my happy moments. However, I think I hold this memory in the corner of my heart. Thanks to RMMRU for this excellent trip, I eagerly await the next opportunity.

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Migration & Adaptation: A Short Story of Khulna & Jessore

by Md. Niaz Murshed

Khulna is the third largest city in Bangladesh. It is situated on the banks of the Bhairab and Rupsha rivers. It is also the centre point of the Khulna division. Khulna is also known for its port. This division consisted of ten districts and it is the gateway to the world largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans. Mangla is home to an important port for Southwest Bangladesh. It has fabulous natural beauty, but the lifestyle is not so easy here: drought, cyclone and other weather events are a regular phenomenon here. With each day, the risks increase. The local people have to fight for water on a regular basis. Khulna is also in a dangerous point because of climate change. Experts think that the future will be worse than the present.

image001 Phultola is a village in Batiaghata Upazilla near Pashur river. Most of the population is educated. Some people are living in other cities because of their studies and employment, and some are living abroad. People are mainly involved with agriculture. They are producing seasonal fruits and crops including paddy, daal, several vegetables etc. Most of the houses are made of wood and leaves. Some people are engaged with prawn cultivation. Drought and cyclone are the main natural disasters here. Because of the saltiness in the soil, agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult.

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Saral ward of Paikgacha Upazilla is situated just in the middle of the Upazilla. Most of the peo-ple are permanent residents here. They are mainly engaged with business, though some people are involved with prawn cultivation.

The devastating form of nature can be seen from Amurkata , a village of Soladana Union of Paikgacha. It is situated near the river, Shibsha. The village has poor communication systems. Van, motorcycle and various local vehicles are the main medium for transport. For 2 pots of wa-ter village women have to go three or four kilometres away from the village. They don’t have proper drinking water or water for daily use. Most of the people work outside of the village. Most of them go to Gopalganj or Khulna district for a job. During cultivation, men and women work together in the field. Amurkata has huge lakes for prawns. Those who have smaller fields cultivate prawns and crabs. Because of saltiness in the water, they do not have any other option for cultivation. Houses are made of several leaves and soil. Because of the cyclones, there is a school which can be used as a cyclone centre as well.

image003Our second place was Jessore beside Kapataksha river which is related with poet Michael Madhushudan Dutta. Jessore is one of the districts of Khulna. Jessore is also one of the oldest cities. It has eight Upazillas. During the British Raj period, Jessore was a “mahakuma”.
Kotoali, Bagharpara , Keshobpur and Manirampur were our workplaces. Bahadurpur of Kotoali Upazila had less risks. Sekandardarpur of Bagharpara and Panjia of Keshobpur are less affected by natural disasters. Only Diganga of Manirampur has the risk of flood, but it is not because of nature, but because of drainage problem.

After observation on four Upazillas of Jessore we found that people are mainly involved with agriculture. But they work in their own fields with different vegetables, paddy, mustard, daal and wheat. They produce fruit for a commercial purpose.

To have good lifestyle, people work in the capital city, their own divisional city or abroad. For higher education many people live in cities.

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Work with RMMRU and DECCMA: seeing a new side of Bangladesh and feeling a deeper connection to the country as a whole

by Rabeya Bosri Chandni, Research Assistant

While working at RMMRU, it was easy to forget I was in an office. Everyone is very cordial there. Colleagues are often introduced as “senior friends.”

image001We worked in Khulna, Jessore, and Bagerhat Districts. Among the various field-sites we worked at, I remember two names especially – Moralganj and Amurkata. In my opinion, the situation in Amurkata indicates the unequal development that occurs across Bangladesh. Many essential facilities seem to be lacking or in need of improvement. Similarly, people in Moralgonj face difficulties in accessing clean water, while also being vulnerable to getting trapped in the oppressive loan-interest cycle.

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These experiences have certainly impacted my professional life, but they also made an impression upon my personal life. The culture of team-work that I encountered in the work, especially, has influenced me in a personal way. As well, I feel even more connected to my identity as a Bangladeshi citizen because of my participation in this work.

Through this work, I have seen my country in a new face, which is not gorgeous, not well-developed. It is, I think, a sleeping beauty. The visits to various Upzillas of Bangladesh have created a feeling of real citizenship for me. Living in a particular area gives a person a particular sense of identity, of belonging. However, I feel as if this fieldwork experience has enabled me to go beyond my Dhaka and Gazipur identities, so that I now feel that the whole country is my place.
I would like to thank the DECCMA project and all of my colleagues at RMMRU – I’m grateful that I had the chance to work with them, and learn so many things from them.

