Guardians of the embankment

by Naushad Ali Husein
June 10, 2020

On May 20th Super-cyclone Amphan began heading towards the shore of Padmapukur, a cluster of coastal villages in Bangladesh. As the majority of its villagers took shelter, Friendship’s Uttam Kumar lead 30 young volunteers to repair the town’s embankment.

The embankment surrounding Padmapukur was built to prevent sea water inundating the island during high tides and cyclone surges. If the dam breaks, salty water floods the area, destroying fish enclosures, contaminating ponds, picking up filth from the latrines and flooding houses. Despite the importance of these embankments, the Head of Climate Action at Friendship Kazi Amdadul Hoque has warned that the majority are ill-adapted to rising sea levels having been built in the 1960s.

Uttam is the president of the Friendship Disaster Management Committee (FDMC) and the de-facto “guardian of the embankment.” As soon as the warning for Amphan was sounded Uttam began to fortify the dam. During low tide on the morning of Amphan’s landfall, Uttam took his team of volunteers to fix the final break in the embankment. Unfortunately, the low tide lasted less than an hour, not giving enough time for a sustained reinforcement of the embankment by hand, and so  eventually the sea broke through the hurriedly prepared dam, nearly sweeping several workers into the river, as they fought against time to save their homes from the deluge.

Cyclone Amphan proved to be deadly. 26 people were killed, more than 220,000 houses damaged, and 176,000 hectares of crops destroyed in Bangladesh alone. During the storm tens of kilometres of embankments collapsed, including Padmapukur’s, which was breached in 6 places. 2.4 million people were evacuated to shelters in the coastal belt of Bangladesh where social distancing was impossible. In order curtail the spread of Covid-19, Friendship installed hand washing stations outside its shelters and equipped responders with three-layer cloth masks, in addition to some 60,000 masks that have previously been distributed within this vulnerable community.

The next morning Uttam urged the villagers to come out during the low tide to fix the embankment.

“Every able-bodied person, Hindus and Muslims—even though the Muslims were fasting—brought their shovels and baskets and set to work together,” says Uttam. “We repaired all six breaches that day.” Although the embankment is temporarily secure Uttam says, “the damage is done. All of our ponds have been contaminated with the poisonous sea water. It will be years before we can get fresh water from those ponds.” The community are now concerned with rebuilding their livelihoods.

“The Water Development board outsources maintenance of the embankments to contractors from across the country,” says Kazi Amdad. “But the local people have intimate knowledge about the embankment, and also a direct stake in the durability of repairs. Timely work needs to be done. Thus their role in its upkeep should be institutionalized.” The way things stand, locals are equipped only to do temporary, makeshift repairs.

Uttam says the Water Resources Minister, the Deputy Commissioner, the subdistrict chairperson and others have come to see the situation in Padmapukur, and promised projects to secure their water source and fix the embankments. But until these projects are completed, the community has only its own strength to turn to.

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