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The poorest and most vulnerable? On hazards, livelihoods and labelling of riverine communities in Bangladesh

The poorest and most vulnerable? On hazards, livelihoods and labelling of riverine communities in Bangladesh
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  The poorest and most vulnerable? On hazards,livelihoods and labelling of riverinecommunities in Bangladesh Haakon Lein Department of Geography, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, NorwayCorrespondence: Haakon Lein (email: Within the field of hazard research, vulnerability studies have been central to inducing a shift in theperspective on disasters as being primarily inflicted by geophysical events to that of apprehendingdisasters as destructive outcomes of particular social as well as hazardous environmental condi-tions. However, the inherent tendency within vulnerability studies to classify certain areas orpeople as ‘vulnerable’ may in some cases also serve to reinforce popular and/or ingrained preju-dices, negative stereotypes and dubious explanations of the living conditions and fate of specificcommunities that become so labelled. The riverbanks and islands in river courses of Bangladeshhave long been portrayed as home to the ‘poorest’ and most vulnerable communities, the wide-spread assumption being that people would only live in such riverine environments because theyhave no other options. Drawing on an examination of existing literature on  char   settlements inBangladesh and data from a field site in the Jamuna River, this paper argues that the prevailingperceptions and labelling of  char   dwellers as ‘vulnerable’ people is based on a far too simplisticunderstanding of both rural migration patterns and the livelihoods obtained in these riverine areas. Keywords:  Bangladesh, floods, natural hazards, poverty, riverbank erosion, vulnerability Introduction Helplessness, resignation and surrender to forces unleashed by them in their struggle forexistence – but over which they have no control – mark the lives of  char  -lands denizens. Theirattitudes bespeak a passivity towards the misfortunes that befall them. Blind unquestionedacceptance of ‘whatever will be, will be’ pervades the  char  -land ethos (Baqee, 1998: 2).The perception of the  char   dwellers of their living conditions is fundamentally different fromthe view taken by outsiders. Life stories and accounts clearly suggest that flood and erosion donot have the character of catastrophe to them, contrary to the reports of press agenciesand development institutions. They are recurring events, forming part of the  char   dwellers’life-world. The people have adjusted and are not helpless victims of their environment.(Schmuck-Widmann, 1996: 76) The riverine areas of Bangladesh have been identified as among the areas ‘most liableto famine’ (Currey, 1979: 269) and as home to the poorest, most marginalized andvulnerable communities in the country (DFID, 2002: 5). The riverbanks and islands inriver courses of Bangladesh are regularly subjected to floods, massive and rapiderosion, siltation and occasionally drought. Consequently, people living in these areasare said to ‘suffer from multiple and very particular forms of vulnerability rooted in thethreat of seasonal flooding and erosion’ (Brocklesby & Hobley, 2003: 897). In addition,the communities in these riverine areas have long been and still are portrayed asfrontier societies characterized by a high degree of lawlessness and by violent conflictsover control of new land emerging from the rivers (see Zaman, 1989; 1991a).Outsiders may view living on these  char   lands, as they are known locally, as a riskyundertaking and hence find it difficult to comprehend that anyone would voluntarily doi:10.1111/j.1467-9493.2008.00357.x  Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography   30  (2009) 98–113© 2009 The AuthorJournal compilation © 2009 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd  choose to settle in such hazard-prone physical and social environments. Hence thepopular assumption is that people live there only because they have no other options;that increasing population pressure, unequal access to land, lack of employment oppor-tunities and poverty force marginalized people to settle in such high-risk areas such asthe active floodplains of Bangladesh (Burton  et al.  1993). In their book  At Risk , Wisner et al.  (2004: 234, Figure 6.3) too claim that such ‘root causes’ as unequal access to landand rural power structures lead to the ‘breakdown of rural economy and exodus oflosers to towns, embankments and chars’. In short, economic and social marginalizationleads to spatial marginalization.This paper sets out to question the prevailing (and entrenched) claim that Bang-ladeshi  char   are populated by poor, helpless ‘losers’ who are forced to fashion livelihoodsin extremely dangerous and violent physical and social environments. In contributing toa better understanding of the life and livelihoods in Bangladeshi  char  , the paper alsoexplores the extent to which the concept of vulnerability might, despite good intentions, become a means by which some segments of the population are continually portrayedas ‘different’, weak and without ability to influence their own destinies. The datapresented here draws from a survey of literature on  char   areas in Bangladesh as well asdata from field research on a  char   located in the Jamuna River. Vulnerability and labelling Although ‘vulnerability’ is a difficult concept to define and operationalize, the term has been adopted as standard vocabulary in development and poverty studies, global envi-ronmental