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Senior Bangladeshi policy maker visits University of Southampton

By Alexander Chapman, University of Southampton

Professor Shamsul Alam, Senior Secretary of the General Economics Division (GED), Government of Bangladesh visited the University of Southampton (24-25 August 2017) to continue our collaboration on several large delta-focused projects.

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The severe flooding ongoing in Northern Bangladesh, which has destroyed an estimated 640,500 homes, highlights the threat the country faces from a wetter, more extreme, future climate. As head of GED Prof. Alam oversees the development strategy in Bangladesh, including the design of over 70 large projects associated with the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, the centrepiece of the country’s response to climate change.

In his meeting with Southampton’s Vice Chancellor & President, Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, Prof Alam emphasised the importance of designing interventions which give consideration to the complexities of the social-ecological system of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta (GBM). In the low-lying GBM, where interactions with upstream developments, flooding and storm surges, and rural livelihoods are constantly changing actions can often have detrimental effects if not systemically analysed. Through three ongoing multi-million pound research projects the University of Southampton and its partner The Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) aim to provide integrated systems modelling support to the government. Our work will help stakeholders, drawn from a cross section of society, understand the impacts of future policy trajectories.

On day one of the visit Prof Robert Nicholls, Principle Investigator of the ESPA Deltas project, reported on our progress evaluating two of GED’s key coastal zone projects. The team are currently calibrating the ESPA Deltas model, ΔDIEM, ready to simulate development of large-scale coastal embankments and natural buffers in the Southwest region. In March 2018 ESPA Deltas will report on the poverty, livelihood, and ecosystem service implications of various different options being looked at in the Delta Plan. Looking forward, the DECCMA project, which has also placed great emphasis on stakeholder engagement, hopes to provide insight into different migration and adaptation policy trade-offs in the coastal region. Prof Alam is Chair of the Bangladesh National Advisory Expert Group within the DECCMA project – a group of key stakeholders that provides high level direction to the project.

On day two we discussed the projects’ legacies. In October Southampton will host a further representative from GED, as well as two researchers from BUET, as we aim to build in-country capacity to run and best utilise ΔDIEM and other integrated models for policy evaluation. Both building knowledge sharing and capacity building into ongoing projects, and ensuring a pipeline of technical and research projects into the future are important objectives for GED, who have strong ambitions for poverty reduction and livelihood improvement in Bangladesh. The team spent a productive afternoon with Ken de Souza of DFID discussing how to build legacy for the current work which, it is hoped, is only a test case to demonstrate what is possible with collaboration on integrated systems research projects.

It was a pleasure to welcome Prof. Alam to Southampton, his passion for achieving ambitious poverty reduction goals in such a challenging context, and his openness to challenging conventional approaches to policy were impressive. We look forward to working together further and playing our part in building in-country capacity which will hopefully serve Bangladesh long beyond the lifetime of our research there (which, with a bit of funding luck, still has a good few years left in it!).

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“Working as a Project Manager makes me feel like The Dark Knight who is a silent guardian and a watchful protector” – on simplifying research messages about climate change, adaptation and migration in deltas

By Sumana Banerjee, Jadavpur University

One of CARIAA’s research objectives is to “build new capacities by strengthening expertise among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners”. Ensuring that our research informs policy and practice is thus a critical component of what we do. Communicating their findings to audiences beyond their peers is often a novel idea for academics and here Sumana Banerjee, DECCMA’s project manager for India,  reflects on some of her experiences in trying to support this. 

Speaking from my experience of working closely with researchers, I realised that they find it difficult to translate research concerns or findings to outputs which can be easily read by stakeholders. They are keener to write for an academic journal than for the project’s blog. I feel this has to do with the way researchers are trained, where skill to write dissertations, thesis, and academic papers is stressed upon. Internet has changed our lives and it often made me wonder if schools could teach on how to communicate to different audiences: blog-writing as well as essay writing, email writing alongside letter writing, and micro-blogging for Twitter in addition to precis writing. This would not only make lessons more exciting but also help the students in their professional lives later on.

