Location: Char Bilashpur, Bangladesh
Authors: Danielle and Andrea
Support: Kieran Timberlake Architects (KTA) and PennDesign Architecture
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Chars are fluvial islands prone to extensive flooding during Bangladesh’s annual monsoon season (barsha). Despite this vulnerability, chars are home to an estimated 3.5 million Bangladeshis. Detached from government services due to their remoteness, chars are the sites of rampant corruption and lathiyals (rural gangs). As a result, many basic charland services are provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This project asks what networks of services are needed to serve charland households and whether NGO programs are meeting the needs of charland residents. Through this project, it becomes clear that NGOs are neglecting the need for increased social connectivity to and communication with the shabekland (mainland). Thus, this project concludes with suggestions for increasing charland resident’s sense of connectivity while supporting their basic services needs.
CREATION OF A CHAR
Surrounded by India on three sides, Bangladesh exists within a massive delta system that conducts water from the Himalayan Mountains to the Bay of Bengal. This draining occurs seasonally, with the summer season melting significant amounts of Himalayan snow into the delta region. The total water gushing through Bangladesh’s rivers is, thus, highly dependent upon the summer temperatures in the Himalayas. However, as melted snow waters enter the delta from the north, the barsha (monsoon season) simultaneously floods the Bay of Bengal from the southeast. In addition to this increased flow, the barsha traps water within the delta’s numerous rivers, causing them to overflow into nearby low-lying areas. This fast-moving back up of water significantly erodes the land, so when the barsha ends rivers “migrate,” selecting new paths to take.
From these water dynamics, fluvial land formations emerge from and submerge into the rivers called “chars.” Chars are temporary land formations prone to flooding and erosion that exist for an average of eight years. Two types of char exist in Bangladesh. Kuler chars, or attached chars, are part of the shabekland (mainland) and are generally quite stable. By contrast, duba char, or island char, are more unstable and vulnerable, as they exist completely within the river. However, these distinctions become less important when compared to a chars’ location within Bangladesh. Southernmost chars, or those bordering the Bay of Bengal, have virtually no protections from the full force of the monsoon and are therefore more prone to flooding and erosion. By contrast, more northerly chars are comparatively more sheltered from the monsoon and therefore tend to be more stable. This north/south differentiation generates a variety of char cultures.
Despite their highly vulnerable and dynamic environment, some rural Bangladeshis – often the most destitute – consider the charlands their home. Many attribute this to Bangladesh’s high population density, among the highest in the world. Bangladeshi land inheritance laws stipulate that property be evenly split among all children. If a Bangladeshi family has an average of seven children and five of them reach adulthood, land divided through inheritance quickly becomes unfarmable in size, causing internal familial conflicts that drive certain siblings into landlessness. However, charland residents argue that their displacement onto the char was caused by: extreme poverty, roaming rural gangs (lathiyals), and/or political corruption. Chars, according to Bangladeshi law, are free for landless rural families once the land is stable enough, but, unfortunately, that land often belongs to another char stakeholder.
Matabars are elite rural families that gain control of chars immediately when the land begins to surface. Once the land is stable enough to farm, matabars will often allow landless families to live upon and farm the land for a small share of their earnings. When disputes arise between the landless and the matabars, lathiyals are often hired to evict the landless. These families are often literate and work with corrupt government officials in tahshil (local government offices) to maintain legal control of the charlands. Since most landless families are illiterate, they cannot navigate the tahshils to gain land rights. This type of government/elite corruption is rampant in Bangladesh, particularly in the country’s rural regions, like the chars, due to their physical distance from the capital and their overall remoteness. For almost a decade, Bangladesh has topped the international corruption rankings. For these reasons, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in charlands choose to duplicate government services, rather than attempt collaboration with the corrupt tahshil offices.
INTERVENING IN THE CHAR
Regardless of the reason, there exists a large population of Bangladeshis residing upon chars that need access to basic services, this leads to the question: If the char is to remain transient socially and economically, then what network of services would best serve a continuation of culture?
