Access to water in Kopilmuni area: A people’s movement

When illegal occupation of water bodies seems to become a norm, people in a certain part of the country ensure that their right is not hampered. Making their voices heard the people of Kopilmuni emerge as winners. The south-west coastal region of Bangladesh is unique in several ways as it comprises the districts of Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat and the southern part of Jessore; the region is basically a tidal wetland that gets flooded by a high tide at least twice a day. As the land is fertile people in large numbers also moved in from other parts of the country and settled in the flood plains suitable for the cultivation of indigenous food and brackish-water-tolerant varieties of rice. On the other hand, the rivers and estuaries of the region were rich in bio-diversity with hundreds of species of fish and, all these factors together made the region self-sufficient in rice and fish production. Relevant to mention that, with such blessings at one time there used to be no scarcity of employment and food in the region. Moreover, the largest continuous mangrove forest of the world, the Sunderbans is situated to the south of flood plains, adjacent to the Bay of Bengal.

During the 1960s, the then Government of East Pakistan implemented a coastal embankment project with a view to cultivate high yielding varieties of rice; a number of western donor agencies funded it and the Dutch government provided technical support with which the project was completed in 1973. However, the project design failed to comprehend the environment and ecological consequences on an embankment construction and although the immediate impact resulted in bumper crop production in the initial years, the inhabitants started to face severe environmental and ecological problems, well within a decade.

the post embankment period, as the tidal water could not enter into the tidal plain, silt was deposited at the upper ends of the estuary and gradually the riverbeds began to rise. As the East Pakistan WAPDA took the initiative to construct 37 polders, 1556 kilometer of embankment and 282 sluice gates, inside the polders, the wetlands subsided due to non-deposition of silt and gradually, took the shape of lakes. These polders that were constructed to solve the salinity problem were taken over by some corrupt and influential officials (chairman of the union) and used for shrimp cultivation instead of high yielding varieties of rice; hence the areas became waterlogged. The shrimp cultivators have taken the parts of the canal illegally and are now using it for shrimp cultivation causing more problems of water logging and according to government statistics, over 106,000 hectors of area became waterlogged at the time causing innumerable problems to the people of the area; the most affected being Horidhali and Kopilmuni Unions under the Paikgacha sub-district in Khulna district.

Some of the problems that are faced by them are:

  • Shrimp cultivation closes the canal’s flow hence crores of takas worth of fisheries are lost
  • 40-50 thousand people of the area facing water logging have become penniless and are having to migrate to other places
  • Waterborne diseases are spreading making the area an unhealthy one to live in
  • scarcity of drinking water is taking shape
  • roads and roadside trees have been devastated
  • A lot of landless and single women earned their daily subsistence through catching crabs and other small fish but they are being denied of this right now.
  • As the lands are waterlogged the source of livelihood for the people is facing an obstacle and consequently, managing one meal a day has become almost impossible.

    Understandably, a lot of social changes have taken place and many people have either migrated to other places or have moved into other professions like working at the brick fields, construction sites and shrimp farms.

    The problem became unbearable especially in 2003, when the two unions suffered severe water logging and damage of crops due to heavy rainfall; the people of Kapilmuni union tried to solve it by taking their own measures. They organized a Water Management Committee, a civil society group that was named ‘Satkhira Water Management Committee’ and actively got involved to solve this problem; Uttaran, a local NGO based in Satkhira also assisted them and ActionAid Bangladesh, an international NGO gave them financial assistance. A memorandum was submitted to the water resources minister through the District Commissioner (DC) of Khulna as well as the MP and UNO. Other activities undertaken by them included blocking or gheraoing the UNO, the Water Development Board and the DC’s office and sending their representatives to the water resources ministry to pressurize the authorities.

    After they sustained this movement (one of the key activities being local people creating a huge gathering, of 3000 people and marching to the Khulna DC’s Office) throughout the year and after a lot of pressure came from the people and the Water Management Committee, the Paikgacha UNO sent a report to the DC of Khulna, on 10th September 2004 requesting to open the Nasirpur canal to enable access for the people. In this aspect, the DC of Khulna then sent a report on the Nasirpur canal to the ministry of land on the 9th of January 2005 (New Age, June 15, 2005).

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