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Working in the capacity of a Project Manager makes me feel like The Dark Knight who is a silent guardian and a watchful protector. Just like a good guardian, I find myself “guarding” my research team from questions such as “what is this supposed to mean?”, “what do you aim to do with you research” by answering them myself simply and without confusing jargon.

I often write blog posts for the project website based on the researchers’ experiences at training workshops or their findings. Hailing from a non-science background, I initially found it difficult to talk about work with my team and I could not see myself writing about their scientific findings and experiences.

The one thing that I had to do was ask questions to learn more and ensure I understood the research findings myself. My colleagues were patient and kind enough to answer my questions or discuss my interpretations.

Soon I was able to simplify jargon into understandable phrases – “5m contoured areas” became “areas within 5m of height from mean sea level”; “negative net migration” became “more people leaving than entering (In-migration< Out-migration)”.

It is DECCMA’s policy for researchers to write a blog post after engaging in fieldwork, or attending a conference or workshop.  When I would request researchers to submit a blog post it would often be met with displeasure, or the output would be a highly technical one, fit to be published in an academic journal.

I used to edit the articles they submitted by asking questions (again!) and checking if I interpreted the technical bits correctly. Then I planned to make my life a tad easier by sharing a questionnaire with them which would coax them to provide brief and simple answers. With specified word limits and seeking answers in only certain areas which would be relatable by all, this simplified the writing process for the researchers and me. They did not have to think and write from scratch to suit a blog audience and I did not have to get stuck at every second sentence and ask questions to produce a simple write up.

Going by Plato’s concept of Art being twice removed from reality, I am often concerned while simplifying write-ups if I have over-simplified and distorted the message or not communicated it accessibly for a non-expert. As a cross-checking process I use a method which my dad used to employ on me before my exams, which I hated back then but value so much now.

My dad used to come around and ask me if I am all set for the exams and start chatting with me. I expected him to ask me questions to test my preparedness but he never asked questions and instead asked me to “teach” him what I learnt. Every time I tried sharing a well-memorised definition, he would discourage me and ask me to explain it to him as he found the definitions too difficult. I used to get annoyed that, in spite of knowing the concepts, he pretended not to know anything and wasted my time before an exam!

I feel so grateful to him for encouraging me to explain things in my own words  with examples and funny imaginary stories. Now, I use this method after writing a simplified piece. I share what I have understood and written in the form of a short narrative with the researchers and if they feel I have captured what they tried telling, half my job is done. Their approval is a nod that I have not distorted the message.

The next thing that I do is give the article a good read – as a non-expert if I feel comfortable reading the article and understanding the message, I feel convinced that a stakeholder would do too. Working in a research team, I have been somewhat inducted into their world of jargon and at times I fear (yes, it is fear!) that unknowingly I would use or retain some of the jargon and it would not strike me as “unrelatable”! As a double check against this, I narrate a gist of it to my husband who is in advertising and quite removed from research or academia. If he understands what I say, I feel happy that it will be an easy read.

This communication of research messages has been a learn-as-you-go experience for me and I find this interesting. This learning would not have been possible without the patience of the people who endured my questions and narrations. My quest to understand and simplify research messages involves informal chats and asking a lot of questions. I often felt hesitant to ask questions that I might be bothering but I decided to stick to what a wise person once told me –

“It is better to ask questions and do the right things than not ask questions and do the wrong things.”

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DECCMA 7th Consortium Meeting held in Ghana

By Prosper Adiku and Gertrude Domfeh

The DEltas, vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECCMA) project held its 7th Consortium meeting in Ghana on Sunday July 2, 2017 at The Royal Senchi Hotel. DECCMA is a research consortium of five institutions from Africa, Asia and Europe conducting a comparative research on climate related vulnerabilities in four major deltas namely the Mahanadi and Indian Bengal Deltas (India), the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta (Bangladesh) and the Volta Delta (Ghana) and is jointly funded by International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Launched in May 2014, the DECCMA research is being undertaken in nine districts within the Volta delta in Ghana (South Tongu, Ada East, North Tongu, Keta Municipal, Ada West, Ketu South, Central Tongu, Ketu North and Ningo Prampram) under the leadership of the Regional Institute for Population Studies (RIPS) of the University of Ghana, Legon.

