Voices from the Frontline

Months of persistent action: Kamarkhali’s fight to save their village from riverbank erosion

In the north-central region of Bangladesh, Shebika Shangma along with six others mobilised their local community to build an embankment to protect their village from riverbank erosion. This is the eighth of the ‘Voices from the Frontline (Phase-II)’ stories by ICCCAD and GRP.

Written by: Douwe van Schie, Maliha Masfiqua Malek, Rawnak Jahan Khan Ranon & Afsara Binte Mirza
GRP Areas of work: Knowledge Theme: Climate change Disaster risk reduction

The Indian Meghalaya region is commonly called the rainiest place on earth. A multitude of rivers carry the water from India, through Bangladesh, to the Bay of Bengal. One of these rivers is the Someshwari River. Four kilometers into north-central Bangladesh, the Someshwari River flows by a village called Kamarkhali. The Kamarkhali community, like most Bangladeshis living in a riverside village, has a long history of coping with floods and riverbank erosion. Adapting to these hazards is part of Bangladeshi life and culture. However, riverbank erosion has increased significantly over the last decade; presumably due to high rainfall levels in the Meghalaya region and sand mining in the Someshwari River. The community estimates that they lost approximately 15 feet of land during the 2014 floods, 55 feet between 2014 and 2022, and 20 feet during the 2020 floods. Houses, roads, shops and culturally significant sites, such as a 150-year-old Banyan tree and a Hindu temple, were taken by the water.

Douwe van Schie

Shebika Shangma on the embankment that the community of Kamarkhali realised after months of intensive advocacy

Taking matters into their own hands

After the 2020 flood, Shebika Shangma and other Kamarkhali residents realised that their village would disappear without drastic action; their houses and land would soon disappear into the Someshwari River. Shebika and six others formed the Kamarkhali Shameshwari Nodi Vangan Protirodh Committee (Kamarkhali Someshwari Riverbank Erosion Resistance Committee) and appointed a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. Shebika took on the role of mobilizing the women. Like Shebika, most of the members were Mandi/Garo (a matrilineal ethnic group living in northern Bangladesh and India), but people from various religions and ethnicities worked in unity.

The committee initiated the construction of a bamboo embankment directly after the catastrophic floods of June 2020. Surrounding villages donated materials and the people of Kamarkhali also bought them using their own resources. However, the bamboo poles could not withstand the force of the water and were soon washed away. The story of Kamarkhali spread rapidly, partly due to the youth sharing videos on social media.

The committee organized a large group to form a human chain. 500 people stood alongside the river, holding placards with slogans such as “people stand for people” and “we want to live here, we want to grow old in our ancestor’s land”. They conveyed a sense of resistance and unity. After seeing their protest, governmental officials such as the District Commissioner and a member of parliament came to visit. However, they did not receive any significant governmental support.

Douwe van Schie

Placard reading “We strongly demand that the administration constructs a permanent embankment in the area affected by Someshwari riverbank erosion” written by Kamarkhali youth.

Refusing to give up

Luckily, in August 2020, the river gave them another attempt as the water receded slightly. The committee decided to construct another embankment using sandbags. Shebika worked with women, who, for example, learned to sew sandbags in the scorching summer sun and filled them with sand. The youth, who had organized themselves under the name Jubo Shakti (Youth Strength), continued to record and share videos on social media and recorded a protest song, which mobilized people outside Kamarkhali. NGO workers, teachers, students, and Christian missions all went to help. 

Volunteers came to help and worked tirelessly to support the committee’s efforts. The committee tried to provide lunch for all volunteers. Shebika commented on the way the committee treated the volunteers who feel ill: “They helped us, so we should also help them in their time of need.”

Constructing the embankment did not go without challenges. For instance, when a business delivering sandbags suddenly decided to work in another location and wanted to take sandbags the committee ordered back with them, the women prevented them from leaving by physically holding their boat. “They could not take the sacks from us. What we did to survive was never done before.” Unfortunately, this second embankment was also taken by the water. Therefore, the committee, again, asked the government of Bangladesh for assistance.

Finally, the government decided to help the people of Kamarkhali. The Bangladesh Water Development Board of the Netrokona District led the construction of an embankment using sandbags. They started in February 2021, and it was completed in April of the same year. The movement to prevent riverbank erosion in Kamarkhali finally reached its goal, after more than half a year of intensive action.

Rawnak Jahan Khan Ranon

The current embankment protecting Kamarkhali

A historic flood in 2022

In June 2022, less than a year after completion, record-breaking rainfall in Meghalaya resulted in unprecedented floods in the North of Bangladesh. Embankments, trees, and houses washed away in villages such as Gaokandia, located seven kilometers south of Kamarkhali. Shebika says that without their collective action, the water would have taken their houses as well. However, she also notes that their current embankment is not a long-lasting solution. “They should have built concrete embankments, that would have been better for us. In four or five years it will likely break again, that is why we are still afraid.”

Douwe van Schie

A broken house in Goakandia, a village heavily affected by the 2022 flood

Interviewers’ perspective

The people of Kamarkhali demonstrated that communities have power if they work in unity. Their non-violent civil resistance movement brought people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds (Muslim, Hindu, Mandi, and Hajong) together. They all realized that they would lose their ancestral land if they did not take action. This unity and collective action was picked up by local and national media, and helped in convincing the government that they need a proper embankment.

Riverbank erosion is not the only issue the people of Kamarkhali face. Climate change is disrupting their lives. Sometimes quick, during floods or rapid riverbank erosion, but mostly slow, as the rainfall and temperature are changing. This impacts their agriculture activities, which is the core livelihood activity of many. However, they do not only face climatic impacts. The Bangladeshi government has scaled up sand mining activities in the Someshwari River. Large-scale sand dredging is significantly changing the river flow (many believe this accelerates riverbank erosion) and causes air and sound pollution. For Kamarkhali to reach true peacefulness, the Bangladeshi government should (a) provide them with a stone embankment so they are protected in the long term and (b) reduce the sand mining activities in the area.

About the interviewers

Douwe van Schie is a visiting researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and is supported by IIED. He previously researched local responses to non-economic losses and damages in coastal Bangladesh. Now, he is taking a value-based approach to examine ways to address losses and damages in Durgapur Upazilla.

Maliha Masfiqua Malek is a research officer at ICCCAD in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Before, she worked at the Littoral Environment and Societies of Le Centre National de La Recherche Scientifique in France and worked on the ANR Delta project.

Rawnak Jahan Khan Ranon is from Jhanjail, which is located 15 kilometres from Kamarkhali. He graduated from Khulna University with an M.Sc. in Forestry and now works as a researcher, frequently accompanying researchers during their field trips all over Bangladesh. He has worked on community-based governance, (non-economic) losses and damages, and recently researched mental health from climate change with the Sajida Foundation.

Afsara Binte Mirza became a researcher officer at ICCCAD after pursuing a degree in Economic and International Studies from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, USA. She has also interned at UN Women in New York and worked with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.