Sunday, March 22, 2009

City slums: Urban Rurality

After meeting with the Chittagong Development Authority and learning of their plans to heighten the embankment and plant mangrove forests, we wanted to visit some of the affected communities living in slum areas around the embankment that protects the city. We got pointed in the direction of the Chittagong City Corporation, where we met architects and urban planners Reza and Shahidul, involved in the department “Healthy City”. They busy themselves with issues surrounding slum development. They immediately invited us on an all day slum excursion, where we visited the most disaster prone and economically poor areas of Chittagong.

We set off in our CNG, in which we thought only three people could fit. However, our super guide Shahidul squeezed himself next to (on top of) our driver and folded his arm around him. The first part of the ride took us through the outskirts of the port area which can be seen as the economic heart of the slums. This is where the broken ship parts (from the shipbreaking industry) are processed and resold to be used in the building industry. Everything is recycled! Due to the port proximity, it is also where most of the garment factories are located, one of Bangladesh’s largest economic export products.

Our first stop was at a Hindu Fishing community, an informal settlement that was under development by the Chittagong City Corporation. People were proudly laying bricks for a narrow path (three bricks wide) through the small structures. We had not quite expected to be walking on such a good looking pathway in our first slum. We could see that these people were fishermen, due to the fishing nets that were used as fencing. There was one toilet for the whole community, which was apparently not sufficient. Most houses were in the traditional Kanchi style, made of bamboo. They preferred this over the tin sheeting due to interior climate, although parts of the bamboo houses needed to be rebuilt. The spaces were small, housing ten people on twelve square meters. Despite their struggles, these people were very friendly and the children were extremely playful. Just outside of the community, a canal was dug out again for water flow. Things were clearly under development.

We then moved on to a local farm next to the embankment. First of all, it was surprising to see farm land inside such a huge city. Secondly, it was even more surprising to see Frisian cows invading the countryside! They were famous, because they came from "Australia". The ground was clearly very fertile. Rice paddies were green as green can be. The main problem the farmer faces, is the lack of killas (raised land) to protect the cattle in case of cyclones and flooding.

The next stop was at the embankment itself, where we met with some fishermen and had a cup of tea. There were two embankments. One was newer and used as a highway. It was not possible to access this road from these villages, making them less connected. The other embankment had an old dirt road, which was nothing our CNG driver couldn't handle. The fisherman on the good side of the embankments have lived in the area for a long time. They have suffered greatly from the 1991 cyclone, and they surely do not feel comfortable with their current situation if a new cyclone would hit the area.

On the other side of the embankment, a vital group of women lived on government owned land. They came from the Barisal region, where they had lost their husbands during the Sidr disaster of 2007. They migrated towards the city to earn a living. In Chittagong, they now collect and sort garbage until they get removed from their land. The people were full of life and exclaimed: "Where there is work, there we will go".

After visiting two other cyclone shelters, where we witnessed a Rabindranath concert by candlelight, we moved on to the meet all the "family" of our guide. Everyone was very hospitable, and apparently we now are part of his extended family!

The next day the NGO Codec took us to another fishermen village, where they worked with a participatory approach to develop their living standards and awareness regarding cyclones. Some of their main concerns included: the still weak embankments, broken sluice, lack of cyclone shelters, and weakness of own houses. Towards the shore we could see a new mangrove forest that was planted to protect the area from cyclones. People said they spent 200-300 euro for a bamboo house structure, which they could build in one week. Codec also did research in the possibilities of micro-insurance systems in case of disaster.

For our latest field trip, YPSA (a local NGO) took us to visit a garment factory and their communities. Quite understandably, most of the workers were not at home in their homes. We did visit a local bakery and went to two schools. The children dreamt of becoming doctors, teachers, or famous cricket players. We spoke with an old man who had lost his eyes during construction work. He and his wife now relied on the help of family and friends for food. The man told us that the water came up to his chin during the 1991 cyclone, and that people took shelter on top of the roofs. Most people migrated from more rural areas like Comilla due to land loss from river erosion. The men often work in the ship-breaking industry, while the younger women work at the garment industry. 600 people worked at the local garment factory, most of which were women. The factory appeared to be well organized, although we only got to see two of the working floors. Most of the valuable machineries were stored on the higher floors to prevent from flooding. One of the officials informed us that there is currently a trend around the country to move garment factories out of the city. In Chittagong, however, the factories still rely on the proximity of the port. Another 1000 of these factories exist in Chittagong itself. It is a huge industry.

Yesterday, we were supposed to finish our research week with a trip to the ship-breaking communities, guided by YPSA. YPSA has been fighting for better working conditions within these ship-breaking industries, and to stop child labour that supposedly makes up 25% of the working force at these yards. At the moment of departure, however, we were informed that we would not be able to go due to security issues. Today we read in the local news paper, that workers made a human chain of 10 km to protest against a court case that forces several ship yards to close. Apparently, they chanted slogans against NGO's, and YPSA in particular. They blamed the NGO's for potentially losing 30.000 jobs in the industry.

We are great with timing.


  1. Died, wat zit je haar goed!

  2. the hard-ship realities of the hard-working physical labourers...

    did you have a chance to celebrate Holi? Or is it not celebrated in Chittabongo area?

  3. Geweldig allemaal Died! You rule! (As a Koning should of course ;-)
    Liefs uit Dubai! (Ben sinds een week teurg uit Ghana :) x