Illegal hill-cutting due to rampant building has left some 70,000 people at risk of landslides in 18 sub-districts of Khagrachhari, Rangamati and Bandarban hill districts, as well as the city of Chittagong, warned specialists.
Of these, 40,000 live in Khagrachhari, 20,000 in Rangamati and Bandarban, and 10,000 in Chittagong, the country's industrial centre, according to Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, a forum of citizens and organisations working on the environment.
"Clusters of houses on hill slopes sprang up due to the government's failure to enforce environmental laws," said Satya Nandi, a retired headmaster of the Rangamati Girls High School and a resident of 60 years.
Environmental activists have long cited indiscriminate development and land degradation as undermining the area's ecological stability.
"In recent years greedy earth sellers and contractors have made the hills more vulnerable to collapsing by steep-cutting them," said Golam Mohammad Panaullah, a leading soil expert in the country.
|In recent years greedy earth sellers and contractors have made the hills more vulnerable to collapsing by steep-cutting them.|
But despite a government ban on the practice, illegal hill-cutting continues in Chittagong, Cox's Bazar and the three hill districts unabated, posing a serious threat to life and the environment.
"The rainwater washes the loose soil of the open-cut hills down the rivers, canals, lakes and other water bodies, causing massive silting. This causes harm in two ways. First, the sandy topsoil of the hills damages the fertility of the agricultural lands, and second, as the rivers and lakes are filled up, the frequency of flash floods has increased in recent years. The space for fishery has also been alarmingly shrunk," said Muhammad Abu Daud of Paribesh Surakkha Andolon (movement for protecting the environment), a local NGO.
More than 300 people have been killed in landslides in Chittagong in recent years.
Nineteen people, 12 of them children, died in landslides in Cox's Bazar district in the first half of July alone. On 3 July, 14 people died in rain-induced landslides at Teknaf and Ukhia sub-districts of Cox's Bazar, while two people in one family were buried alive under mud the following day.
On 14 July two more died under a mudslide at Himchhari in the same district.
In June 2007, a landslide at Mati Jharna colony of Lalkhan Bazar, right in the heart of Chittagong, killed 127 people and injured 100 more during last year's annual monsoon, when a hill collapsed on to an adjacent slum.
Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
|A hillside in Khagrachhari showing signs of collapse|
Authorities fail to act
Environmental activists in Khagrachhari and Rangamati have lodged several complaints against influential political leaders and businesses for illegally razing hills, but to no avail.
Indeed, in 2006 the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association issued a legal notice to the ministries of environment and forest, land, and public works to take action against such practices but little has changed.
"Decisions have been taken to relocate those who live in areas that are exposed to danger. We don't have money to do that," complained Manindra Lal Tripura, council chairman of the Khagrachhari Hill District.
Deputy Commissioner of Rangamati Muhammad Nurul Amin said he instructed all sub-district executive officers to warn local residents of the danger.
"District information officers have also been instructed to make public announcements about the risk of living on the slopes or at the foot of such hills. People have also been told to move to safer places," he said.
Yet public announcements and half-hearted actions by government and local bodies do not seem to be working, residents say.
"A vigorous campaign on safe living is needed. Those who live in areas vulnerable to landslides need to be relocated properly. People do not live here for fun. They do not have any better place to go," Anjulika Chakma, a resident of Lal Khan Bazar, asserted.
On 22 July, Hossain Jamal, the Divisional Commissioner of Chittagong, said his office had submitted a US$14.7 million project to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief to build multi-storied homes for 2,400 people who live in high-risk areas of the city.
Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
|A multi-story building built at the bottom of a hillside in Chittagong|
In addition, an environmental team comprising government officials, local volunteers and NGOs had been established to look after natural disasters and protect the environment with a view to maintaining ecological balance in the division's hilly areas.
"Nearly six acres of land has been earmarked for the construction of such houses. But it will take time," he confirmed.
Meanwhile, whenever heavy rains strike, district authorities can do little more than dispatch teams of public announcers to high-risk areas in a bid to convince residents to leave their homes temporarily. Some comply but many more do not.
According to a recent report, The Hills of Bangladesh: Endangered Ecology, special legislation is required to protect the hills by providing well-defined rules and conditions that need to be fulfilled during construction. "This has to be different from rules applicable to building on plain land," the report concluded.