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Special issue on 38th anniversary of the New Nation

Water and Cultural resources of Bangladesh: Problems and possibilities

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Photo: Anwarul Karim

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Prof. Anwarul Karim, Ph, D
Bangladesh is a land of rivers and her civilization and culture have been built primarily by its water resource as economic and social good. Water is a natural resource. Everybody has the right to use it as a gift of nature. As a human being we have to look into other's interest. If we want to create a better world for humanity, rivers should be allowed to flow naturally. Bangladesh is a small country and located at the northeastern part of South Asia. It lies between 20? and 34' and 26? 38' north latitudes and between 88? 01' and 92? 41' east longitudes. The total area of Bangladesh is 147,570 square kilometer
Water resources
The country is fenced by the Bay of Bengal on the south and India on the east, north and west. There is a small strip of frontier with Burma (Myanmar) on the southeastern edge. The country is a flat, alluvial and deltaic plain is interspersed by a network of countless rivers. The Padma (the Ganges), the Jamuna (the Brahmaputra) and the Meghna have large number of tributaries and distributaries. These rivers are the lifeline of the country's economic prosperity. The country has a number of hills and ridges on the northeastern part of Bangladesh in the districts of Sylhet and Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Sunderbans, the biggest forest zone of the country, is on the southeast over-viewing the sea.
Bangladesh is in the lower Gangetic region. The land has a wonderful network of rivers, big and small. It has canals or rivulets called 'Khals' and 'Beels'. It also has swamps and marshy areas. Most of the rivers flow across the plain towards the south. Further, it has ponds and tanks all over the country. There are also lakes formed naturally and are now known as 'Baors'. These have many legends also. Tanks and ponds were made by religious wealthy people for the betterment  of the people.
Country boats : A major means of communication in Bangladesh
The boat is the major means of travel in Bangladesh. But the situation has been changed following non-availability of water in most of our rivers during dry season.                 
Once Bangladesh earned name and fame for her rivers. All foreign visitors spoke high of Bangladesh for her rivers and village market on the banks of these rivers. Rivers were always full of water and for this navigation by country boats were smooth. Things could be transported to any part of the country with ease and  less cost. The rivers facilitated greatly these village markets which were located mostly on the banks of the rivers.    
In Bangladesh there are various types of country boats. These are made according to regions. Country boats are used for public use. They carry passengers from one place to another. Ferry boats are used for ferrying people  from one bank to the other. There are fishing boats also. They are used for catching fish either in the rivers or in the sea. .
There are also various types of cargo boat. They carry merchandize from one place to the other.  These boats make business operations  both in  inland and also in the open seas. The sea going boats are designed for rough weather: for waves and strong winds. And these are rigged in such a way that they can sail to windward. These boats ply along the east coast of the Bay of Bengal. The most important routes include, between Chittagong in the south and Dhaka, Naryanganj and Chandpur in the north. The western routes include  between Barisal and Khulna and Barisal and Patuakhali.
These commercially operated cargo boats have names such as Sampan, Balam, Jali. These are among the largest country boats which can carry cargo around 4,000 mounds (160 tons). The small cargo boats can carry goods around 1,000 to 2,000 maunds.
The Golden Bengal : Agriculture and Commerce
Agriculture is the basis of civilization in the Ganges basin area. There was unprecedented prosperity in agriculture, industries and commerce in the past. The large volume of its foreign trade functions through its river based network and sea routes.
Rice was the principal food crop. There were large varieties of rice, fine and course, grown in the country.
Jute was considered the golden fibre of the country from time immemorial. It was the chief cash crop of the country. The cultivation of jute was also in abundance in the past. It helped stabilize the economy of the country. Symbolically, the cultivation of jute then brought gold for the country.  
Plenty of references about rice and jute and jute cloths are available in medieval literature. There are records that women in the medieval age, put on varieties of jute sari (patta-bastra). But things changed because of non availability of water in the rivers and irregular rain because of change in environment.
Fish resources
Shrimp and Hilsha / Ilish  
Shrimp and Hilsha are the major fish resources in the country. Once there was a saying 'macce bhate Bangali. Fish and rice were once taken as the principal food of Bengali people. These were abundantly available in Bangladesh. But presently the fish production has been thwarted following acute water shortage in the rivers.     
