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Decaying rivers and water crisis

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Contd from page 37 :
The surface water quality is affected by untreated industrial effluents, Municipal waste water and run off from the surface of the agricultural lands treated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Pollution problems in the rivers close to the industrial areas are exceedingly high. For example: The dissolved Oxygen (DO) level in the Buriganga has been found to be very low, and hence toxic. The Sitalakhya, Turag and Balu are also highly polluted. The water quality in Dhaka is so poor that the Environment Department of Bangladesh in a report said that "the water from surrounding rivers can no longer be considered as a supply source for human consumption."
Unlike Chittagong and a number of lesser urban centres, the requirement of potable water in the city of Dhaka is met entirely by groundwater abstraction. Excessive abstraction under pressures of increasingly larger population may further lower the ground water table and expose certain areas to serious scarcity and even land subsidence. The possibility of such a danger has to be seriously investigated. In any event the use of surface water as an important source of drinking water in the city of Dhaka brooks no further delay.
The levels of arsenic contents in the ground water is of major concern in Bangladesh. Prolonged use of water with arsenic concentration above the nationally recommended maximum of 0.05mg/ 1 for drinking purposes may pose serious hazards. The problem has assumed a serious dimension in specific areas in the south - west and south- east regions. The seriously affected areas are around Chandpur. According to an estimate about 20 million people drink water exceeding the safe arsenic level.
Bio diversity
Bio diversity in Bangladesh is significant. Rivers and inland water bodies supports over 200 indigenous fish species and 150 species of birds. The marine water bodies harbour about 442 species of fish and 36 species of shrimps as well as significant number of crabs and turtules.
The Sunderbans, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, supports 300 species of plants, 400 species of fish and over 200 species of birds. It is also the feeding area of migratory birds during winter.
However like other sectors of Bangladesh ecology, the diverse biological resources are also threatened by human intervention. The threat is most visible in the fisheries and forestry sectors. Forest areas already small as a proportion of the total land area, is being depleted by the combined pressure from timber extraction, encroachment by expanded agricultural activities and by the land grabbers. The forest area like Madhupur, once the home of many species of flora and fauna, has thinned out significantly in recent years. Shrimp culture owing to the method of cultivation, has an adverse effect on soil condition, vegetation and crop production in the area. These are due mainly to intrusion of saline water into the shrimp beds and deposition of suspended silt that comes along with the saline water.
Overfishing under conditions of population pressures has depleted the fish resources. Hilsa fish for which Bangladesh was once famous is no longer available in plenty. Despite the presence of a law prohibiting  the catch of fish below certain specified size, large quantities of Hilsa fry (Jhatka) are caught ever year and find their way into small markets.***
Bangladesh is a signatory to the Rio Convention on bio-diversity and as such is bound by the international guidelines for conservation of plants and animal lives. The international union for conservation and nature (IUCN) in its red list had included 54 species of inland fish, 58 reptiles, 41 resident birds and 40 mammals as having been threatened with extinction in Bangladesh. The National Herbarium has listed 96 plants as threatened species. The list may not be very large considering the present extent of biodiversity with about 10,000 species of animals and plants in the country. However, in view of the nature of human activities in overexploiting the habitat of these species, there is little reason to be complacent.
It is evident from the brief discussions in the preceding paragraphs that the ecology of Bangladesh has been deteriorating under pressures of population and industrialization and urbanization. Historically speaking it is a fairly recent phenomenon. Since the polluting agents are different, each case will have to be studied separately warranting  a micro level approach.
A foremost task will be to build a measure of   public awareness of the danger to the quality of human life. The work undertaken by the civil society groups and the government needs to be pursued and further expanded. The subject of environmental concern could be part of the educational policy and can be integrated in the teaching programs at school level.
Although a good number of laws for containing pollution have been enacted, their implementation has been uneven. For example: the laws regarding aspects of industrial pollutions have not always been rigorously implemented. Even of when a sound decision has been taken, its implementation gets delayed or is bogged down on various grounds. Relocation of the tanneries at Hazaribag is a case in point. Another example is the unabated catch of fish fries despite the presence of very clear legal provision for handling the offense.
