By: Our Correspondent

Despite attempts by the government to relocate residents from hilly areas of southeastern Bangladesh, the residents insist on returning , facing high risk of landslides, locals and activists say.

“This is fast becoming a major problem,” said Abdul Matin, secretary-general of Bangladesh Paribesh Andalan, a Dhaka-based activist group. “Each year the local government relocates a number of families, but they return.”

Illegal hill-cutting in order to site houses has left tens of thousands of people in Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar, Khagrachari, Rangamati, and Bandarban districts at risk of landslides, he said. More than 100 people have been killed by landslides in Bangladesh this year alone, local media say.

Despite a government ban on the practice, indiscriminate hill-cutting by developers and locals – alongside deforestation and unchecked migration – is creating what Matin describes as a “man-made disaster.”

“So why have these landslides suddenly started happening?” asked Matin, who also works at Krishi Bhavan, a government-run research center meant to help the country’s rural population.

Tree-felling
“First, Bangladesh’s hills are alluvial hills – they’re made of sand and soil, and a little bit of stone. These are of a loose type. What holds the hills together are the large number of trees on these hills, and these trees are being cut down,” he said.

“Second, hundreds of hills, even the ones that are public land owned by the government, are being cut down by influential people, and they are being cut unabated. The hills of the southeast could disappear in a few years at this rate. Cutting the hills destroys their integrity, making landslides more likely.

“Finally, there are very poor people who are coming into the area – environmental refugees from the southwest who are fleeing rising sea levels due to climate change, and they are settling in hills that are close to cities in which they hope to find work. These people are increasingly the victims of landslides.”

Matin notes that the indigenous population of the area, who are mostly Buddhist and Christian minority ethnic groups, build different types of stilt-based homes that are less vulnerable to landslides and inflict less damage on the hills.

Stemming the growing influx of ethnic Bengali migrants to the area, whose construction methods are invasive, and rehabilitating those buildings already constructed, will be critical in reducing the disaster threat posed by landslides, he said.

“They build on slopes that shouldn’t be built on and cut away the hills to construct their homes,” said one local.

Tempting fate
Changing such behavior will not be easy, say activists. Many of those who were earlier relocated from landslide-prone areas return because of the lack of opportunities elsewhere; they feel compelled to take the risk.

Bullu Mia, a villager in Ukhia District in southeastern Bangladesh, is rebuilding his home on almost exactly the same spot where a landslide buried alive his wife and son in June. “Where else would I go?” he asked.

Bullu and his young daughter were sitting on a step on the front door of their tin-shack home when the earth swept down on them. He recalls being forced aside by what felt like a kick in the stomach, and passed out. His wife and son, who were inside the house, were crushed.

According to a 23 October UN report entitled Reducing Vulnerability and Exposure to Disasters, high levels of vulnerability and exposure across the Asia-Pacific region are often the result of poorly conceived development planning and practices.

“Poorly considered actions, and often official inaction, can result in settlements growing in hazard-prone areas,” the report said.

(IRIN is a service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations)