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Decaying rivers and water crisis in Bangladesh

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16th-May-2018       
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Professor Anwarul Karim, Ph.D :
Bangladesh as the land of rivers for generations have been facing most critical situation following decaying river condition and worst water crisis. The problem is most threatening in the Southwest Region of Bangladesh than elsewhere as over 50 million people of over 12 districts and the Sunderban mangrove, the World Heritage have been directly affected by such water crisis.  The Ganges ( the Padma in Bangladesh) in Bangladesh and its off-shoot, the Gorai are  now almost dead rivers following  heavy siltation and formation of a deep  strip of big sandy land rising out of  the Ganges bed over several hundred  miles from Rajshahi where the Ganges enters into Bangladesh and  then flows  to Kushtia near the Talbaria village under  its Bheramara Upozila. It is  one and a half km from the Hardinge Bridge from where the Gorai takes its origin to flow southwest and joins with other rivers such as Madhumoti, Arial Kha, Bhairab, Rupsa, Pussur  and then falls into the Bay of Bengal. The Gorai which thus takes off from the Ganges (the Padma) is the only source of fresh water supply for the entire Southwest region of Bangladesh during the dry season. In recent years the mouth of the Gorai or its entrance has been totally choked by heavy siltation or by a moving bar. As a result no water has been able to enter into the Gorai. The present water flow in the Ganges (the Padma) is very poor and very low following construction of the Farakka Barrage. Although India and Bangladesh signed water treaty between the two countries, this has not been followed by India and the flow of water has been reduced much to the disappointment of Bangladesh.      
The Ganges which is an international river has been flowing from the Himalaya through India and Bangladesh and then falls into the Bay of Bengal.
A few months back from  this day,  as I visited Kushtia I found the Gorai completely dried up and there was no sign of the water flow  in the Gorai. In the wet season, the flood from India would cause high flood in Bangladesh damaging crop, property and life. The river bed then becomes high following heavy  siltation.   All gates of Farakka Barrage is then  opened to pass out the high  flood water to Bangladesh. Bangladesh as a lower riparian country has no  way to  save herself unless a barrage could be constructed over the Ganges near the Hardnge Bridge to prevent the flow of the flood water from India. This would also serve as water reservoir for Bangladesh.
There have been efforts by the Government but nothing happened so far. This results in  an untold suffering for the people of the SWR.  This is not the only scenario of the SWR, it is also the same in other areas of Bangladesh where the river beds are raised high following siltation. All other rivers which descend from India and Assam and flow through Bangladesh cause  such kind of sufferings to the people.
I remember, once Maulana Bhashani arranged a long march  to protest against India regarding such kind of inhuman action by India. As an upper riparian country she has the advantage  to divert  water from these rivers as they flow through India  to her various kinds of water based  projects  but these thwart  the natural flow of water and  now her own people in West Bengal too suffer like Bangladesh.  
The Teesta Barrage Project is one of the largest irrigation projects in the entire eastern region of West Bengal. It will create 9.22 lakh ha. of irrigation potential in six northern districts of West Bengal and 67.50 MW of hydropower from canal falls. Here also India is not ready ro share water. The Chief Minister of West Bengal recently declared that she would look after the interest of her own people first and then she would cvonsider the demand of Bangladesh. If such is the attitude of India and West Bengal for the close-door neighbor like Bangladesh, what fate then waits for us. Should we die ? Let the future decide.
The Golden Bengal : A far cry
Once Bengal was called the Golden Bengal and that was due to its rivers numbering over 700 including its innumerable tributaries and these were  crisscrossed on the whole land.  
The history of ancient Bengal clearly reveals that once trade and commerce had flourished here so much so that Bengal was known as the Golden Bengal and the country had sea and river route connections with the outside world for its products. Riverside markets also developed.
The country, at that time, was best known as the land of rivers. Agriculture played a vital role in the economic activities of the country. Bangladesh is one of the leading rice-producing countries in the world and next to that is jute, as a cash crop. These had helped Bangladesh attain a unique glory. This had been possible because of the fact that the country was watered by its innumerable rivers that crisscrossed every nook and corner of the country and the markets which were built alongside the rivers helped flourish trade and commerce. Land, river and people, each played its part to make the country earn the coveted title: 'Golden Bengal.'