The high salinity
The high salinity caused by the salt water intrusion has rendered the river water unusable for drinking, cooking and washing purposes in Khulna and Bagerhat districts. Water Development Board source said that an all time record of saline contents in the river water in the SWR was registered at 120 Parts per Million (PPM) as against normal contents of 18 PPM since February, 1976.  The Bangladesh Water Development Board further disclosed that the ground water level having direct relationship with the surface water  level had been drastically disturbed in the entire southwest region due to heavy fall in the water level in the rivers by one feet to five feet. The surface water treatment plant of Khulna Water Supply had become inoperative due to sudden rise in the chloride contents from last year's record of 25 PPM to well over 2000 PPM or more. The source apprehended that if the present rate of salt water intrusion continued, the present alternative source of supplying drinking water from shallow tube wells and hand pumps within the municipal area would become unusable. The 60 mgw Power Station in Khulna which supplies electricity to the western grid area covering the major part of Khulna and elsewhere is facing extreme difficulty due to unfrequented increase of salinity in the Bhairab river. The Bheramara Power Station has also become inoperative following sharp fall in the water level in the intake channel of the Ganges Kobadakh Pump House. Salinity in the Rupsa-Passur river had adversely affected the working of the Goalpara Power Station in Khulna.   Thus it has become a matter of great  concern following sharp  increase  in salt water intrusion to the river  from the Bay of Bengal. In the absence of any option to supplement the fresh water supply to the SWR, the main problem appears to be salinity intrusion, environmental degradation and silting up of river channels and these need to be resolved immediately. A barrage on the Ganges( Padma) river can solve this problem to a great extent by diverting  flow of water through the Gorai in the dry season. But this is not possible because of huge financial involvement. Moreover it cannot meet the urgent need for augmentation of the Gorai river. The study reveals that there has been an intrusion of salinity to the river Madhumoti in Faridpur district also.
Navigational problem
The river transport system which is the main mode of transportation for passengers and cargoes face serious problems following the formation of innumerable shoals and 'chars' in the rivers. This has caused serious environmental problem also... More than 70 miles of major waterways have been affected due to fall in the water level and intrusion of salinity that damaged the vessels having wooden bodies. During dry season, there is no navigation in the Ganges. The river is full of sandbanks. The Ganges or the Padma has also a dismal look as the river has become no better than a big canal full of char lands or 'shoals'. Once the Ganges -Padma were famous for wild ducks and birds. But these are no more. The acute shortage of water also has caused drinking problem to the people who live along the riverside.
Arsenic problem
The sharp reduction of water supply to the Padma-Gorai basin also has caused arsenic problem in the region. Most of the tube wells are found contaminated and these are unusable and are sealed by the authority concerned. The causes of the presence of arsenic in ground water are still not properly detected. Many health specialists are of the opinion that the Ganges might have contained arsenic deposits along with the alluvial deposits during several hundreds of years or more. They hold that the alluvial deposits came from the regions having igneous and metamorphic rocks where there is existence of arsenic compounds. But the others are of this opinion that organic fertilizers and insecticides may also add to the arsenic contamination of ground water. The Folklore Research Institute, Kushtia made a study in three villages of Kushtia located beside the Ganges-Padma in 1998-1999. These three villages are: Ramkrishnapur, Fakirabad and Golapnagar under Bheramara Upozila in Kushtia district. Most of the tube wells were found contaminated and a number of people had arsenic disease. In Fakirabad village 12 persons were affected by arsenic and of them seven died.      
