A historic Catholic Church and hundreds of ethnic and Bengali villagers in northeast Bangladesh face an existential crisis if ongoing erosion of a major river and unplanned sand extraction are not stopped immediately, Church officials say.
St. Joseph's Church and five adjacent villages at Ranikhong in Netrokona district face grave risks due to erosion by Someshwari river, a transboundary river that flows from the neighboring Indian state of Meghalaya to Bangladesh.
The Church, set up in 1912, is the oldest in Mymensingh Diocese of predominantly indigenous Catholics. It has about 4,221 ethnic Catholics in 18 villages.
Holy Cross Bishop Ponen Paul Kubi, along with Catholic charity Caritas Mymensingh regional director Aprubo Mrong, appealed to the government to save the area and local communities.
"The situation is bad, and support from the government has been inadequate. Now villagers are trying to protect themselves from erosion by collecting money and using voluntary labor," Father Plinson
Mankin, local parish priest, told UCA News.
The priest noted that he has never seen such devastating erosion of the river in his seven years in the parish.
"A major cause is the unplanned sand extraction from the river," Father Mankin said. Local people organized human chains and rallies opposing sand extraction, he said.
Caritas supports some most vulnerable people.
Apurbo Mrong, Caritas regional director, told UCA News that his organization provided 3,000 taka (US$35) cash to 200 affected families to help them "protect the area using trees, bamboo, and sandbags."
Mrong also blamed unplanned and illegal sand extraction from the river for the disaster.
"Use of dredgers to extract sand from 70-120 feet deep inside the river, often from the close proximity of riverbanks, severely damages the compact situation of the river. The natural system is lost, and riverbanks continue to collapse," he said.
The sand extraction "has continued while massive erosion is going on. If sand extraction is not stopped, you cannot halt river erosion," Mrong said.
"The Church-run school and Church graveyard are under threat now, and the Church faces risks as well if the sand extraction continues to trigger river erosion," he added.
However, Farjana Khanom, chief government officer in the Durgapur sub-district of Netrokona, said the government had taken immediate steps to tackle erosion.
The government has already placed hundreds of sandbags on the river banks for slowing down the erosion, she said.
Khanom said his office also submitted a project worth US$1.3 million for river protection and rehabilitation to higher authorities. "We hope it would be approved soon. We are planning to start the project works on Oct. 23," Khanom told UCA News.
For victims of erosion, rice as food aid and some tarpaulin tents have been provided.
Khanom also admitted sand extraction is one of the causes of erosion but also cited another reason.
"It is true sand excavation with dredgers is a cause of erosion and we are examining it. Another cause is that small islets have emerged from the river, and bypassed water is causing riverbank erosion. It has become extreme due to the heavy onrush of water from the hills," she added.
Bangladesh is a low-lying country crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers that play a vital role in people's social and economic lives.
Flooding and erosion are major natural disasters that affect vast areas and make thousands homeless every year.