Kwasi and MESTI

(Image: Honourable Professor Kwabena Boateng, Minister for Environment, Science Technology and Innovation & Prof Kwasi Appeaning Addo)

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Special guests at the opening of the four-day meeting included the Minister for Environment, Science Technology and Innovation (MESTI), Honourable Professor Kwabena Boateng, the Canadian High Commissioner to Ghana, H. E. High Commissioner Heather Cameron and the members and Chair of the National Experts Advisory Group (NEAG) of DECCMA Ghana, Hon. Clement Kofi Humado .

In his welcome statement, the Principal Investigator of the Ghana project team and Director of RIPS, Professor Samuel Nii Ardey Codjoe indicated that the Institute has been involved in a number of headline research activities, and has contributed to national activities including the Nationally Determined Contributions (iNDCs) now the Ghana Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Professor Kwasi Appeaning Addo, the head of Department of the Marine and Fisheries Sciences and the Co-PI of DECCMA Ghana elaborated on the role of the project in managing adaptation issues in the country and stressed the need for collaborative efforts in tackling the myriad of challenges in the delta areas.
The Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation in addressing participants, reiterated government’s commitment to ensuring the mainstreaming of climate change issues as part of Ghana’s holistic development agenda. He enumerated several government interventions and outlined some plans to avert the recurrent flooding and erosion issues in the delta areas. He noted specifically the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) as one of the key documents that stipulates government’s direction in relation to climate change issues. He further stressed the role of research, science and technology in dealing with various environmental challenges and urged the DECCMA team on a good job well done while indicating his Ministry’s preparedness to collaborate with and support innovative ideas from the activities of the DECCMA project.

H. E. Heather Cameron (middle) with Hon. Prof. Frimpong Boateng (L) and Prof. Samuel Nii Ardey Codjoe (R) during the opening ceremony (Courtesy: Canadian High Commission)
The Canadian High Commissioner on her part expressed her excitement at being part of the DECCMA Consortium in discussing migration and climate change issues and was happy that the IDRC, DFID, the University of Ghana and others from Africa and Asia are collaborating to consider the shared challenges of communities living in delta regions. She was of the view that “cross-border research networks help to advance shared research priorities, and to also bring ideas, expertise and collaborations to advancing understanding at local levels”. Noting that migration and climate change will disproportionately affect women and girls, she was happy that the research consortium has already produced a number of papers on specific gender issues. She remains hopeful that the ultimate agenda-setting of the research consortium will reflect gender issues in similar fashion by helping give women and girls (in the delta regions) the tools and opportunities to be powerful agents of change in creating more resilient communities. She noted that the UK will continue to reinforce investments and strengthen research and innovation as part of its new international assistance policy operations in recognition of the important role of research and innovation in the development process so as to help bring research into policy and practice, and to scale-up innovative solutions that demonstrate development results.
There was also poster presentations highlighting some of the research outputs of the consortium across the various participating countries.

DECCMA7th Group

(Image: DECCMA Consortium and Honoured guests)

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The lengths one must go for drinking water

by Aysha Akter Akhi

image003I went to Noakhali, Laxmipur, Khulna, Bagerhat, Jessore, and Gopalgonj for field surveys for the DECCMA project. I gained so many experiences from this journey. Among them, I can share the place called Amurkata of Paikgacha of the Khulna district. In Amurkata, there is a scarcity of drinking water. This area of six or seven kilometres has no internal transport. People paddle from one part to another. The ground in that the area is high in salinity. There are also very few trees and the weather is quite rough. People often travel three of four kilometres by foot to collect drinking water from a deep well which is placed in “Local Bazaar.” Every day in the morning or evening, they go with one or two jars to collect water. In today’s age, this scenario is shocking to see.image001

Working with RMMRU on DECCMA; The memories I will not forget

by Rafiqul Islam, Research Assistant (RMMRU)

Life is full of experience. I want to write my experience about the journey to perform research with RMMRU, and about the memorable time which I spend with my colleagues.

I can’t express myself so smoothly in writing. First, I want to give thanks to my lord, because I think I am so lucky to work with RMMRU for a few months. In those few months I have learned many things from RMMRU and from my colleagues.

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I joined RMMRU in March, and then I started my work. First, I went to Chandpur, Lakshmipur and Bhola to conduct household listing surveys. We faced some accommodation problems. My colleagues were very supportive and helpful to me as we overcame all sorts of problems regarding staying, eating, and travelling. I was one of the younger boys on my team, so I have received love from my senior brothers. Basically I am a jolly-minded boy, so I can communicate with my respondents and my colleagues spontaneously. But when we had to go do the surveys, we had faced some problems because we had no female member in the group. When we reached each household, a few people were reluctant to participate in our survey, but generally the majority were very helpful to us in our research. After completing these surveys, we returned to Dhaka.

Then, in April, we left Dhaka again for another round of field work and to conduct interviews with selected respondents. This time I was in a new group. Our journey was good. We had 7 members on our team including me. My partner was Tamanna Apu. Frankly speaking, at first I was not comfortable with her because her way of thinking and my way of thinking was a little bit different. Gradually we under-stood each other’s work and we became good friends for the purpose of the work. My other team members like Musabbir Bhai, Saiful and Roni Bhai, Ridita and Popy Apu were too good. We had two members replacing Roni Bhai and Saiful were Himel and Tanjim Bhai. They were also friendly. Girls were so sincere for their work. Every morning girls were got up from bed early in the morning and got ready quickly. After getting ready they were waiting for us. All of these moments were so memorable for me. All these things made for a very friendly work environment. This friendly attitude among team members was not limited to the work, but also in all spheres, generally, we got along as a team. I really will not forget those days.

Another memorable day was visiting our field work by Ricardo and Rocky Bhai in Lakshmipur. I was little bit sick and nervous that day because Rocky Bhai scolded us for our mistake. At that moment I was sad after that I have realized that it was my fault. I always respect and love Rocky Bhai from the core of my heart undoubtedly. A most horrible experience occurred on 28th May 2016.On that day we started our journey from Lakshmipur sadar to Bhola on a trawler ship, when suddenly a storm began. All of us had begun to fear for our lives, but by the grace of almighty Allah we made it through with our lives. We have finished our journey through some ups and downs, but, in the end, the experience left me with one of the more significant memories in my life.

It was a great opportunity for me to work with a reputed organization like RMMRU. Finally, I want to thank all the members of RMMRU.

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The Changing Footprint in Indian Bengal Delta (IBD) (Sundarban)

By Subhas C Acharyya, Sumana Banerjee, and Dr Tuhin Ghosh.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

The Darwin Correspondence Project of University of Cambridge has revealed that this quote is wrongly attributed to Charles Darwin as it has evolved out of a paraphrase of Darwin in writings of Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge (1). Whether paraphrased or not, the essence of the quote highlights that the survival of species is dependent on its ability to adapt to change. The land use changes that the Indian Bengal Delta has been undergoing shall be documented in this post and it shall be explored whether the landscape is adapting to change and surviving or failing to adapt but trying hard to keep pace with the changes.

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Sundarbans Land TransformationThis land’s journey through changes shall be narrated in sections and we begin with the formation of the land. More than 70 million years ago when silt carried down by the Ganges and Brahmaputra River systems deposited continuously in areas of Bangladesh and India, it formed the Sundarban delta region which now lies on either side of an international boundary. This act of deposition was assisted by the back feeding of tidal actions from the sea face. Both fluvial and marine land building processes have simultaneously been at work with cyclical advancement and retreat of sea during past geological ages. The sea face gradually retreated southwards and sedimentation continued to build new land on the continental shelf. Our focus will be on the Sundarban deltaic region in India which is a part of the Indian Bengal Delta. The Indian part of Sundarbans measures a total area of 9630 sq. km which lies between 21 32’ and 22 40’ north latitude and between 88 05’ and 89 00’ east longitude. The region is bounded by the river Hooghly on the west, Bay of Bengal on the south, Ichhamati- Kalindi-Raimongal on the east and the Dampier-Hodges Line on the north. When Nature embarks on a building process, she does not leave things incomplete. After building a piece of land, Nature went on to build mangroves who she appointed as gatekeepers of her first creation. Mangroves are multifarious as they can derive their nourishment from both oceanic and terrestrial water as well as from the saline soils and can also regenerate naturally. The Indian part of Sundarbans had 102 isolated islands mostly covered with mangrove forests. The Sundarban mangrove eco-system is unique in the world because of its diversity of habits.

From Forest to Agriculture

Nature is a hard worker and continues to work hard but mankind is not so kind after all and manages to interfere with Nature’s processes. During the late 1700s, this deltaic region being a part of the undivided India was under the rule of the British East India Company who undertook plans for reclamation of these mangrove forest lands and to transfer these lands under cultivation. These low-lying tracts were occupied, where the delta building processes had not been over and circuit embankments were constructed to grab the forest land. The process of clearing the forests continued till 1878 and the remaining forest was declared “Reserved” or “Protected”. In the mid-1900s, large scale land reclamation occurred owing to the incidence of Partition in 1947, where this region experienced a huge influx of refugees from the newly created East Pakistan to West Bengal. Subsequently 54 islands out of 102 had been reclaimed mainly for human settlements and agricultural operations. While this human intervention was on, Nature did not throw a tantrum for toying with her plans but did her best to provide support. By virtue of the monsoon rain, these saline soils became cultivable with rice. The lands were protected by embankments where the accumulating rain water helped to dissolve the nutrients in the soil and made the rice farming sustainable. This could have been an end of land transformation and thereby the happily-ever-after but life in the delta is a bit more challenging which will lead us to the next step of land transformation.

From Agriculture to Fisheries

The Sundarbans region of the Indian Bengal Delta saw a growth of population which could not sustain itself on the mono-cropped rice based agrarian economy. Low per capita land and poor cropping intensity worsened the situation. The poverty level started becoming very high. Under these pressures, the farming communities started exploring avenues to shift livelihoods through harnessing natural resources namely forest resources and aquatic & marine resources. The situation may be defined as – land surplus to land scarcity and labour scarcity to labour surplus. Brackish water fisheries (Bheries) with monoculture of tiger prawn (Peneaous monodon) emerged as a lucrative option for the people. Large tracts of agricultural lands were transformed to brackish water fisheries in north and central blocks of the Sundarban region by breaching embankments and letting the saline water into the cultivable lands. The prospect of exporting these cultivated prawns attracted money and muscle power in this transformation process. The agriculture-based landscape in seven blocks had been changed to brackish water fish farms which altered the socio-economic set up of the area. Yet again, this could have been an end of the land transformation process but the challenge faced from this transformation was the harbinger of the next transformation.

From Aquaculture to Brick Kiln

While the commercial aquaculture farming was emerging successful, the area saw an out flux of people as the agricultural labour went out of jobs as the labour requirement for fishery operaion was lesser than that of crop husbandry. The happy state of affairs of the export-oriented commercial aquaculture farming in Sundarbans began to decline in course of time for the various reasons like decreasing productivity, disease infestation in fish stock, non-availability of quality brood stock, increasing cost factors, failure to export, etc. The fishery operators now changed gear and focused on the thriving brick manufacturing industry with political patronage. The brick field owners used the opportunity & cooked the land owners to give away their lands on higher lease rents for operating brick kilns in the aquaculture farms. The intending operators procured permission from local self-governments to start brick kilns. Over the past few years, hundreds of such brick kilns have rapidly cropped up in these areas and is gradually becoming a feature of the Sundarban landscape. The conical chimneys standing around 100’ tall with thick black smoke billowing out of them is polluting the air in adjacent areas. Having traced a trajectory till the present time, the story of transformation of this landscape will pause here.

Going back to the quote with which we began this post, it brings two contrasting thoughts to mind. The land of the Sundarban delta having undergone changes, from the green verge of deep mangrove forests to rice fields to supporting brackish aquaculture farms and finally giving way to brick kilns, is proof that it has survived. But the costs for this survival should be examined. When a lot of costs are involved, it makes us think if this survival is at all adapting to change or whether it is a frantic scratching the walls of the well before getting lost in the bottomless pit. The Sundarban region of the Indian Bengal Delta emerges as an adult who in spite of being shattered from within puts up a brave front in times of loss.

We hope for a change in this landscape where we put efforts to make a sustainable living and give something back to Nature who can rebuild this landscape the way she envisaged hundreds of years ago. Before the future landscape comprises only of ruins of brick kiln structures with heaps of burnt soil alongside huge unproductive water bodies, we need to think of corrective measures. We still have the luxury to imagine lush green forests with a range of flora and fauna when we hear Sundarbans. It will be a pity if our future generations use only the black, brown, and grey crayons to colour a Sundarban of their times.

Bibliography

1. The evolution of a misquotation [Internet]. Darwin Correspondence Project. 2017 [cited 24 March 2017]. Available from: https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/people/about-darwin/six-things-darwin-never-said/evolution-misquotation.

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