Given the lack of possible government intervention, many chars receive their basic services from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, NGOs are only present on 30-percent of Bangladeshi chars. Most often, NGOs plod the same tracks to work in similar charlands, due to the remoteness of so many chars. These NGOs also focus on a clear subset of charland needs. Through an analysis of NGO char programs, we found that there are three topics most frequently emphasized by NGOs: education, employment, and market/sale of goods.
To test these NGO initiatives, this project collected the concerns voiced by the people of Char Bilashpur, located outside of Dohar. Char Bilashpur does not receive much assistance from NGOs, due to their extreme remoteness. From Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka, it took nearly two hours to reach Char Bilashpur, the sequence of travel being a bus ride to Doha (the regional capital), a rickshaw ride to the edge of the Padma River, and then a walk onto the char (which would be a boat ride during the barsha). Because of their remoteness, the residents of Char Bilashpur were very keen to share insights about their needs. In highly open-ended interviews (conducted through a translator) we collected their insights and found that residents intrinsically agreed with two of the three main NGO foci (education and market/sale of goods). However, residents largely discussed an issue that no NGO seemed to be addressing: lack of communication or connection to the rest of Bangladesh, especially during the barsha.
Given this, we asked ourselves: what urban intervention could contribute to charland connectivity, while simultaneously providing essential services? The final phase of the project involves a potential designed intervention that suggests a way forward. First, we unpacked the three major concerns expressed by the char residents: communication, education, and local economics.
COMMUNICATION. While feature phones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous across Bangladesh, communication, here, refers to a sense of connection to government entities and the rest of Bangladesh in the shabekland; thus, connection involves physical and political connectivity. A brief examination of existing charland interventions (as of 2010) revealed an underlying concern with stabilizing the char communities. Improving housing to withstand flooding and creating floating community centers and transport networks were among the most common interventions. Such attempts at stabilization were of little interest to the residents of Char Bilashpur. As one farmer explained, he refused a stabilized house for two reasons: the flooding ruins his ability to earn money from his crops and he knows how to withstand the violent floodwaters of the Padma River better than any NGO worker. Instead, residents emphasized the need to secure a government office, market, and (most importantly) a school.
Given this, we propose a char “anchor” on the shabekland – an extension of the char that remains within view of the char, but is more accessible to the mainland. This structure would house a post office, local government office, and NGO office.
EDUCATION. The educational system throughout Bangladesh is heavily strained. In 282 upazilas (the equivalent of a U.S. county), 40 to 80 students share one classroom. In 124 upazilas, 80 to 100 students share one classroom. Lastly, in 55 upazilas, more than 100 students share one classroom. With so many students in a classroom, often of varying ages, it is extremely difficult for children to learn. Furthermore, by puberty, many children drop out of school. By as early as twelve years of age, young boys can make enough to support their families. By fifteen years of age, they can make even more. Because of this, many boys are pulled from school to help support their families around the age of twelve, especially on the impoverished chars. Young girls also leave school around the same age, but for a vastly different reason. As young girls hit puberty, they become increasingly affected by purdah, or Bangladesh’s culture of modesty for women. Young girls become increasingly uncomfortable around boys and, unless their families can afford tuition at an all-girls school, young girls drop out of school to help their families at home until they are married off. Furthermore, children on chars face additional difficulties in attending school, given the environment and distance from government. During the barsha, many charland schools become physically inaccessible. During this season, many children stay at home. With little money for books or supplies, charland children begin to fall behind on their education.
In response to this, we propose a school on the mainland that is accessible by boat during the barsha. Additionally, we propose a unique educational model that combines the school with community economic development initiatives; in this case, the school supports local agriculture by providing unique instruction on farming. It also provides children with access to test fields, where they can experiment with new techniques in the char environment, without potentially compromising the finances of their families. Through these initiatives, it is hoped that families will opt to keep children in school longer, so that they will learn about the best agricultural practices within their ecosystem.