Across the Ganges to South West Bangladesh and the Sundarbans
The next morning, our group of 23 American and Bangladeshi students and teachers crossed the Jamuna River, as the Brahmaputra is known here, to Sirajganj Hard Point. This concrete embankment was built to protect the town of Sirajganj from the slow westward migration of the river. Because it now protrudes into the river, they extended the land north and south to level the bank. The hard point also provided a great view of the Jamuna.
We then headed west for the long drive to the Lalon Shah Bridge over the Ganges, passing the nuclear power plant under construction. On the other side, we headed to Kushtia, where the Gorai River branches off from the Ganges. Arriving in the afternoon, we headed straight for Shilaidaha Kuthibari, the home of Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. His poems provide the lyrics to the national anthems of Bangladesh and India.
The Gorai River, a major supplier of fresh water to southwestern Bangladesh, has silted up. People wonder if this is due to the Farrakka Dam in India diverting water, the natural evolution of rivers or climate change. From an embankment near our hotel we could see much of the river covered in sand and dredges to keep the channel clear.
We headed closer to where the Gorai meets the Ganges. Here, sediment has moved the bank 1.5 km, narrowing the once wide drawdown. While our interview team, speaking to people about environmental change and migration, stayed to speak to people living in the first village built outside the original embankment, the rest of us walked through the sands to the river, then north to the Ganges along a new dyke. We found dredgers filling in the land behind the new embankment with dredged material, banana orchards and visited a brick factory, all on land that was once the Gorai River.
After collecting everyone, we stopped for a late lunch at our hotel and started the long drive to Khulna. After dark, our speed slowed down so that we did not arrive at the ghat (quay) until after 8 p.m. The wooden campaign ship carried us home for the rest of the trip, the M/V Kokilmoni. I have been on this 85ft Sundarban tourist boat several times. For much of southwestern Bangladesh and all of the Sundarbans mangrove forest, boats are the easiest way to get around.
Our first stop is Sreenagar on Polder 32, a steep-sided island that was flooded for 2 years after Cyclone Aila in 2009. The island has saline groundwater, so people can only grow one crop of rice per year during the monsoon. We sailed there partly during the night to be able to arrive in the morning. A new bridge recently built is too low for the Kokilmoni to pass so we stopped before and used the country boat for the last mile to Sreenagar.
Carol visits the family that owns the land containing her RSETs and watches over the equipment.
Carol Wilson showed us her RSET instrumentation which measures elevation change and sedimentation. Kazi Matin Ahmed showed us a now unused managed aquifer recharge system that stores monsoon water underground to improve availability during the dry season. Lack of fresh water during the dry season is a major problem here. I mentioned my GPS, on another part of the island, to measure land subsidence.
After their presentations, we divided into 3 groups. The now experienced migration interview team was one of them. A second group studies landscape changes from remote sensing, in particular the increasing tree cover farther east. They will conduct interviews to understand the changes observed by the satellites over the years. The rest, a group studying flooding in northeast Bangladesh using remote sensing, stayed with me and the other teachers.
We met the family hosting Carol’s gear and they immediately gave us coconut water and tamarind despite our protests. Masud and Carol then demonstrated how RSET measurements are made at one of its sites. Their measurements confirm that the land inside the embankment receives neither the monsoon flood waters nor the sediments it washes away as it sinks. Meanwhile, the water level and the open land on the river are rising. The difference in altitude of 1 to 1.5 meters is the cause of the 2009 disaster, the interior of the polder being flooded at each high tide. And the problem continues to get worse. The polders initially improved agriculture, but unexpected subsidence is a challenge to their sustainability. It forced some areas to switch to shrimp farming instead of rice farming.
We returned to the embankment road and continued along the island on foot, by autorickshaw and our field boat, the 2 interview crews joining us along the way. We drove to the site of a large-scale industrial shrimp farm over half a kilometer away. One of the interviewees who spoke to our students said that she was driven off her land, probably by shrimp farming. Maybe they just rented their land rather than owning it.
We then all returned to the Kokilmoni for a 3am lunch and set off for the Sundarbans, stopping at the start of the Sundarbans to pick up and protect the tigers. We had a barbecue on the boat at the edge of the Sundarbans, before sailing to our next stopover in the night.
Before dawn, we all got up for a silent boat ride through a tidal channel in the middle of the forest. This channel used to be a meandering loop in the river we travel through, but the river has cut it. Most of the loop has filled in with sediment and plants so only a small stream remains. We traveled then cut the engine and continued to row alone to hope to see wildlife in the early morning. Unfortunately it was a very foggy morning so our pitches were few. However, we were able to discover the forest up close. On the way back to the Kokilmoni, the crew bought fish from a local fisherman. As we ate breakfast, the Kokilmoni started heading south towards Katka on the shore of the Bay of Bengal.