Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Erosion Threatens to Wipe Out Villages

I regret to inform you that the banks of the Ganges have given way to fresh erosion in Manickchowk Block of Malda district, leading to 150 families losing their homes and their land on which their home stood.(Population of 900). The erosion began from the morning of Sunday 20 July after the Ganges swelled up due to heavy rainfall in all its catchment areas. The river has changed its course by about 50 meters to its left, on the north / east in 24 hours. The worst affected areas are the Domahat and its surroundings within the Manickchowk G.P of the Manickchowk Block, in Malda district West Bengal. By the morning of 20 July, the erosion had slowed down. I visited the villages on 21 July afternoon (along with Fr. Prabodh Ekka). People have set up temporary shelters away from the river, although about 30 families are living within 20 meters from the river, as they do not have anywhere to go. According to media reports, at least 70 houses have been totally washed away. Even people whose houses are up to 75 meters from the current position of the river have already voluntarily destroyed their homes and have set themselves on temporary shelters made of tarpaulins (plastic sheets).

The people who had one or two trees at the courtyard have cut down the trees to sell cheaply in order to survive. We also saw women wailing over the situation of their houses as they were trying to still settle down within the tents made of tarpaulin sheets. All people had tarpaulin sheets, although it was not adequate. Importantly, the children were all playing in the dirty and muddy water that had gathered along the temporary shelters, exposing themselves to various ailments. Besides, there was absolutely no sign of any sanitary facility. It will be too dangerous and it is too steep for people to go down into the Ganges for anal cleansing. So, they may have to do with the water collected around their shelters due to the rain that has been mercilessly pouring each day. I also inquired if the children are going to school. And the people said "yes". There is a Government primary school close by.

Finally, there is a danger of further breach at a distance of 100 meters if the water continues to rise, as the river has dangerously got too close to the approach road. We saw that the Government has arranged for some boulders to be thrown into the river in order to contain erosion. But it is going to be a very long drawn battle, as the approach roads are in very bad shape after the rains and the erosion.

As for any relief measures : the families are dependent on daily labour as there is no cultivable land in the vicinity, and many of them work in the mango orchards that are away from the village. But, due to erosion, and the need for setting up temporary shelter, many men have not gone for work. However, they said that they will return to work soon, if there is not much rain. The dangers involved are in terms of people taking heavy loans to maintain families and fear of diarrheal outbreak. So, we would propose the following : Assistance in setting up of temporary toilets with basic facilities. To do some awareness on diarrhea and other water borne / vector borne diseases. Make ORS and bleaching powder available in sufficient quantity. To arrange for testing of the ground water quality in the affected area.

Stop Press : Reports of more erosion along the river Fulahar are coming from other parts of Malda district, specially from Bhaluka and Uttar Bhakuria. I shall visit these places with Ms. Bimala Baru (a Staff of SWI), and Ms. Meghan and Ms. Jamie, of Western Washington University.

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