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Across the Ganges to Southwest Bangladesh and the Sundarbans

Across the Ganges to Southwest Bangladesh and the Sundarbans

The next morning, our group of 23 students and professors from the United States and Bangladesh crossed the Jamuna River, also known as the Brahmaputra, to Sirajganj Hardpoint. This concrete embankment was built to protect the city of Sirajganj from the slow westward migration of the river. Because it now juts into the river, they’ve been extending the land north and south to level the banks. Hard Point also offers great views across the Jamuna River.

Our group walks along the Sirajganj Hard Point embankment along the Jamuna River.

On the long bus, we read, napped, listened to music, and looked at the ever-changing scenery outside the window.

We then drove west to reach the Ralongsa Bridge across the Ganges, passing the nuclear power plant under construction. On the other side, we head to Kushtia, where the Gorai River diverges from the Ganges. Arrive in the afternoon and go straight to Shilaidaha Kuthibari, the hometown of Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. His poems provided the lyrics to the national anthems of Bangladesh and India.

We pass a nuclear power plant under construction near the Ganges.

Some of us took a group photo in front of Shilaidaha Kuthibari, the hometown of Rabindranath Tagore. He was a famous writer and poet from a wealthy Zamindar family.

The Gorai River, the main freshwater supply in southwestern Bangladesh, has been silting up. It is debated whether this is due to water diversion from India’s Farrakka Barrage, natural river evolution, or climate change. From the embankment near our hotel, we could see that most of the river was covered with sand and dredgers to keep it flowing.

Dredgers sit in the remaining open channels of the Gorai River in an effort to keep the river flowing during the dry season.

We are near the confluence of the Gorai and the Ganges. Sediment here has shifted the river bank by 1.5 kilometers, narrowing the once wide outlet. While our interview team talked to people about environmental change and migration, we stayed to talk to people who lived in the first villages built outside the original levee, while the rest of us walked across the beach to the river and followed a The new road goes north to the Ganges embankment. We spotted dredgers filling the land behind the new embankment, banana plantations, and visited a brick factory, all on land that used to be the Gorai River.

Walk along the dredged pile beside the Gaolai River.

Carroll continued on and found the river nearly a mile east of the old embankment.

After gathering everyone, we stopped at the hotel for dinner before starting the long drive to Khulna. After nightfall we slowed down so much that we didn’t reach the ghat (quay) until after 8pm. M/V Kokilmoni, a wooden country boat, returned us to our home for the rest of the journey. I’ve been on this 85ft Sundarborn sightseeing boat several times. For most of southwestern Bangladesh and the Sundarburn mangroves, boats are the easiest way to travel.

On board the wooden country boat that takes us to and from M/V Kokilmoni.

When we joined Kokilmoni, Brendan and Zazoe carried the watermelons they got at the ghat (dock).

Our first stop was Sreenagar on Polder 32, a dike island that was flooded for 2 years after Cyclone Aila in 2009. The island has brackish groundwater, so people can only grow rice once a year during the monsoon. We sailed there at night so we could arrive in the morning. A new bridge recently built was too low for Kokilmoni to pass under, so we stopped in front of the bridge and took a country boat for the last mile to Srinagar.

Kazi Matin explains the controlled aquifer recharge system on Polder 32 and the difficulty of keeping it up and running.

Carol visits the family that owns her RSET land and looks after the equipment.

Carol Wilson shows us her RSET instrument, which measures elevation change and deposition. Kazi Matin Ahmed shows us a now unused managed aquifer recharge system that stores monsoon water underground to increase availability during the dry season. The lack of fresh water during the dry season is a major problem here. I talked about my GPS on another part of the island to measure land subsidence.

My class and the Dhaka University students climbed onto our country boat along the slippery sidewalks and walked further along the polders.

After their presentations, we split into 3 groups. Now experienced immigration interview team is one of them. A second group is studying remotely sensed changes in the landscape, specifically increases in tree cover in the eastern regions. They will conduct interviews to see how the satellites have seen changes over the years. A remaining group stayed with me and other professors to study flooding in NE Bangaldesh using remote sensing.

One of the project teams arrived by motor vehicle to join us to see the shrimp ponds.

We met the family hosting Carol’s equipment and they immediately gave us coconut water and tamarind, despite our protests. Masud and Carol then demonstrated how to make RSET measurements at one of her sites. Their measurements confirmed that the land within the dykes was neither affected by monsoon floods nor the sediment they carried with them as they sank. At the same time, water levels and lands where rivers open are rising. The height difference of 1-1.5 meters was the cause of the disaster in 2009, as the interior of the polder was flooded every time the tide rose. And the problem continues to fester. Polders initially improved agriculture, but unexpected settlements challenged their sustainability. It forced some areas to switch to shrimp farming instead of rice.

Four professors, me, Carol Wilson, Kazi Matin Ahmed and Mahfuz Khan, posing in the Ghats wearing our travel t-shirts.

We walked back to the embankment road and continued our walk along the island in a motorized tricycle and our country boat, joined by 2 interview groups along the way. We came to the site of a large industrial shrimp farm more than one and a half kilometers away. One interviewee who spoke to our students spoke of being forced off her land, possibly by a shrimp farm. Maybe they just leased their land without actually owning it.

M/V Kokilmoni is an 85-foot Sundarburn sightseeing boat, and it’s where we stay for most of the rest of our trip.

We then all return to Kokilmoni for a 3 o’clock lunch before departing for the Sundarbans, stopping at the start of the Sundarbans to pick up and arm the tigers. We barbecued on board the boat on the edge of the Sundarbans before sailing to our next stop overnight.

Cruise a small tidal channel at dawn to spot wildlife on a misty morning.

We all rose before dawn and sailed quietly up a tidal channel in the middle of the forest. This channel used to be a meandering loop in the river we traveled on, but was cut off by the river. Much of the loop has been filled with sediment and vegetation, so only a creek remains. We went in and turned off the engine, and continued to paddle alone, hoping to see wildlife in the early morning. Unfortunately, it was a very foggy morning, so we had very few sites to choose from. We had to experience the forest up close, though. On the way back to Kokilmoni, the crew bought fish from local fishermen. While we had breakfast, Kokilmoni started heading south to Katka on the shores of the Bay of Bengal.

Buy fresh fish from local fishermen as we emerge from the tidal channel. We ate them later that day.

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