"We have been staying on an embankment under the open sky with four kids since our house was destroyed in river erosion. Having no house to live in, no food to eat, we are living an inhuman life. The government has given us nothing but a piece of tarpaulin sheet. Who knows what is in store for us in the future?" Fatema Begum, 62, of Protapnagar union of Ashashuni upazila in Satkhira, wiped her tears as she narrated the family's ordeal.
"We had everything but river erosion has made us destitute. We could not do anything but watch it all and shed tears," she added.
Fatema is among 36,000 residents in the Pratapnagar union who have been waterlogged in saline water for the last 18 months. Consequently, the main source of income of the people – crops and fish production – has stopped. As many as 5,000 people have moved elsewhere and those who are still staying here run their families with their savings.
Experts have said climate change is causing frequent floods and severe tidal surges, endangering the lives and livelihoods of millions of Bangladeshis. New areas are losing their fertility due to saltwater aggression on the coast.
Cyclone Amphan on 20 May 2020 caused the collapse of the embankment on the River Kholpetua and washed away the agricultural lands and fishing grounds of Pratapnagar and adjoining Sriula union in saltwater. The affected people are yet to recover from the loss.
On 26 May 2021, the embankment on the Kholpetua broke under the impact of the effect of Cyclone Yaas. Although 14 out of 15 erosion-affected points were repaired, the dam in the forest area of Pratapnagar has not been repaired to date. As a result, the saltwater of the river is flowing through the vast locality of Pratapnagar.
Saddam Ghorami of Pratapnagar village used to live with his family about one kilometre away from Kholpetua. A month and a half ago, everything, including land owned by the family, was eroded by the river. At present, the family is staying in a roadside hut.
Saddam said thousands of people like him have become homeless as the damaged dam in the Bonnotola area has not been repaired yet.
Faruk Hossain has been living in a rented house in Rupsha upazila with his family since he lost his house and around 1.5 bighas of land through river erosion.
"I used to earn by transporting people on rented motorcycles but at present, I pull a van for a living. I have lost everything. If I ever get a chance to go back to the area, I will return," he said.
As a result of the waterlogging, fishing and farming, the two main professions of the locals, has come to a stop. A huge area of agricultural land and shrimp and other fish enclosures have been devoured by the river. Reduced to a state of destitution after losing everything, many have sold their cattle and other belongings in order to maintain their families. Some people have changed their professions.
Fish farmer Saidur Rahman said he had fish enclosures on 15 bighas of land which have gone underwater.
"I have no income now. Many people have migrated to other places but I cannot do that as I do not have the kind of money required to settle somewhere else," he said.
Ashashuni Upazila Fisheries Officer Saikat Mollik said, "In Pratapnagar union, 1,300 farmers have 1,477 fish enclosures on 1,530 hectares of land, which have been completely damaged by Cyclones Amphan and Yaas. The farmers have incurred a loss of more than Tk15.30 crore in the last 1.5 years."
Rajibul Hasan, Agriculture Officer of Asashuni Upazila, said, "The agriculture sector in Asashuni has been devastated due to natural calamities. Protapnagar union has suffered the most. No agricultural products have been produced in this union since Cyclone Yaas hit the area. Earlier, paddy was cultivated on 220 hectares of land in the union. The level of salinity has increased as river water enters the locality. There is no possibility of normal agricultural production being undertaken soon."
Protapnagar Union Parishad Chairman Zakir Hossain said, "Almost all of the 36,000 people in 8,118 families in the union have suffered from natural disasters. Some have lost their homes or agricultural land while others have lost fish farms or other businesses. It is not possible to solve this problem without sustainable embankments on the coast. People do not want food, they want sustainable dams."
"Farmers used to grow crops and vegetables on their land and sell them after meeting their family needs. At present, they can neither grow anything nor afford to buy produce from others. Having no employment and income, over 5,000 people have migrated to other areas," he added.