After the independence of the country, interest in shrimp production grew with rising price and demand in international markets. Shrimp farms are being set up in peripheral lands near the mouth of the coastal rivers where inundation of saline water is possible. From the late 70's to early 80's, shrimp culture system expanded steadily. The industry grew rapidly during the mid 1990's and since then, shrimp cultivation is very much on rise now.
Shrimp plays an important role in the economy of Bangladesh. It is the second largest export industries after garments.
Ilish (Hilsha in English) is a popular fish to eat among the people of Bangladesh. It is the most popular and national fish of the country and extremely popular in many countries of the world.
But presently Hilsha  is not available in abundance following non availability of water in the rivers.
Panta Ilish - a traditional food is generally eaten by rural people, particularly when they work in the field under the sun. It avoids sun-stroke. They eat green chili, onion and raw pulse along with it. But it is also no more a cheap food in villages.
Forest resource around the sea and rivers
The Sunderbans
The Sunderbans is the biggest mangrove in Bangladesh. The Sundarbans forest lies in the vast Gangetic delta and beside the Bay of Bengal. The forest covers 10,000 km, .of which about 6,000 are in Bangladesh. The forest has been a subject to intensive human use for centuries, and the eco-region has been mostly converted into intensive agriculture, with a few enclaves of forest remaining.
Wild Life in the Sunderbans is threatened
The Sundarbans along the Bay of Bengal has evolved over the millennia through natural deposition of upstream sediments accompanied by intertidal segregation. It was a water-logged jungle in which tigers and other wild beasts abounded. The Sundarbans was everywhere intersected by river channels and creeks.
But presently this biggest mangrove has been facing environmental crisis. This has been caused by chemical pollution and resource depletion. Although UNESCO considers the Sunderbans as the  World Heritage, there has been no effort so far made for its protection.
 Water culture in Bengali Folklore
Bangladesh has a very rich folkloric heritage. And water is a part of our folklore and folk life. Our folktales, legends, proverbs, riddles, nursery rhymes, folksongs, wedding songs and ballads, etc., have involved water and women. In all cases women are intelligent, smart, clever and cooperative. In our proverbs, the name of 'Khona,' a woman figures prominently. Her identity is not much known. But she is very popular among the peasants of Bangladesh. The name of 'Daak' is also very important in our folklore, particularly in regard to proverbs. He is, however, a male person.
Folk knowledge on agriculture and forestry
Folk people in Bangladesh have wisdom on agricultural cultivation and forestry. If there is rainfall in the Bengali month of magh (Late December-January), production will be vigorous and rampant. Application of soil mulch in bamboo groves in spring (March-April) will help induce regeneration and vigorous growth of bamboo shoots. Water hyacinth and other mulching materials at the base of coconut and other trees during the dry season will help conserve soil moisture. The use of dried neem leaves will protect stored grains from insect infestation. Folk people have lots of knowledge which is orally transmitted for generations together.
If there is rainfall by the end of Magh (January-February), the land is blessed because of good harvest.
People living along the river banks very well understand the advent of flood by experience. They move to safer zones or store things for their use during the flood. They also store seeds which they use in their fields when the water recedes. They also build flood embankments by raising mounds and planting trees along the bank for their protection from river erosion.
Following are the few proverbs that relate to Khana:
Jodi barshe aagoney
Raja jabe magone
Meaning: If it rains in the month of Agrahayan (aagoney), there shall be crop failure and the King then goes a-begging.
Jodi barshey Meagher shesh
Dhonni rajar punni desh
Meaning: If it rains in the month of Magh (January -February), both the king and the country would be blessed and the crops would grow in abundance. The period covers paush (December -January.)
According to Khona, if the sky is covered by mist in Chaitra (March-April) there may be plenty of paddy in Bhadra (August -September)
If the southern wind blows in the month of Ashar (June-July), there may be flood in the year.
Khana maintains further:  If in paush (December-January) there is heat in the atmosphere and cold in Baishakh (March -April), there may be heavy rainfall in the year.
