The landmass of Bangladesh is increasing by 20 square kilometres annually as tonnes of silts from rivers accumulate in the Bay of Bengal, forming new land, according to a study of the Bangladesh Centre for Environment and Geographical Information Service (CEGIS).
Over the last 100 years, around 2,000 sq-km of land has been added in the country, the study finds by analysing satellite images.
According to the CEGIS, every year, Bangladesh loses 32 sq-km of land due to erosion in rivers and the sea. On the other hand, 52 sq-km of new land emerges from the water.
The result has been published in a publication of "Char Development and Settlement Project- Bridging". The project is jointly financed by the land ministry, International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) and the government of the Netherlands.
Rezaul Karim, land settlement officer of Ifad, said, "Bangladesh has regained 1,000 sq-km of land lost in the last 100 years due to river erosion. Of this, 93% of land is on the coast and the remaining 7% is on various rivers. The total area of the new land is about 2,000 sq-km."
However, Mohammad Shahidul Islam, director of Remote Sensing Devices, CEGIS, told The Business Standard that the rate of new land formation has decreased in recent years.
"The government has been working on the newly formed chars in the coast of Noakhali since 1973. However, the amount of sediments flowing through the Brahmaputra, Meghna and Padma rivers has decreased recently. At the same time the newly formed chars are being lost for various reasons. River erosion has also increased."
According to the Ministry of Land, the Noakhali coast of the Bay of Bengal has extended 55 km south in the 100 years from 1913 to 2013. Two cross dams built in 1957 and 1964 to protect Noakhali from the erosion of the River Meghna facilitated the formation of new chars in the surrounding areas.
Since 1980, land development work has been carried out in the newly formed chars which have now become green agricultural land.
From 1994 to June 2021, the government has allotted 83,798 acres of khas land (government-owned land) to 36,281 landless families. A target has been set to provide land to another 5,719 landless families by June 2022.
Nurul Islam, a resident of Noakhali's Char Mujib Asrayan project, said, "My grandfather was a resident of Sonapur in Noakhali. About 90 years ago, he settled in Char Badua. That is where my father was born. Later a new char Char Bhata formed in the south and he settled there. I was born in that char."
"But 20 years ago, I sold all the properties in Char Bhata for my father's cancer treatment. Now we are living in the newly formed Char Mujib's shelter project," he added.
In 2010, Alauddin and Bilkis started a new life on the 150-acre land provided by the government in Char Nangulia. The couple started farming with a small loan of only Tk5,000. At present, their capital is about Tk5 lakh.
Like them, at least 600 families have prospered in Noakhali's Chandina Union in the last one decade.
How new land is formed
According to the report of the Ministry of Land, in 1913 the coastline of Noakhali was near Sonapur. However, in the next 100 years, it spread 55 km south to Kearingchar.
Two cross dams were built in 1957 and 1964 to protect Noakhali from the erosion of the Meghna. These dams helped sediment accumulation. As a result, new land formed out of water. Besides, huge amounts of chars started to form due to the Muhuri dam at the mouth of Feni river after 1986.
Google Satellite images show that by June 2021, these lands expanded to about 20 km southeast. Many small chars in the River Meghna and the Bay of Bengal are slowly growing which will merge with the mainland of the country.
However, according to CEGIS, the 1950 Assam earthquake played the most important role in the formation of new land in Bangladesh. As a result of the landslide in that earthquake, a huge amount of silt started coming down from the Himalayas along the rivers.
From 1943 to 1973, 43 sq-km of land was formed in the territory of Bangladesh every year.
According to the Institute of Water Modeling (IWM), the area of southern Bangladesh increased by 629 sq-km in the 200 years from 1780 to 1980. In the next 41 years, another 83,798 acres of land have been developed under the Land Reclamation Project and the Char Development and Settlement Project.
In the last 100 years, many chars including Nijhum Dwip, Nolerchar, Kearingchar on the Noakhali coast; Urir Char, Bhashan Char in the Sandwip upazila of Chattogram have emerged from the water.
In Bhasanchar, which was formed almost two decades ago, 18,347 Rohingyas have already been relocated from Cox's Bazar refugee camps. Ganguria Char, formed within 1.5 km of Bhashan Char, covers an area of 100 sq-km. According to local people, cultivation would start in Ganguria Char in four to five years.
According to people concerned, at least 10 times more land is being formed around Hatia than the land being lost due to erosion. The newly formed chars in the west of Hatia include Dhalchar, Char Mohammad Ali, Char Yunus, Char Awal, Moulvirchar, Tamruddirchar etc. Besides, seven chars have also risen in Hatia river.
In the next one decade, the area of these chars will be about 500 sq-km.
Besides, new lands are being formed in the southern part of the country including Barisal and Khulna. Experts estimate that the area of these lands will be about 33,000 sq-km.
Saidur Rahman Chowdhury, professor of the Institute of Marine Sciences and Fisheries, Chattogram University, told The Business Standard, "These lands have been formed due to some favourable environments. However, they can also disappear due to slight changes, Therefore, both hard and soft methods can be followed to save the lands."
"The first thing to do in a newly formed land is afforestation. It is a soft method. Mangrove afforestation plays an effective role in this. Besides, if cross dams and technological initiatives are taken, like in the Netherlands or Singapore, the area of land that will rise on our coast in a few years will be about 15,000 square miles," he added.