change literature, and hazard and disaster research (Cutter, 1996; Hogan &Marandola, 2005; Agder, 2006). Within the field of hazard research, vulnerabilitystudies first emerged as a critique of the mainstream technocratic hazard studies (e.g.Burton  et al. , 1993) but are now established as a dominant approach within socialscience-based studies of hazards and disasters. Vulnerability studies have succeeded inshifting the focus in framing disasters as outcomes primarily of natural geophysicalevents to a focus that includes the social forces that render certain groups and societiesmore exposed to the destructive effects of certain hazards. A main strength of theconcept is that it forms ‘the conceptual nexus that links the relationship that peoplehave with their environment to social forces and institutions and the cultural values thatsustain or contest them’ (Oliver-Smith, 2004: 10), thereby providing a framework forcapturing and analyzing the multidimensionality of disasters, and better informingprogrammes for recovery and mitigation.Vulnerability has been defined as: a characteristic of individuals and groups of people who inhabit a given natural, social andeconomic space, within which they are differentiated according to their varying positions insociety into more or less vulnerable individuals and groups. It is a complex characteristicproduced by a combination of factors derived especially (but not entirely) from class, genderand ethnicity (Cannon, 1994: 19). This definition opens the use of the term vulnerability as a means for identifying,classifying and labelling groups of people. According to Wisner (2005), such taxonomicapproaches are often adopted by NGOs and development agencies concerned withsecuring targeted development assistance. Although useful for such purposes, there is,as Hewitt (1997: 167) has argued, an inherent danger that the term vulnerabilityencourages a perception of people being weak, passive and pathetic, and without theability to form their own lives. Riverine communities in Bangladesh  99  Bankhoff (2001: 29) takes this argument a step further and claims that currentvulnerability discourse, together with discourses on ‘tropicality’ and ‘development’: form part of one and the same essentializing and generalizing cultural discourse. One thatdenigrates large regions of the world [as] dangerous – disease ridden, poverty-stricken anddisaster prone; one that depicts the inhabitants of these regions as inferior – untutored,incapable, victims. Seemingly, both popular perceptions and much of the existing literature on  char   settle-ments in Bangladesh endorse such essentializing, generalizing and labelling practices. Infact there is as well a tradition of these in the discourse on development in Bangladesh,coalescing around the identification of various ‘target groups’ (Wood, 1985). Forinstance the UK Department of International Development’s (DFID) Chars LivelihoodsProgramme – a GBP 50-million (USD 75 million) aid programme initiated in 2002 –grew out of the desire to develop a new and innovative poverty alleviation programmeto reach the ‘ultra poor’ in Bangladesh (Brocklesby & Hobley, 2003). Identified as the‘entry point’ for this high-profile endeavour,  char   communities were deemed as being‘amongst the poorest, most vulnerable, least served and chronically marginalized inBangladesh’ (DFID, 2002: 5).A more complex definition of vulnerability – emphasizing peoples’ and societies’capacities, not just their inabilities and insufficiencies – is provided by Wisner  et al. (2004: 11): the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity toanticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural hazard (an extremenatural event or process). It involves a combination of factors that determine the degree towhich someone’s life, livelihood, property and other assets are put at risk by a discrete andidentifiable event (or series or ‘cascade’ of such events) in nature or in society. Wisner  et al. ’s (2004) definition reflects a more general shift in the literature, fromearlier more taxonomic definitions of vulnerability that focused on various groups’susceptibility to hazards to a more dynamic focus emphasizing issues of resilience andadaptive capacity. A focus on particular events (e.g. floods, earthquakes), rather than forinstance an analysis of place-based vulnerabilities (Cutter  et al. , 2000), may as argued byHewitt (1983) implicitly direct too much attention to extreme geophysical events overother normal (everyday life) events and easily lead to an underestimation of people’sabilities to cope with a complex mix of regular or frequently occurring geophysical andsocial hazards and events in a specific place. Even in Bangladesh, where people mayexperience the destructive and life threatening effects of floods, cyclones, erosion ordrought simultaneously, the most important factors driving households beyond theircapacity to cope and into poverty are not natural hazards but shocks in the household,typically deaths of the main income earners, serious sickness or impairment (Sen,2003). Char   land and settlements in Bangladesh In Bangladesh the term  char   is used for land formed through accretion in the main riversof the country as well as in the coastal area in the Bay of Bengal.  Char   lands formedmid-river or beside a channel ( duba-char  ) are only accessible by boat; those formedadjacent to the ‘mainland’ riverbank, separated by a small depression ( kuler-char  ), areaccessible on foot in the dry season (Baqee, 1998). 