Munshipur, hamlet in the Haor near Kishargonj
a village in the Haor near Kishargonj

Munshipur, hamlet in the Haor near Kishargonj

A haor is a seasonal inland sea that receives vast amounts of surface runoff water during the rainy season from rivers and canals that flow into this flood basin. However, this wetland ecosystem almost dries up after the rainy season. In winter, these areas are vast stretches of green land and are used for agriculture, especially rice cultivation.

Haor in the rainy season
Haor in the dry season, satellite data Sentinel from the 2019 field research area, processing QGIS Olaf Günther

We wanted to talk to farmers in this area. To do this, we randomly picked a patch of inhabited land that resembled a small hill. The village we visited is above the water level of the Haor all year round. To get to the houses, we first walked across some farmland and then climbed about four or five metres up the hill. When we reached the top, we had come to a platform that is now inhabited by maybe 20 families, mostly landless farmers. According to the information given by its inhabitants, the village was called Munshipur or village of Abdula Mukhti Shubar.

The village of Abdula Mukhti Shubar, Picture: Claudius Günther, 2020

About 20 years ago, this Abdula Mukhti Shubar, who acquired fields in this part of the area, decided to build a first platform on this spot of the Haor. The house did not stand alone for long, the next neighbour joined in by enlarging part of the platform himself and adding a house to the hill. So it happened year after year that more and more people settled here. Their “settlement” was above the last known high-water mark of this area. During a storm surge in 2004, their little island was flooded and all the families of the village were temporarily homeless. They moved with bag and baggage to the nearest larger village, about a kilometre away. When the water disappeared, they came back and repaired their island in the necessary places.

Fields in winter, a huge lake in summer, Picture: Claudius Günther 2020

The village of Munshipur lies across the river that divides the area into old settlements and new settlers. The village where the villagers of Munshipur took shelter has a General School and a College and is about 700 years older than Munshipur. For many centuries, the river was considered the boundary separating farmland from settlement land.
Only Abdula Mukhti Shubar and others with him went to new land and built an island on it, which allowed them to live here all year round. All the villagers were also once landowners, but the flood of 2004, which hit them two months early in April, took away their crops and livestock. Many of them now keep their heads above water with day labour, keeping small livestock like geese and ducks, which they buy for 50 thaka (ducklings, 50 euro cents) and 300 thaka (gooselings, 3 euros). As needed, they sell them again at the market. This allows them to save a little money. Later, they buy a cow, then a second one, again trying to increase their wealth.
When the storm surge came in 2004, the state intervened, giving each family 20 kg of rice and 500 thaka (5 euros) as survival aid. Many houses have boats that they use during the rainy season to catch fish. However, they do not call this fishing, but rather “providing themselves with fish”. This is because fishing is done by those who have the money to rent the ponds in the area from the state, which are filled all year round, to catch the fish in them all year round, which come here during the dry season to survive.

The landowners practice agriculture during the dry season. Most farmers own 1 – 2 ha of land. Those who own 10 to 15 ha are called large farmers. Since each acre (about 0.4 ha) needs about 6 to 8 labourers as farm labourers, the demand for labour is high during the dry season. At the beginning of the dry season, ramparts are built around the fields to allow them to grow rice. A small nursery of 200 square metres is also set aside per field to grow the rice cuttings.
It takes about 5 weeks until these can be planted out on the whole area. During this time, the fields whose walls have been built are watered with water for a week so that they get a softer soil. Weeds do not need to be weeded during this time. Then the land is ploughed, for which a diesel-powered rotary tiller is used today, whereas 20 years ago cows and oxen were still needed. The small farmers do this alone in their family groups. The large farmers, who send their children to boarding schools in the nearby towns, employ 150 to 200 day labourers for this.

95 percent of the cultivated area is used for rice, the rest for maize, which has only recently appeared in the fields. Some land is suitable for growing groundnuts. Chilly, beans and pumpkins are grown on the platform gardens. Those who produce rice have to de-husk and dry it after harvesting. This is done by a boat that travels between the platforms as a mobile rice processing station during the rainy season.
When daughters and sons are married off, they usually do so locally between the platforms. 30 to 50 kilometres away, the groom’s new family may live, usually the marriages are between the inhabitants of the haor. Some of the families go off to the cities and try their luck in Sylhet, Khulna or Dhaka.
In general, many families are keen to minimise their risk by spreading their family members all over the country. Thus, many of the sons of the families work far away in Dhaka, Sylhet or nearby in Kishargonj. Although many places in the countryside lack labour, they migrate to the cities in the hope of better wages. The city thus forms an important support for the village population. The sons periodically send money to the countryside by remittance, thus making life easier for their families. However, there is no reason to fear that the rural population will disappear in favour of the urban population, since all city dwellers will always try to maintain a retreat in the countryside. A village-urban feedback loop is part of the social status of the urban population and any potential “dropout” in the urban population will always try to maintain such a feedback loop.
Talking about water, the farmers said that in recent years there has been less and less rain and thus less water. This also means that the waves that crash against the harbour in the rainy season are less strong. To prevent the damage caused by waves, the platform dwellers plant reeds that reduce the force of the waves. The worst thing for the farmers are premature downpours before the harvest can be harvested. These take everything from them in one fell swoop. Since these farmers cannot practise storage management over a yearly cycle. Not only is there less water in recent years, there are also fewer fish and fish species in the Haor. Here, the farmers mainly blame the mass use of insecticides and pesticides that are applied to the land. Fertilisation is also purely chemical. In the past, the haors also had reed forests and scrub on the higher ground. These too have been almost completely destroyed by the land hunger of agriculture, this may be another reason for the decline of biodiversity in the ecosystem.
To improve infrastructure in the region, the state built dams 20 metres high and 30 km long in the Haor. Although these have bridges between the dam sections, dams of this kind are both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, they improve communication between the villages and platforms, on the other hand, they influence the flow and velocities within the Haor. As a result, these dams create numerous silted areas on their windward sides, destroying farmers’ arable land. This arable land can then only be used as low-grade pastureland or falls victim to devastation altogether. So far, 1000 to 1500 fields have been silted up by this.

A dam through the Haor, a blessing and a curse at the same time, Picture: Claudius Günther 2020

Non-governmental organisations that help improve the lives of the rural population do not yet exist in the Haor. The only non-governmental organisations are the microcredit lenders, which force masses of people to flee their homes. These are one of the main reasons for families to leave the area and try their luck elsewhere.
Otherwise, the state takes care of this area quite well. This is where the current prime minister was born and where her sons invest in dams, roads and ferries.

In summer, there are only a few permanent water arms, then ferries are needed, Picture: Claudius Günther 2020

Besides the helipad for the presidential family, there is also a hospital in Mitharmoin, the main town of this Haor. For the health of the population, other health stations have been built on the haor land.

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