If the cloud takes the form of Kodaly megh, as if clouds are cut by spade and axe and the wind blows off and on, it is understood that there may be rainfall in a day or two.
Rain Making : A popular belief among various religious communities
When there is continuous drought, people suffer, crops are either damaged or fail, people start praying to Allah, Bhagaban or Iswar, God for rain. They go to 'pirs' or mazars , mosques and temples or follow certain. They go for primitive practices as these have been done by the pagans or the animists. Hindu and Muslims have different practices. Rain making does not mean artificial rain. When rain comes, it comes as normal rain. Here we talk about  rain making as it happens during moments of drought.
On this occasion, the frog bride and groom are highly decorated with a red streak of colour on their forehead and carried in a special basket to a banana-leaf stage. There are other methods also.
Villagers sing songs, make offerings of rice and grass, then after the ceremony the married frogs are released in the village pond. Villagers are fed with sweets.
Frog Marge
A cosmopolitan country with unique communal harmony
Bangladesh as one of the ancient countries represents a kind of culture that is unique in the world. Bangladesh is a country where the culture is diversified. Yet never has such diversification affected our culture. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians together with the minor religious groups, such as tribes, maintain their own religious culture living side by side for generations. Bangladesh has become a cosmopolitan country. Here Hindu, Muslim. Buddhist, Tribes and local Christians all maintain a unique harmony. Although the Muslims are majority in Bangladesh, there has been no communal violence. All perform their religious rites unhindered,  The Muslim popular religion, Sufism, had a growing influence on the Ganga-Yamuna Doab from the 13th century onward. Its interaction with the bhakti or devotional movements in the following centuries deserves attention, as it represents the historical and spiritual roots of the religious practices of the present day Bauls of Western Bangladesh and West Bengal. The Bauls are wandering musicians and religious itinerants. Bhakti in popular Hinduism and in Sufism conceived of love in the divine form of a feminine devotees and acknowledged pirs and gurus as spiritual mediators. Bhakti spiritual leaders communicated their texts and practices in local and regional tongues and helped the development of Bengali, Oriya, Assamese and Maithili as regional languages. Currently, the captivating mystical bhakti-oriented songs of the Baul's of the Western Bangladesh attract large crowds of mainstream Bengalis during festivals.
Water crisis and problems relating to cultural heritage of Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a country with a very rich cultural heritage and here water has been playing a vital role in the making of it. But at the moment, Bangladesh has been struggling for her  existence following  acute shortage of water in the dry season or over-abundance of water in the form of high floods in wet season and it aggravates, when India opens all the gates of Farakka Barrage to avoid crisis in India regarding flood and water logging. This overflow of waters from the Ganges to the Padma through the Farakka Barrage during wet season makes life of the people in Bangladesh miserable as a lower riparian country. On the other hand, in dry season, India diverts water from the Ganges to different projects of India without giving Bangladesh her due share as decided by both the countries.   Bangladesh held meetings with India a number of times, but the situation did not improve. 
The construction of Farakka barrage or dam over the Ganges (The Padma) has already left an adverse effect on the environment riparian areas of Bangladesh. It is further learnt that India is going to build another dam over the Brahmaputra and works are on-going. This would also lead to the drying up of two main rivers, the Surma and the Kusiyara. Such an action would destroy Bangladesh economically. 'The dam would also have an adverse impact on the environment and bio-diversity of the lower riparian areas of Bangladesh, 'commented Meherunnessa. In fact, such action of withdrawing water by setting up barrage or dam over international rivers is very unfortunate on the part of India who fought hand in hand with the freedom fighters to liberate Bangladesh against Pakistan.
The hard reality is: our rivers which originate from the Himalaya or from any other mountain and then fall to the sea, can no more give birth to any poet, rather the sea together with rivers close to it, brings forth 'aila' in the southern part of Bangladesh, destroying 30 million souls. As the sea water rises, and salinity affects the farm fields, and the Sunderbans getting destroyed, there appears further fear of 'aila' or 'tsunami'. India explodes bombs in seas for experiment, Korea and China took the sea as a fertile ground for Bomb explosion. The sea is tortured and there appears a commotion. And Bangladesh becomes a victim by being a lower riparian country.
