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Story Publication logo August 6, 2010

For Bangladesh's Nomadic Islanders, Flooding is a Fact of Life

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In Bangla, "easy like water" translates roughly as "piece of cake." The irony is that in Bangladesh...

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One of the first things you notice in Bangladesh is the human density. With an estimated 160 million people in a country the size of Wisconsin (and 30 percent of that covered by water), people are everywhere. So it is somewhat startling to see no one in any direction. But such is the case here in the middle of the Jamuna River, where the 4-man crew for "Easy Like Water" has come to explore the lives of the "nomadic islanders" who live on the shifting silt "chars" that dot this massive river.

Surrounded by water and no shoreline visible in either direction, we stayed on a houseboat next to the Emirates Friendship Hospital, docked on a flat mud island covered with tall grass. Friendship is an NGO that brings medical and educational services to the char dwellers, who count among the poorest of the poor. The houseboat and hospital ship, with a generator, showers, dining service, and a lounge with TV, is truly an oasis. Among the other visitors were a Norwegian photographer doing a story for National Geographic on climate change, and two American med students conducting a six-week survey of vaccination trends.

Here in northern Bangladesh, everything is flat, and the chars flood frequently during the monsoon season that stretches from June to September. As we rode a rustic diesel-powered boat out toward the chars, we could see the mountains of Assam, India rising in the distance. Our translator / reporter, Mainul Khan, told us how, in 1947 when Great Britain decided to carve up its colonial empire in South Asia along religious lines through the process known as "partition," Lord Mountbatten, India's last Viceroy, was informed it would take three years to come up with a plan. Impatiently, he grabbed a map and a pencil and drew the line that would create Pakistan in 30 minutes. In the process he created a country comprised of two non-contiguous regions, East and West Pakistan. Problematic from the start, East Pakistan broke off through a violent war of liberation in 1971 to create Bangladesh. Looking out at the alluring mountains just over the border, one Bangladeshi grumbled, "They kept all the highlands for India."

Indeed, Bangladesh is a horizontal place, and water seeking its own level is constantly re-writing the geography. The estimated 6 million people living on the chars are reminded of this every day. In July, monsoon rains and high water flow from upstream in India flooded many of the lower-lying chars, forcing an estimated 600,000 people to flee, seek higher ground (often already occupied by people not open-minded about suddenly having new neighbors), or to find creative ways to get vertical in a hurry.

On a fragile slip of land near the more established char of Shidai, we saw how water had cut across the tiny village, and had flooded some lower-lying huts. People here are constantly bringing in dirt to build up elevation for their homes, even by a foot or two. We met one elderly migrant farmer whose kitchen hut was still partially submerged, but whose tin home was now above water. Two weeks ago the water was about 18 inches high in his home, and he showed us how he had suspended his wooden cot from the ceiling. Rice and other foodstuffs still hung in bags to keep them dry. He told us he moved here five months ago when his previous char washed away.

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