100  Haakon Lein  Estimates of the number of  char   dwellers vary widely. Studies under the aegis of the1990–95 Flood Action Plan 1 (FAP) drawn up for Bangladesh had estimated that 631 000people were living on  char   lands in and along the main rivers in 1993 (EGIS, 2000;Sarker  et al. , 2003). Of these, 65 per cent (397 000) were living on  char   lands of theJamuna (Table 1). Other authors referring to FAP documents have suggested that  char  dwellers numbered 4.5 million (Hutton & Haque, 2004), and that 1.8 million werelocated on the Brahmaputra-Jamuna alone (Brammer, 1996). The UK DFID’s (2002: 5)Chars Livelihoods Programme had claimed to benefit 2 million  char   dwellers in theJamuna River. In the absence of any standard definition for what is or is not  char   land,the discrepancy in numbers may be attributed to different criteria being adopted – thehigher figures possibly including inhabitants of ‘unprotected mainland’, and the lowerfigures resulting from narrower definitions.The linkages between the emergence of  char   land, riverbank erosion and displace-ment was a key theme in the Riverbank Erosion Impact Study (REIS) carried out between 1984 and 1988 (e.g. Elahi  et al. , 1991). This project was based on data fromthree locations in Bangladesh: Chilmari (Kurigram District) at the mouth of TistaRiver in the north; Kazipur (Serajganj District) in the Jamuna; and Bhola (BholaDistrict) in the lower reaches of the Meghna. Forced migration due to riverbankerosion and (re)settlement of emerging  char   land was emphasized in several publica-tions coming out of the REIS project (Zaman, 1987; 1989; 1991a; 1991b; 1994; Haque& Hossain, 1988; Elahi, 1989; Haque & Zaman, 1989; Elahi  et al. , 1991). A compre-hensive follow-up in Kazipur carried out in 1995 by Haque (1997), together withHutton and Haque’s (2004) research with data from the same localities also empha-size dislocation and resettlement processes due to river erosion in Serajganj District.There is no doubt that the REIS project reports have been very influential in clarifyingoverall awareness of migration and settlement processes in Bangladeshi  char  . In anannotated bibliography of  Social Science Literature on Natural Disasters in Bangladesh (Alam, 1994), for example, 47 out of 52 entries on riverbank erosion derive from theREIS project, especially data from the study sites in Kazipur/Serajganj District.However, it should be remembered that the REIS project covers a very limited geo-graphical area, making generalizations problematic.In addition to the REIS project case studies of  char   areas not far from Kazipur includea short monograph based on fieldwork by Schmuck-Widmann (1996), who provides aless violent and conflict-ridden picture of life and livelihoods than are presented in theREIS publications. Baqee’s (1998) study of three  char   communities of the Padma(Ganges) deals with problems linked to settlement and land control as well as livelihoodrelated issues, such as various types of land tenancy and violent conflicts over land, andincludes a stage model of  char   settlement. Mamun and Amin (1999) deal mainly withthe physical planning aspects on a  char   located in Barisal District in the lower Meghna.Further components of the FAP carried out in the first half of the 1990s also included Table 1. Per cent change in  char   areas and population in Bangladesh, 1984–93. River  Char   area (km 2 ) Total population Population density1984 1993 Change(%)1984 1993 Change(%)1984 1993 Change(%)Jamuna 896 988 10 308 155 397 015 29 344 402 16.8All rivers 1363 1723 26 428 583 630 983 47 314 366 16.5 Source : EGIS (2000: 44–45). Riverine communities in Bangladesh  101  studies of  char   areas, the main findings of which are contained in reports by theIrrigation Support Project for Asia and the Near East (ISPAN, 1995), Environmental andGeographic Information Services (EGIS, 2000) and Sarker  et al.  (2003). The DFID’s(2002) Chars Livelihoods Programme, which covered Jamuna  char   lands, also entaileda number of background studies of Kurigram District  char   in the northwest undertakenand reported by Ashley  et al.  (2000; see also Brocklesby & Hobley, 2003). Study site and data collection Char Nalsonda is located in the Jamuna River in Pigna Union, Sarishabari Subdistrict( upazila ) in the southern part of Jamalpur District ( zila ) in north-central Bangladesh(Figure 1). The  char   is accessible only by boat and the nearest main market, Pigna Hat,is located on the mainland approximately 4 km to the west. There is a governmentprimary school, and three  madrashas  (religious schools) and five mosques on the  char  , but no health facilities.The empirical data presented here were collected from three neighbourhood settle-ments in 1998–99. As a first step, 554 households (3027 household members) wereinterviewed using a brief questionnaire. Besides providing basic information abouthousehold size, sources of livelihood and migration patterns, the households formed asample frame for subsequent selection of households for more comprehensive inter-views in a second phase of data collection.The second phase of data gathering in November–December 1998 used a moreelaborate questionnaire. This contained mainly closed questions on general householdinformation, ownership of resources, income and sources of income, migration history,perceptions of risk and opportunities at the present location, and plans for and/orperceptions of the future. The questionnaire was administered by a team of five local,Bengali speaking investigators (all men), each completing on average one interview per Figure 1.  Location of Char Nalsonda study area in the Jamuna River, Sarishabari Subdistrict (upazila) in southern Jamalpur District, Bangladesh. 102  Haakon Lein
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