The change of climate together with the change in the environment also is caused not by nature herself, it is also man made. Nature, in self defense or self- guarding, became violent to bring in 'chaoses to the shaping of the earth as cosmos for her protection. She took protective measure to give human mind a lesson but it was merely a cry in the wilderness; her human child pays no heed to it.
Climate change in Bangladesh is most threatening. There may be increasingly frequent and severe floods, cyclones, storm surges and droughts. Sustained and sustainable growth, therefore, will not only be a far cry but also it would be very crucial in adopting long-term efforts to climate change in Bangladesh.'
Again the coastal zone might face severe type of cyclone and storms together with tidal surge. In the past we noticed, when there is severe flood in India all the gates of the Farakka Barrage are kept open and these affect Bangladesh because most of the rivers which have been dried up or are heavily silted, they cause high flood. These high flood, when enters into Bangladesh, it causes severe damage to the life and property of the people. Again in dry season, the absence of water plays havoc to the total economy of the country. Agriculture, fishery and industry face destruction. This also caused serious environmental problems also. Over and above, the culture of Bangladesh  which water shaped for generations also has been threatened and many are no more in existence.
SAARC:  For whose benefit ?
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the regional  intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of nations in South Asia. SAARC was founded in Dhaka on 8th December, 1985  Its secretariat is presently in Kathmandu, Nepal. The organization promotes development of economic and regional integration. There is no doubt that  it was founded with good intention to work for regional cooperation and benefit.  But the setting up of Farakka Barrage over the Ganges  now appears as a death knell to the 170 million people of Bangladesh. India has  turned a deaf ear to this problem of Bangladedsh and has been going ahead with setting up more barrages over Tista and otherrivers. This is a gross violation of international laws. 
Dr. AYM Abdullah in his book, SAARC : Will it Survive? Rightly argues: "Twenty years have elapsed since the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation or SAARC came into being, twelve summits and good number of meetings have been held, but its achievement towards advancement and well being of the people is rather modest. Enlightened conscience may find it difficult to understand why the South Asian countries, constituting more than one fifth of mankind, having cultural affinities, economic complementary and similar problems have failed for long to unite in order to create a better quality of life for their people" (Abdullah, AYM. 2011: Preface).
In fact, it is due to non-cooperation of India as one of the big powers in the region, the purpose of SAARC could not be realized as yet. Although the relation between Bangladesh and India , apparently seems good, the future looks bleak. India always plays the role of a big brother, the former Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral in his book writes, "The Gujral doctrine, if I may call it so, states that with neighbors like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, we do not ask for reciprocity but give what we can in good faith". Abdullah maintains, "But in reality it has never been applied or discussed at the policy level. Indian bureaucrats were skeptical about the idea. Also once Gujral is out of power, the doctrine went with him." (Abdullah, AYM. 2011: 221-222)
Amartya Sen., the Nobel Laureate, finally defends India. Abdullah quotes Amartya, "India must be the elder, not the big brother with special responsibility. It must not only be the largest country in the heart of South Asia, but also the country with the largest heart." (Abdullah, AYM.2011:222). Amartya Sen. was born in Manikganj, Bangladesh but now a seasoned Indian civilian. He visited Bangladesh a number of times and had full knowledge about the problems the country had been facing and looked to be unbiased and neutral as an international scholar but he too quite unexpectedly became an outright Indian at last.
When such is the situation, the existence of SAARC is no more effective. The situation as it prevails now is a question of life and death for the people of Bangladesh. We want to live in peace with our neighbors, particularly as of  India. Bangladesh holds India in high esteem as she helped her in the liberation war. The recent meeting that Bangladesh had with India in Delhi when the two Prime Ministers of the respective countries met and exchanged views, India looked very friendly and sympathetic to the problems of Bangladesh in regard to water resources..    We can only pray now, 'Let good sense prevail' 'May God save human beings from total destruction by human beings.
(The writer is the Hony.Chairman, Bangladesh Folklore Research Institute, Kushtia and formerly Visiting Scholar, Divinity School, Harvard (1985). Presently Pro-Vice Chancellor, Northern University Bangladesh. E mail : dranwar.karim@ gmail/yahoo.com)

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