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Rivers, Lowlands Often Scenes of Natural Disasters

May 6, 1991 GMT

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ In schools, after movies and public functions, Bangladeshis sing ″My Golden Bengal, I Love You″ - based on a poem that set the tone for the nation’s 1971 independence struggle and later became the national anthem.

But to many, the lyrics that extol the Himalayan rivers sweeping across the country seem misplaced.

The chain of natural disasters that periodically buffet this impoverished, Wisconsin-sized nation are being increasingly blamed on the great rivers that form a delta across Bangladesh.

Last week’s cyclone killed more than 125,000 people and damaged coastal property worth an estimated $1.4 billion. The relief effort has been hampered by bad weather, and survivors were growing more and more desperate.

On the island of Urir Char, residents rushed a helicopter as it landed, fighting for food and supplies. Police beat them back with bamboo staves.

The disaster is the latest in the series of calamities in the lowlands.

The delta floods during the summer monsoon each year. The rivers’ inverted funnel-shaped outlets to the Bay of Bengal allows sea water to rush inland during a storm.

″We will have to endure floods and cyclones because of our geographical position,″ said Maniruzzman Miah, a teacher at Dhaka University’s Geography Department. ″But the question is how long.″

Geological experts believe that a 1950 earthquake in the neighboring Indian state of Assam created a massive crater in the southern part of Bangladesh and as a result the land is sinking 1 1/2 inches every year. Most of the land is only 30 feet above sea level. Closer to the coast and on the offshore islands, land is only a few feet above the sea.

On their way to the bay, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers carry an estimated 1 billion tons of silt, which periodically form new islands off the coast.

Last week, these offshore islands bore the brunt of a cyclone, which was the latest of 21 major tropical storms to have ravaged the coastland since 1970.

Officials at the Flood Ministry say at least 12 major floods inundated the land in the past 44 years. One such flood in 1988 submerged three-fourths of the country, killed 1,400 people and displaced 30 million others.

″Bangladesh is still a living delta. Rivers break their banks destroying huge chunk of lands in the plains on the one side, silt forms new lands on the other,″ said Hamiduzzman Khan Chowdhury, director of the Meteorological department.

″The rivers are the lifeline of Bangladesh,″ Chowdhury said. ″The rivers and the sea no doubt bring tragedies for us, but we still are surviving because of them.″ Bangladeshis’ main diet is rice and fish, from both the sea and the rivers.

Bangladesh and neighboring India are still in conflict over the sharing of the Ganges river waters. Bangladesh claims that it does not get enough water from the Ganges during the dry season because India diverts it to flush its Calcutta port.

And the opening of barriers during the monsoon make water levels rise downstream.

Though people often feel defeated by the wantonness and frequency of natural disasters, there is no escape. Calamity is a way of life, and life is usually short, fragile and gruelling.

The density of population, estimated at 2,000 per square mile push many homeless and landless to their deaths in newly created offshore islands.

″That night I promised to myself I’ll never stay on this island. But next day when the cyclone was over my father told me we have no other place to go,″ said Shamser Ali, a 12-year-old boy in Manpura island, ravaged by last week’s cyclone.

Many islands are still not fit for habitation. But dreams of a patch of land and a meal of rice and fish a day send thousands of people to the islands, which are earning the reputation of deathtraps.

The cyclone last week battered the country’s southeastern coast for eight hours.

Most of the victims drowned when they were submerged by the waves, but some died when their houses collapsed, and others were bitten by poisonous snakes as humans and reptiles competed for dry land.