Villagers in Bangladesh build ‘jungla dams’ using wood and bamboo to prevent land erosion

Over the years, the Meghna river has eroded entire villages in Bangladesh. To arrest land erosion, villagers have built eco-embankments. But, 16 coastal districts are at the risk of river erosion.

Rafiqul Islam Montu
| Updated: Last updated on August 28th, 2020,

The residents of coastal Nasirganj village used wood and bamboo to build ‘jungla dam’, an alternative dam to prevent land erosion. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

The Nasirganj rural market in Char Kalkini Union, Lakshmipur district of Bangladesh is more than 20 years old. Hundreds of shops operate out of this space, which began as a weekly shanty before turning into a daily market. It meets almost all the villagers’ needs, from grocery and medicine to fish tackles, tailoring and saloons. There are hotels and tea stalls to stave off hunger after a visit to this expansive market. 

Villagers from nearby areas such as Char Martin Union and Char Lorench Union come here too. There is also a floating market that sells vegetables and fish. The market is home to a fishing ground and many trawlers come here every day. Fishers throng the area, and it is full of life. A government primary school, a madrasa, a community clinic and a mosque have been built around this market. The Char Kalkini Union Parishad building is near the market and more than 300 families who became destitute due to the erosion of the Meghna River have built houses around this market. 

Now, imagine if all this is wiped out because of river erosion!

That’s how serious the issue is in Bangladesh. And while countries, including India, have embanked their rivers with stone-brick walls that have not really served the purpose, the residents of coastal Nasirganj village got together and used locally available material from the forest, such as wood and bamboo, to build ‘jungla dam’ based on their traditional knowledge. This alternative dam has served its purpose. It has been some months now, but the local market is safe and so are the people whose lives depend on it.

Before the onset of the monsoon, the local people built an alternative dam on the banks of the Meghna River. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

The major part of Bangladesh lies in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta. Nineteen districts of the country are identified as coastal districts. Of these, 16 are at risk of river erosion; the ones most at risk are Bhola, Lakshmipur, Patuakhali, Noakhali, Chandpur, Shariatpur, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar. Nasirganj, where villagers have built jungla dam, lies in Lakshmipur district. 

According to research data, the size of Bhola district has halved in the last few decades. In 1960, Bhola was spread across 6,400 square kilometre (sq km); today, it is 3,000 sq km. 

The island Upazilas of Monpura, Hatia, Sandwip and Kutubdia have been breaking into the river for the past few decades. Among the smaller islands, Dhalchar Union in Charfason Upazila of Bhola is about to disappear. Many smaller islands have been lost and people displaced. 

Hardwood is collected from various places for the construction of the alternative dam. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

The Meghna River is one of the widest in Bangladesh, and it can be as devastating as it is breathtakingly beautiful. In the past decade, during the torrential monsoon, many local markets have been washed away due to the erosion of the river and many villages lost. Families have been rendered destitute, the wealthy have become landless and many have moved away seeking a livelihood. This, despite talk that embankments would be built to arrest the erosion.

This year, however, was different, thanks to the villagers deciding to take matters into their hands, with jungla dam. Before this year’s monsoon set in, using wood and bamboo, they constructed an alternative fence dam. “But for this, the Nasirganj rural bazar and more than 500 houses would have been destroyed,” Mohammad Jasim Uddin, a resident of Nasirganj village in Kamalnagar Upazila of Laxmipur district told Gaon Connection. He is also the convener of the Alternative Dam Construction Committee to prevent erosion; it stepped in when erosion saw the river inch towards the Nasirganj rural market.

Kamalnagar is an Upazila in the coastal district of Laxmipur in Bangladesh, and the Meghna flows at its western end. Erosion is a common problem here. According to details gathered from multiple sources, including the 2011 Census of the Government of Bangladesh, the Department of Local Government Engineering, the Upazila Land Office and field observations, the rate of erosion increased in 1990. After 2006, it galloped. 

Bangladesh Coastal Hazard Prone Area. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Before 1990, the distance of Meghna from the Laxmipur-Ramgati regional highway was about 29 kilometers. In 2006, the river eroded to Char Falcon; the distance to the highway reduced to 19 kilometers. At present, it is less than three kilometres away. 

Before the formation of Upazilas (Kamalnagar and Ramgati) an area of 170 sq km in Kamalnagar was lost to the Meghna. The distance to the Meghna from Hajirhat Bazar, the heart of Kamalnagar Upazila Sadar, is now just 2.1 kilometers.

Six out of nine Unions in Kamalnagar Upazila (207.8 sq km of 314.86 sq km) are affected by river erosion since 2006. Of these, four have lost all land and only a small part of two Unions remains. Meanwhile, erosion has started in two more Unions. 

