Living With Floods – Chaur Communities of the Teesta River

Bharat Lal Seth, the South Asia Program Coordinator at International Rivers, visited some of the river islands (known as chaurs) of the Teesta River. Below he reports on the lives of chaur communities that are regularly disrupted by the monsoon floods.

This year, like every year, the monsoon rains scoured the riverbanks. More recently, the erratic climate weather patterns have begun to take a toll on the adaptive ability and resilience of riverine communities. International Rivers
This year, like every year, the monsoon rains scoured the riverbanks. More recently, the erratic climate weather patterns have begun to take a toll on the adaptive ability and resilience of riverine communities.
International Rivers

Last month, floods in the Teesta River ravaged several habitations. The Teesta, much like other rivers that drain in to the Bay of Bengal, deposits massive amounts of sand and silt when in spate, often changing course and resulting in large riverine islands called chaurs. It is estimated that 25,000 people live in the chaurs with little or no state support; the islands are not connected to the power grid nor do they have piped water supply.

The chaurson the Teesta are often positioned midstream between the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh, and this year, like every year, the monsoon rains inundated parts of the islands and scoured the riverbanks, washing away dwellings while leaving thousands without land to cultivate. People here brave the vagaries of nature to grow cash and food crops. Over time the erratic climate weather patterns have begun to take a toll on the adaptive ability and resilience of riverine communities.

During a recent field trip, a small group of us, including local NGO partners, drove south from Siliguri, a commercial hub in the Indian state of West Bengal, toward the Bangladesh border where we first stopped at Basuniya Para village. Approximately 350-400 people reside here. Like other settlements, a lot of cultivable land was lost to the raging river this year.

Many people abandoned the area after the big flood of 1968, and an estimated 800-900 acres has been lost to the river since. In many of the chaur islands, people from the Sundarbans, long accustomed to the unforgiving conditions of living in a tidal mangrove forest, came to inhabit some of these islands. Deepak Rai, one of the villagers, told us that they are unused to farming in such cut-off areas. They had little use for the land, and sold it to people from Sundarbans accustomed to the ebb and flow of water and lack of basic infrastructure and services. The chaur lands are extremely fertile; cultivators can produce a minimum of three and at times up to five crops each year.

People living in the chaurs midstream find it difficult to come across and access markets or health facilities. They find it difficult during the monsoon to cross in non-mechanized boats. International Rivers
People living in the chaurs midstream find it difficult to come across and access markets or health facilities. They find it difficult during the monsoon to cross in non-mechanized boats.
International Rivers

In the month of August, this lush, seemingly uninhabited acreage is often visible at many points beyond the flooded plains recently transplanted with paddy. But living there is a daily struggle. It’s a full-day affair for people living in the chaurs to come across and access markets or health facilities. At times they’re cut off due to strong river undercurrents, which stop them from crossing in their non-motorized boats.

In these areas the predominant crops are paddy, jute, tobacco, watermelon, groundnuts and vegetables. While the land is fertile, it is also at risk from floods each year. “The jute crop matures in July and August, so earnings can be severely impacted by high floods. However, if the floods come in September, the paddy is impacted. Villagers are constantly hoping against this double whammy, and excessive and erratic weather flood pattern,” says Soumya Dutta, a people’s science advocate who speaks the Bengali language and led the group on the field visit.

With the high rainfall recorded end of July, estimated between 100 and 350mm across the nearby towns and villages over two days, 15 riverbank homes near Mekhliganj were washed away as 130 meters of land was eroded. We met various families who have been temporarily displaced, beforehand living in parts of the nearby chaur that were inundated. They are living under a tarpaulin in the open areas of Mekhliganj. Other areas have seen worse damage to riverbank and property.

We spoke to an octogenarian who has seen the river change over decades. He distinctly remembers the big flood of 1968, which brought so much rock and silt that the channel was altered significantly, as was the carrying capacity of the existing channel. Scouring has increased gradually since, he said, and intense rainfall patterns have endangered their farming and increased safety risks in the last two decades. Maryam Bibi, a troubled lady, has lost all her land in the chaur, and has no title inland. She is living with her infant and three other children in temporary sheds. Many others are waiting by the banks for relief. The condition of their homes – those that still stand – will be ascertained once it is safe to return when the waters recede.

We drove past several kilometers of road alongside the international border, with high fences, barbed wire and paddy fields. Midstream opposite the village Singhpara was a chaur village called 25 Teesta Paisti. The Border Security Force (BSF) personnel reportedly harass the residents of the riverine island. Given the 5km radius proximity to the border, the area comes under BSF jurisdiction. Despite out efforts, we didn’t manage to get to the chaur. It seemed as though the BSF didn’t want us to go to the riverine islands, and for us to photograph and report on the abject living standards there. The officer seemingly delayed the coming of the motorized boat, saying that it was stuck somewhere. So after waiting for an hour, we made our way back to Siliguri. The BSF officers promised to take us across if we told them about our next visit ahead of time.

This article was originally published by International Rivers and can be seen here.