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Livelihood Challenges in the Teesta River Basin: Sabina’s Life Now and Then
09 Nov 2015

By Zakia Naznin, Gender Specialist and Md Abu Syed PhD, Fellow Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS)

Sabina Begum

Sabina Begum, 65, lives on the Pinjorvanga embankment of the Teesta River, Balapara union of Kounia Upazila, in Rangpur district. She says she feels nostalgic about her childhood days, when her parents were largely dependent on fishing in the river Teesta. The river was so stocked with fish back then, she says, that they never returned from the river empty-handed. Every day, they used to catch many varieties of fish and cultivate paddy on the charland (small islands in the river) during the dry season. The soil was fertile and good for crop cultivation, and the six different seasons the place saw seemed like a blessing to them. Back then, she says, there used to be seasonal rainfall, the winters were easy to adapt to and the summer temperatures were not as high as they are today. The main income source of the people living in the villages along the River Teesta was agriculture and fishing.

But things are not the same anymore. There have been changes over time with regards to the availability of natural resources, weather and seasonality and livelihood options dependent on the river’s resources. For the last few years, there has been a scarcity of fish in the river. When there used to be regular flow in the river, many varieties of fish, such as Bagar, Puti, Kalbaus, Boiral, Boal, Bata, Big Shrimp/Prawn, were abundant. However, most of these fish species are either extinct or are on their way to extinction. Water scarcity has emerged as one of the major problems affecting irrigation and fishing. And today, there is difficulty in even accessing fresh water for drinking and household use.

The river has silted up, and it is gradually drying. Sabina Begum says that 40 years ago, the Teesta was narrow but very deep. Now it is braided, shallow and wide, with little flow. Every year, the people here have to put up with flash floods and riverbank erosion. And every day, the number of people who are made landless increases because of the riverbank erosion. Many families are now living in temporary shelters on the Teesta River’s embankment, and for them it has become exceedingly difficult to meet their basic needs. They are facing problems to do with food insecurity, and many cannot manage three meals a day.

Landless people on the banks of the Teesta.

Sabina Begum’s family are marginal farmers who had had to migrate here owing to the river bank erosion. Every year, her husband migrates to nearby cities in search of temporary jobs that entail toilsome work, and she needs to run the family by herself. She sometimes feels lonely and overburdened when her partner is away. Besides doing the household chores, she also has to work odd-end jobs to make ends meet. Because of the poverty, her daughters dropped out from school when they were teenagers, and they got married at an early age. According to Sabina Begum, most of the pregnant and lactating women in this area suffer the most from food scarcity and hunger. Many of them suffer from mild to acute malnutrition and do not have proper and regular access to health services.

Sabina Begum says that the people who live on banks of the River Teesta today are imperiled by many natural hazards, such as floods, river-bank erosion, droughts, cold waves and heat stress. She says that every year floods carry sandy, infertile, soil from the upstream areas. Back in earlier times, the people considered the seasonal floods and silt depositions to be blessings because they increased the area’s soil fertility and thus crop production. Now, crop cultivation is becoming very difficult as the sand deposition is turning the agricultural lands unproductive. During the dry season, the people mostly depend on the Teesta’s water for irrigation, and when there is little flow in the Teesta, irrigation gets hampered.

Sabina Begum says that when floods occur here, the people have to live through very trying times. She says that, for example, all the latrines get submerged under water. The resulting poor sanitary situation causes serious health risks for the villagers. “During floods, we (women and girls) suffer the most because we cannot keep up our personal hygiene. And due to riverbank erosion, the sanitation facilities that are set up become difficult to maintain. Most of the families start defecating out in the open owing to the lack of latrines. “We end up suffering from diarrhoea, cholera and scabies, as these diseases are widely spread in our area,” she says. The other major problem is that the tubewells too get submerged under water, and the people thus have to travel long distances to collect safe drinking water. Many, however, drink polluted water and end up ill. For the women, collecting safe water becomes a difficult task because the floods limit their mobility. And they are also concerned about their lack of safety and security and access to shelters in the aftermath of the floods.

“We have always been trying to overcome this situation and meet our minimum basic needs, such as nutrition. But owing to the changes in the weather, the increasing disasters and the depleting natural resources in the river, many fishermen, boatmen and farmers have changed their occupations,” she says. “Many of them have now migrated to other places in search of work.”

Sabina Begum has today gotten involved with a local NGO and has taken out a loan to buy cattle. But cattle-rearing is becoming difficult for her because there is now a fodder crisis. Like her, many of the families who are today dependent on cattle-rearing are also facing tough times because of the fodder shortage.

“We do practice some home gardening, in a small scale,” says Sabina Begum. “However, not everybody can do this, due to lack of land. Many people in the Teesta basin are living amidst growing poverty, insecurities and hopelessness.”