Hill tracts tragedy 2017 in Bangladesh

Hill tracts tragedy 2017 in BangladeshHeavy rainfall triggered a series of landslides in three hill districts of Bangladesh, and on June 12 and killed at least 152 people including four army personnel with hundreds injured and many missing. The disaster also caused power cuts and telecommunications disruptions, making it difficult for the rescuers to reach affected communities. These landslides were the worst in the country’s history since 2007 landslides which killed 117 people. The landslide pushed 15 army men down to around 30 feet, killing the four instantly. Five persons, including four children, were killed in three landslides in Khagrachhari and Moulvibazar on June 18, just last week more than 152 people were killed in landslides in five districts. The worst-hit district was with over six lakh population, where landslides buried hillside houses when people were sleeping. At least 20 separate landslides hit the district and up to 105 deaths including 39 women and 22 children were reported as of 15 June, and 5,000 homes were damaged. Roads in Rangamati remained inaccessible till 17 June. Many roads in the district were washed away, leaving craters up to 15 metres deep, or heaped with debris. The district’s power grid was also destroyed causing immense suffering of the people living there. These three district administrations released a number of makeshift accommodation homes for people expatriate and rescued from some 20 landslide spots. Most of the victims were poor Bangalee and indigenous people living on the hill slopes.

Destruction of hills and trees indiscriminately over the years has made the hills risky for living, contributing to the disasters almost every year. Thousands of people living on the slopes of hills in Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts and Cox’s Bazar are exposed to landslides in the rainy season due to cutting of hills and unauthorized use of public land. Many people cut hills and trees to build their houses while others rent shanties built on hilly land grabbed by influential people. This trend could not be stopped despite repeated landslides that claimed scores of lives in the districts over the years. The landslides in Chittagong, Rangamati and Bandarban on 12 June were history repeating itself. Environmentalists had feared of such landslides, like that of 2007 when 117 were killed in Chittagong city. In Chittagong city low income group live over 50,000 people on the slopes of 30 hills. The Hill Management Committee, after the landslides of 2007, proposed permanent rehabilitation of the hill dwellers, afforestation and building retaining walls on hills vulnerable to landslides. Several people endured in their shanty-like homes at the foot of the hills and endangering their lives, in spite of warnings by the local administrations.

The recent influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar has made matters even worse. Recently, Rohingyas have moved to some areas in Bandarban and built houses on hill slopes. Some Rohingyas too have been cutting hills in Lama, Naikkhangchhari, Ali Kadam and Bandarban sadar and building houses on hill slopes.

According to an estimate, more than one lakh people live on houses on hill tops and slopes in Cox’s Bazar town. People cut hills and trees and build houses on khas land and forests as the government has failed to rehabilitate the poor people living on the hills. On 11 June 2007, heavy rainfall caused landslides that engulfed slums around the hilly areas of the Chittagong city. Specialists had formerly warned the raising likelihood to landslides due to the government’s failure in curbing the illegal hill taking place in Chittagong. Hill cutting and heavy rainfall were the prime factors for landslides in Chittagong that caused death to hundreds people with a great property loss. This catastrophe could be checked by controlling the grabbing of government owned land on the hills and by understanding the rainfall pattern and its link to landslide in the region. Detailed land use planning of the city, landslide database, landslide mapping and geophysical analysis of the city is essential to minimize landslides and its impacts in the region. According to experts, landslides usually require a trigger, most commonly heavy rainfall or a strong earthquake. But man-made reasons such as illegal tree cutting and abrupt slash-and-burn cultivation, which erode topsoil in hilly areas, could create conditions for the disaster. Landslides incline to be most common and damaging in steep hilly zones as they are an appearance of a natural process which reduces steep slopes to less steep slopes.

In Bangladesh, the landslide-prone zones are located in the CHT region and in the north-eastern part of Bangladesh, where the foothills of the Khashia-Jaintia range of Meghalaya are located. The hills in the area are covered with lush vegetation, which in a way tightens the inner core of the structural alignment of the hills. When a hill is covered with plants and trees, the risk of sliding is less. The heavy raindrops first hit the plants and trees before the slope that reduces their energy. This slows down the impact of pouring and the topsoil cannot erode easily. But when people cause deforestation in the hilly region, the situation alters completely. The deforestation loosens up the structural alignment of the topsoil and makes hills vulnerable to landslide. Besides, people living in hilly areas do “Jhum” cultivation. They burn plants on hills to create cultivable land. As a result, the hill top becomes bare and exposed to landslides. The rain drops falling on this bare soil causes significant erosion, resulting in continuous washing of the topsoil.

In Bangladesh, the monsoon rainfall is heavy and ranges between 1,500 and 2,500 mm per year. This rainfall has a normal tendency to slide down the hill slope. Cox’s Bazar is another hilly region vulnerable to landslides. More than 200 people died in landslides in Cox’s Bazar alone during the past nine years. But still people continue to build houses on hill slopes and hilltops ignoring the risk of landslides. The main reason behind the rising habitation on hills is the price of land on the plains. So, large numbers of poor people in Cox’s Bazar are building their houses on the hills. The Rohingyas from Myanmar are also grabbing government land in Cox’s Bazar in collaboration of local powerful people. It is learnt that, more than 30 per cent of the total hill and forest land in Cox’s Bazar has already been lost to grabbers. The way people felled trees in the forest, cleared land for cultivation, and built houses on hill slopes in the Chittagong region, disasters like landslide were bound to happen. In recent times, incidents of landslide after heavy downpour have become quite common in the hill region where thousands of people live in grave danger. Experts pointed out that the government policy and actions regarding the CHT caused a rise in population in the region over the last few decades, leading to environmental degradation.

During the 1947 partition of India, Bangalees accounted for only 2.5 per cent of the CHT population. But the number rose to 48.57 per cent in 1991 from 35 per cent in 1981 and 10 per cent in 1951. In his book “Alienation of the Lands of Indigenous Peoples”, researcher Shapan Adnan mentioned that around four lakh people from different parts of Bangladesh were given the opportunity to settle in the CHT under a strategic population transfer plan during 1978-1984. Earlier in the 60s, the government built the Kaptai dam, leading to displacement of one lakh indigenous people and inundation of one-fifth of the cultivable land in Rangamati and a large portion of the nearby forest. More than half of the people in the area had to take shelter in the forest. In recent times, vegetation on hills has been cleared indiscriminately, and the hills have been sporadically cut to accommodate people and to promote commercial plantation. Such activities have harmed the nature greatly resulting to landslides, damages to houses, and deaths. Development activities, such as construction of roads without enough impact assessment is also a factor favouring landslides. Given the shocking number of casualties and property loss, the large-scale landslides occurring every year, is an appalling eye-opener to how much irreparable harm we are causing to our hills and environment. Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change due to its geographic location where high-intensity rainfall has become more frequent in the recent years. According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the frequency of heavy precipitation events is increasing in South Asia, including Bangladesh. The hills and forest came into being in a natural course having their own natural balance. If we fail to maintain this natural balance, the nature will take revenges on us.

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