Bangladesh Rivers are dying

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Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins. Source Wikipedia

The World Rivers Day was observed on 30th September 2018 in Bangladesh and in other country. Newspapers have brought out extra supplements to observe the Day. For Bangladesh rivers are life to its people and its importance has never diminished.

The Bangladesh Minister for  Environment, Forests and Climate Changes Anisul  Islam Mamud reportedly said on September 18 (2018) that due to its geographical position, Bangladesh’s danger from climate changes  is double-edged with snowmelt in the Himalaya to the north and sea-level rise in the Bay of Bengal to the south. Furthermore as a result of India’s withdrawal of three trans-boundary rivers, saline intrusion into Bangladesh’s inland would be massive.

The Ganges-Jumana-Meghna deltaic -estuary is reported to be the second largest in the world, after Amazon basin in Brazil.  Land, river and people played their part to make this country prosper.

It may be noted that the history of “Golden Bengal” (Sonar Bangla) is not complete without rivers and water experts estimate that over 700 rivers crisscross the country (reportedly Chittagong district alone has 78 rivers including the Karnaphuli).

Rivers are important for people for many reasons and one of them has been that with the flows of the rivers, riverside markets are multiplied in the country with immense benefits to the farmers and people. At present, water on the rivers is so scarce especially in winter because rivers are dying.

Bangladesh rivers  are dying  because of  the rapid retreat of the Himalayan glaciers, increasing effects of climate change, deterioration of river of ecology and the construction of dwelling-houses for growing population in the country (over three thousand people per square mile on average). All these factors have led to the death of many rives.

All rivers in Bangladesh originate from the Himalayan mountains. Rivers in Bangladesh are both snow-fed and rain-fed. Many rivers face water shortages both in summer and winter seasons because rivers are dying.  One of the big rivers, Meghna is believed to be highly erosion prone because of its vast flow and volatility. Other rivers of erosion include Teesta, Khowai, Manu and Karnaphuli.

The above scenario demonstrates that when Bangladesh needs water during winter season, the country does not get water but when it does not need water at monsoon season, it gets plenty of it and it creates a havoc in the country through floods and erosion of river banks, often devouring the homes of rural people.

Bangladesh owes its origin from siltation of its land territory. During the last 47 years its waterway has been reduced to 19 thousand kilometers .Before independence, Bangladesh had reportedly 24,100 kilometres of waterway.   Now we are informed that the waterway has been reduced to less than 5,000 kilometres.  The silt- deposits into the rivers per year is about 120 crore square kilometers and during the last 47 years  silt has been deposited  in the beds of rivers and according to experts ,300 rivers have been lost. It is reported that about 28 rivers are in danger of their existence.

According to water experts, the land territory of Dhaka was 5 times larger than that of rivers. To-day it has been reduced to 4 times than that of rivers. The rivers which circle greater Dhaka, such as Buriganga, Balu, Turag and Shitalakhaya are in danger of being lost because of pollution, waste disposal in the rivers from tanneries and other industries and siltation. Furthermore out of 33 kilometres of water way, 22 kilometres  are  reportedly in illegal occupation. Dredging of rivers is reportedly not done. As a result, it is reported that the navigability of rivers has been lost in the rivers of Barguna, Nayabhangini, Sathla, Ganeshpura, Tetulia, Loharia and Elisha Rivers.

It is noted that according to water- experts, Bangladesh had 24,000km inland waterway in 1971. Today, Bangladesh’s navigable waterways stretch about 3,865 km in lean season and expands to 5.965 km during the rainy season.

The navigability of rivers has significantly been reduced because the river depth has decreased. Hydro-geographical dynamics and human interventions were factors in decreasing the navigability. Besides these factors, sand mining is another threat that hundreds of rivers have to deal with it.

One of the mighty rivers - the Ganges (known in Bangladesh  as Padma)  is not “mighty” as before and it is reported that  an off-shoot of the Padma, the river Gorai, which flows in the south-west in the country,  is reportedly almost dead due to heavy siltation and formation of deep strip of big sandy land (char).

Bangladesh gets about 1.2 billion of silt through its river-systems and deposit of silt is a big problem for river-beds. As a result,  it is reported that during the dry season, about 50 million people in the south-west region of the country and the world-heritage, the Sundarban mangrove have been adversely affected,  possibly leading the Sundarban to extinction in future.

The rivers in Bangladesh which play a key part in the cheapest transportation of passengers and cargoes face serious problems following the formation of sandbar (char) and shoals of the rivers.  The river-transport system through the rivers and big canals, once so popular, rarely exist because of siltation of the river-beds.

Furthermore the rivers in the south-western part of the country face salinity and salinity has affected the vessels, which have wooden bodies to their destruction. Salinity has been also a serious threat to agriculture, fishery, livestock, forestry, sanitation and environment. Once famous for the supply of the king of the fish -Hilsa- from Padma and this fish is now available meagerly. It is noted that Hilsa fish from Padma is found to be much tastier than those caught in West Bengal. This fact was often told to me when I was posted in Calcutta in early 80s.

The scarce availability of fish Hilsa, forced many fishermen to give up their trade and many communities such as potters, weavers, and oil-makers who used to live along the river-banks have become negligible in number at present. Furthermore, the heavy and continuous river erosion have destroyed hundreds of villages, thus leaving poor people shelter less and homeless. Many cultural activities which were undertaken in villages on the basis of water availability of the rivers, such as boat- racing and other related festivals are disappearing fast. Moreover, the folk singers and Jatras (folk-lore tales) are hard hit and ceased to be visible.

Another factor is modernity which has seriously affected the way of life of people. Modern technology has replaced the traditional practices. Insecticide and chemical fertilizers have destroyed many insects which were helpful to agriculture.  Fish has been affected by the use of such chemicals and in many places availability of fish is very limited.  Furthermore, many birds, frogs, other aquatic animals and creatures are gradually disappearing.

Another problem has arisen out of use of chemicals for the rural people.  Water of the tube-well is contaminated with arsenic and people in the rural areas are unable to use it.  People who used to use water-both surface and underground-for irrigation face great difficulties because of water shortage.

Bangladesh, a land of six seasons and rivers, may have the possibility to turn into a barren country due to scarcity of fresh water and whatever the greenery the country has may not exist in future.

The 18th century English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” expressed eloquently the scarcity of water on seas: “Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink”. This utterance may be applicable to Bangladesh when the country plunges itself into flooding during the monsoon season and fresh water (non-salted water) is found scarce for human consumption.

The navigability of rivers needs plenty of water and the authorities may take urgent actions to avoid deteriorating further the navigability of rivers of the country.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN

  • Bangladesh Rivers are dying
  • Issue 14
  • Barrister Harun ur Rashid
  • Vol 35

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