Kathinka and I arrived in Elisha, a town on Bangladesh’s Bhola Island, early Sunday morning, tumbling out of the auto into a cluster of tin-shed buildings huddled on the bank of the Meghna River. The water teemed with fishing boats, wooden half-moons coughing black smoke and bearing tattered flags. We watched them from the road – a narrow band of mud and asphalt that doubles as an embankment and which, cracked and eroded, looks like an apple tasted and discarded by some ravenous river monster. Up ahead, a truck lay overturned on the riverside. Its wheels had slipped through the crumbling embankment, and it seemed, to me at least, like a fresh victim of the riverbank erosion that has for decades been washing Bhola’s land into the Bay of Bengal.
Kathinka and I, along with Arvid and Rigan, our translators, spent eleven days in Bhola talking with people about riverbank erosion: perhaps the most serious issue currently facing people there. Each day, the Meghna swells and recedes, stealing land bit by bit until whole sections of earth fall into the river. During cyclones and bad storms, high winds blow across the water, whipping up tall waves that crash onto the bank. In a process that one fisherman described as “grasping,” the water snatches homes and shops from the exposed shore.
The Meghna has, according to many of the residents we spoke with, swallowed up land more hungrily in recent years. In Elisha, it is impossible to walk along the bank without meeting people who have lost their homes to the river. I talked to a grey-haired tea stall owner who twice watched his shop collapse with the faltering earth. The second time the river snatched his stall, a hut of corrugated tin propped up on bamboo stilts, the water rushed in so quickly that he didn’t have time to look behind him as he fled from his crumbling shop. Further down the riverbank, I asked a businessman where he was from. He simply pointed a wrinkled finger at the middle of the Meghna River. These men had been lucky enough to find new land, but many others we met remained huddled on the side of the embankment in huts fashioned from bits of tin and plastic bags, landless and exposed.
Landlessness is a uniquely devastating condition. Land not only provides people with the means for making a living, but it also roots families, cultures, and traditions in a particular place. Without land, people become dependent on other people and forces – landlords, bosses, labor markets – and, as a result, lose a certain degree of self-determination. As the effects of climate change become more acute in Bangladesh, land loss – and the related issues of migration and population pressure – will become an increasingly salient problem and one I hope to explore in more depth as I continue my research.