The present situation in Bangladesh is: the rivers are without water during dry season, no navigation has been possible in some rivers. The agriculture of Bangladesh which involves men, women and children has been facing a serious setback due to non-availability of water in the dry season and over abundance of water in wet season. The river transport system, which is the main mode of transportation of passengers and cargoes, faces a serious problem following the formation of innumerable 'char' (sandbar) and shoals in the rivers. Meanwhile the rivers belonging to the southwestern parts of the country also have been experiencing salinity and a scarcity of fresh water. Salinity has also affected the vessels, which have wooden bodies. Navigation in the channels of Chittagong and Mongla ports has also been threatened. The mighty Ganges or the Padma as it is called is now a mere name only. It is heavily silted and the river is no better than a stream. People cross the river on foot. The Ganges Kobadakh Project, the premier irrigation project of Bangladesh failed to supply irrigation to the millions of farmers belonging to the western districts of Bangladesh. The Gorai, an off-take of the Ganges is now almost dead, threatening life. The absence of fresh water has seriously affected the historic Sunderbans. The ground water level has gone so low that it has seriously affected deep and shallow tube well irrigation. Salinity is now destroying agriculture, forestry, and fishery. Livestock has suffered. Desertification and ecological imbalance and environmental pollution pose a serious threat to the life and property of the people. The total economy of the country has been facing a serious setback. Arsenic has become a big problem as over 80 % tubewells are now contaminated. Many people have already died of arsenic. The absence of fresh water is taken as one of the causes of Arsenic contamination. Bangladesh has been experiencing serious drought for the past several months. As a result, rain water, as an alternative for safe tube-well water, is now a far cry from happening. High flood during the past several years damaged cities, towns and villages and caused havoc to the life and property, shattering the country's economy. Water then is everywhere, 'but not a drop to drink.'
The majority of the rivers in Bangladesh dry up in dry season. Moreover the country faces continuous drought. Ponds and ditches are without water. It seriously affects irrigation for agricultural production. The Gorai River which is an offshoot of the Ganges (the Padma) connects several southwestern districts for fresh water. But the mouth of the river remains heavily silted and a number of times were completely blocked for supply of fresh water to the whole southwestern region. As a result the total economy of the entire region suffered. The Government arranged re-excavation of the river, but before the work was complete, the dredging work was suspended causing a serious setback to agriculture, fishery, livestock, forestry, health - sanitation and environment. Salinity makes everything all the more worse. The Ganges (the Padma) was once famous for fish, particularly hilsha which is called the King fish, is no more available. The fishermen of this region have suffered much for this and they are now forced to give up fishing as a trade. Many communities such as potters, weavers, oil makers who used to live along the river banks have also been forced to give up their ancestral trade. Moreover, heavy and continuous river erosion in the region has destroyed hundreds of villages leaving people shelterless and homeless.
The irrigation system, both surface and ground water, which is in practice, has also been facing crisis. No timely irrigation is possible because of non-availability of water in the Ganges. However, when irrigation is available to the people, it does not reach the tail-enders as the people who are in the upper region take the major share. In the absence of a water law, this problem cannot be addressed. A similar situation is in vogue by the ground water users. There is a conflict between the deep and shallow tube well users in the same region or locality. And here also there is no water law to prevent mismanagement in water use. In view of the above, the culture of Bangladesh is on the verge of ruination. The villages are no more the center of cultural activities. Boat races and other festivals are hardly organized; the folk singers are hard hit and have disappeared. Shamans and rainmakers are no more seen. Modernity has also seriously affected their way of life. Traditional way of life has been changed to non-traditional ones. Modern technology has replaced the traditional practices. However, a good number of modern uses in the agricultural sector proved detrimental not only to the production of agriculture and its allied discipline but also to the general health environment of the people. The scarcity of water, thus, has given a death blow to the cultural heritage of Bangladesh. Fish is being destroyed due to improper use of insecticide and chemical fertilizers. Many insects which are helpful to agriculture have faced extinction. Many birds and frogs are no more seen. On the other hand, use of chemicals also helps increase the arsenic problem. Drinking water has become a serious problem because of arsenic. Most of the tube-wells are now arsenic contaminated. The Government of Bangladesh and the NGOs working in Bangladesh with funds from outside have been working for long to mitigate this problem.
Meherunnessa, a Research Associate of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, published an article on 'A Step toward Solving the South Asian Crisis' in the George Town Journal of International Affairs on May 25, 2015. In her article she discussed the water crisis now has been facing by South Asian Countries, more particularly Bangladesh being the lower riparian country. India, Pakistan and Nepal also have problems regarding water issues but the position of Bangladesh is acute. Bangladesh was once called the land of rivers and scenic beauty. Rivers shaped her future; so much so, that the country was called the Golden Bengal. She analyzed the problem quite dispassionately and urged upon countries that are in an advantageous position to be sympathetic and humane with those who depend on them in regard to water issues.
"For many years, water has been one of the most commonly contested bilateral and multilateral issues between and among the countries of South Asia. Conflict over water has, for example, strained India's relations with three of its neighbors: Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal. The rapid retreat of the Himalayan glaciers, increasing effects of climate change, deteriorating river ecology, and growing urbanization of the region have all impacted flows of fresh water in South Asia. India's unilateral approach to the problem has also made maintaining good relations among South Asian countries more complex. As a result, major trans-boundary rivers including the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra, which straddle international boarders and support the lives of an estimated 700 million people, are in desperate need of improved water governance.
Water-sharing conflicts among the countries of the region have a long and torrid history. Bangladesh and India maintain a tense relationship over issues of water management, one that has grown increasingly strained by the diversion of the Ganges River by India, the Farakka dam, the proposed Tipaimukh Dam, and the Teesta water-sharing predicament. India's hydroelectric projects - and the devastation they inflict upon the environment - have also created a bone of contention between the two countries. India's decision to divert the Ganges has created undesirable salt deposits in Bangladeshi farmland, negatively impacting fishing and navigation in Bangladesh.      Contd on page 34

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