Cyclone-damaged embankments urgently need repair

Millions of people in cyclone-affected Bangladesh face an increased risk of hunger unless an intricate network of protective river embankments is repaired now.

Of the nearly 10,000km of embankments and dykes protecting the country’s southern coastal belt, over 25 percent are estimated to be damaged after Cyclone Sidr slammed into the river-delta nation on 15 November.

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Some 35 million people live in the country’s 19 coastal districts, comprising 30 percent of the country’s total land area.

“My paddy crop survived the cyclone, but if the embankment breaks I will lose everything,” said Sobahan Mridha, a local farmer in Naya Para, a largely agricultural village of 500 people in Bangladesh’s cyclone-affected Barguna District.

Should that happen, like most cyclone survivors - many of whom have already lost their homes and crops - Sohaban’s ability to sustain his family will be lost.

His livelihood is dependent on the rice, bananas and betel leaf he grows on his single hectare of land.

When the cyclone struck, killing over 3,200 and leaving millions homeless, the earthen embankments prevented a four metre tidal surge from inundating his property and standing crops, much of which he still hopes to harvest in the coming weeks.

The fact that most of those who perished lived outside the confines of such polders further highlights their importance.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Sobahan Mridha points to his damaged banana trees in cyclone-affected Naya Para. His only source of income now is his partially damaged patty field

“If it wasn’t for the embankment, we would all be dead,” Mridha said.

Polders - a first line of defence

Built from the early 1960s onwards to protect residents from tidal flooding and saline intrusion, today’s network of 124 polders of varying sizes and extending up to 100km inland, provides a first line of defence for millions living along Bangladesh’s coastal belt.

The network has proved to have significantly reduced loss of life and damage during cyclonic surges.

“Before then, there was no protection, resulting in significant loss of life and damage,” Ghiasuddin Ahmed, chief engineer for Bangladesh’s Water Development Board in the south of the country, told IRIN.

With average ground levels in the country’s coastal areas just 1.5 to 2 metres above sea level and tidal surges reaching up to 6 metres, the consequences of such cyclonic surges can be deadly.

In 1970 a cyclone struck Bangladesh killing about half a million people, while another in 1991 killed over 130,000. Polders, cyclone shelters and a strong early warning system were critical components of the country’s disaster preparedness.

“Most people in this area live behind such river embankments,” Moshiur Alam, the deputy commissioner of Bangladesh’s adjacent cyclone-affected Patuakhali District, told IRIN.

“If there were no polders, there would have been a greater loss of life and property,” he agreed.

But despite that fact, many of these life-saving embankments have fallen into disrepair; a reality the Bangladesh authorities are all too aware of.

“They need to be better constructed and better strengthened,” Alam conceded, citing a severe lack of financial resources.

Three weeks after the disaster, the worst to strike the country in just over 15 years, that call, however, has taken on a new sense of urgency.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
An estimated 25 percent of the country's nearly 10,000 km of embankments were damaged when Cyclone Sidr slammed into Bangladesh's southwestern coastal belt

As survivors struggle to rebuild their lives, the livelihoods of those living behind embankments that have yet to be repaired are now under threat.

And with 90 percent of the country’s coastal population living within polders, and over 80 percent involved in agriculture, the potential impact on food security for such communities cannot be denied, experts say.

Next spring tide on 12 December

Meanwhile, for farmers like Sobahan, the clock is already ticking: Water levels could rise by as much as half a metre on 12 December when the next spring tide is scheduled.

“This will happen with certainty,” explained Andrew Jenkins, team leader for the Bangladesh Water Development Board’s Integrated Planning for Sustainable Water Management (IPSWAM), actively engaged in repairing a number of polders with the assistance of the Dutch government.

Moreover, once the water drains out of the breach, the gap will become even bigger and the embankment weakened even further.

“Unless the larger breaches are repaired immediately - with the harvest season upon us - many of these people living in the polders will lose their crops,” the IPSWAM official warned.

According to the water board’s Ahmed, not repairing the polders could spell economic disaster: “We have no choice. We have no option. We have to do it and we have to do it now,” he said.