In 13 years, out of 230,000 people of this Upazila, 73,000 have been displaced. About one million people living on islands without embankments are at risk throughout the season.

A long alternative dam was built with the efforts of the local people. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

A local market becomes the fulcrum of change

Nasirganj is the last centre of trade and commerce in the area, and the shops and businesses here are a source of income for many. Uddin said that the locals are helpless in the face of river erosion. “I have been hearing for many years that there will be a strong embankment here. But, nothing came up. So, we were forced to provide an alternative ourselves about two months ago. It is successful,” he told Gaon Connection. If it survives for another month, many people will be saved from the fury of this year’s monsoon,” he added.

And the alternative is an eco-embankment, which the local people call ‘jungla dam’, as it is made out of resources (wood and bamboo) sourced from the jungle.

An alternative dam, such as jungla dam, seeks to reduce the tidal pressure of the river with bamboo and wooden fences, thereby reducing/preventing erosion. Large hard wood and bamboo fences are collected. At first, the timber is placed in rows on the bank of the river. Then a bamboo fence is placed on the upper part of the wood. A variety of material is provided behind the fence to make the dam sustainable.

Regular repairs are done to sustain the alternative dam. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

The idea of an alternate dam was put forth by some young people in the village that resulted in the jungla dam being constructed. They decided to protect the market from the erosion of the river with a barricade of wooden and bamboo fences. Money was collected from the shops in the market, and it was decided to build an eco-dam spanning a little more than 150 metres near the market. However, following the tremendous response from local villagers, it eventually spanned a little over 600 metres.

“At first, we dreamt small. Our goal was to protect the market, because if the Nasirganj market is destroyed, this area will not exist. But, many cooperated and the task became easier,” said Ahmed Ullah Sabuj, an adviser to the Alternative Dam Construction Committee.

Initially, only 50-60 youth from the area took part in the construction. Later, at any given point of time, more than 500 people took part in the initiative. They wanted to build a dam that extends to a kilometre, but the money collected — 7 lakh taka — was enough for just about 600 metres.

Past efforts

The initiative to build an alternative dam to prevent river erosion in the area began in 2011, specifically to protect the village of Alexander in Ramgati Upazila of Laxmipur district. That dam was not so sustainable. Later, there was an alternative dam with geo bags. In 2012, alternative dams were constructed at several places in Char Falcon Union of Kamalnagar Upazila in the same district. At first, a wooden-and-bamboo dam was erected, and it was strengthened with geo bags. It lasted about eight months.

The cost of construction of an alternative dam to prevent river erosion in Char Falcon Union Parishad in Laxmipur was estimated at 60 million taka. It was not possible to raise this amount, and the project cost was reduced to 12.8 million taka. Of this, 6.3 million taka came by way of grants from individuals and organisations. The deficit was borne by Ashraf Hossain, the then chairperson of the Parishad, and one of the initiators of alternative dam construction.

The alternative dams survived the pressure of the Meghna River’s high tides. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

While alternative dams have been set up in the area at different times, they are a temporary solution, Hossain told Gaon Connection. He reiterated what Uddin said; that villagers are forced to take up such temporary measures, because promised concrete embankments have not seen the light of day.

The Kamalnagar Ramgati Bachao Mancha, a local organisation, is carrying out various programmes for several years to attract the attention of the government to the need for prevention of erosion of the Meghna. For a long time now, the local people have been demanding a new embankment.

“Kamalnagar cannot be protected unless new embankments are built. The people of the area were forced to try to stop the erosion with alternative dams. With the alternative dam, the local people want to explain to the government the need for a new embankment. Yes, these alternative dams protect them for a short time, but they are very expensive to construct,” said Abdus Sattar Paloyan, convener of the Mancha.

However, the Indian example, for instance in Bihar, shows that embankments don’t reduce floods or land erosion. Instead, they sometimes accentuate floods.

Alternative dams survive even after a part of the monsoon season has passed. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Alternative dams, temporary protection?

Kazi Tofail Ahmed, chief engineer (monitoring) of the Bangladesh Water Development Board, admitted river erosion was a problem in many parts of Bangladesh, and that it was not always possible to work on all the affected areas at the same time. “There is a financial crisis. Large embankments require a lot of money. That amount of allocation is not available. This is why temporary bamboo dams are constructed. Concrete dams are constructed depending on the emergency level,” he told Gaon Connection.

According to him the Meghna in Kamalnagar Upazila has been eroding for a long time, and that the initiative of the local people was a good initiative. However, he also cited the issue of longevity.

Local member of parliament Abdul Mannan, who provided financial assistance for the construction of an alternative dam to prevent river erosion in Kamalnagar, sounded hopeful about a new embankment. The project report to prevent river erosion in Kamalnagar and Ramgati Upazilas has been submitted to the Planning Ministry. Once the project is approved, the embankment work will start, he said.