 Fisheries problem
At present fish becomes very scarce in the Ganges-Padma. Hilsha fish is rarely  available in the Padma- Gorai. It may be noted here that Bangladesh in the past years produced more than 95% of hilsha fish. It was due to availability of fresh water in all rivers through the Ganges-Padma.  But with the construction of the Farakka Barrage and unilateral withdrawal of water by India, the hydrographic condition in the lower reaches of the river Ganges and its tributaries brought in drastic changes physically, chemically and biologically and these changes have seriously affected the migration and breeding of the Hilsha fish. In fact, the changes in the hydrographic condition have disrupted the natural food chains for different aquatic organisms including the fish and prawn and thus paved the way to their subsequent extinction. Thousands of fishermen who live on fishing are now facing extinction due to non availability of fish. Fish is the principal source of animal protein in Bangladesh According to experts; fish provide 6.4 grams out of 7.5 grams per capita animal protein consumes in Bangladesh. It is evident from a nutrition survey that more than 80 percent of the animal protein comes from fish alone. But the gradual decline of inland fish output might pose a serious threat to the protein supply in the near future.
The Sundarban : Wild life threatened
The Sundarban, located at the southern boundary, is an internationally important mangrove forest that supports extensive bio-diversity with a wide representation of significant wild life including the Royal Bengal Tiger. Environmental investigations have indicated that the increased river salinity might cause serious environmental damage to the Sundarban mangroves including the royal Bengal Tiger, the spotted Deer and innumerable fauna.   The Sundarban is now a World Heritage and thus is of unique importance. The increased salinity of the rivers Sipsha and Posur, following reduction in the upland flow caused by withdrawal of the Ganges water at Farakka affected the Sundarban lying in Khulna district in the south. The area of the Sundarban in Bangladesh is estimated to be around 2.341 square miles approximately. The Sundarban in Khulna play a very important role and act as a shield against the onslaught of the devastating cyclones and tidal bore which occasionally hit the coastal districts several times in the past. But this time, the Sidr destroyed everything that came on its way and it is held that such devastation is the result of an environmental degradation in the whole of the SWR. The reduced flow of fresh water supply from the water sheds and the upstream connected with the Ganges- Padma and the Gorai has led to the 'greater penetration' of saline and tidal water in the major rivers and innumerable canals and creeks of the forest and thus contaminated the forest soil with excessive salinity. This has also brought in a disastrous ecological change and damage to the existing vegetation type. It is also seen that a number trees in other areas has been facing extinction. The Shishu tree is one such kind. In Kushtia and elsewhere in SWR this kind of tree is being wiped out. Of late, coconut and betel nut groves have been affected. It is alleged that mobile phone towers are responsible for such kind of damage to environment. This, however, needs investigation.
The physical degradation following acute shortage of surface water and intrusion of salinity has had many adverse socio-economic impacts. The increased sedimentation in the rivers and the canals, particularly in the tidal zone, has resulted in drainage congestion in the region. The physical degradation has seriously affected the life and livelihood of the people living in the region. The welfare of the people depends largely on Agriculture and Fishery activities but these are very much on the decline due to reduction in productivity following shortage of surface water.
The Ganges Kobadakh Project
The Ganges Kobadakh Irrigation Project is the premier irrigation project of the country. The Project was conceived in 1954 to improve quality of life and economic solvency of the people living in greater Kushtia and Jessore districts by achieving self sufficiency in food through increasing agricultural production and preventing environmental degradation. The G.K.Project is situated on the right bank of the river Ganges (Padma) just beside the Hardinge Bridge. The Project is bounded by the river Ganges on the north; the Gorai- Madhumoti in the east; the Naboganga in the South and the Mathabhanga in the west. The Project covers an area of 197,500 hecters of land out of which 142,000 hectares are irrigable. After implementation of the project the crop intensity has increased from 125% to 226%. Cultivation of HYV is almost 100% within the project area compared 20% at national level. Production of crops was 12-13 mounds per acre before implementation of the project but it increased 5-6 times higher when the project completed. The project was a flood free zone and people were gradually becoming solvent. Environment was protected by improved water management, improved diversification of crops and forestation.
But such situation is no more in the project since the project suffered following acute shortage of water necessary for irrigation and crop cultivation. The required amount of water is no more available as the water level goes so down that the pumps failed to lift water the intake channel connected with the Ganges.
Population problem and environment
Apart from the physical factors, there has been remarkable increase in population growth. During the last 10 years (1991- 2000), the population has increased by 20%. The mainstay of the people has traditionally been agriculture and the sharp rise in population growth has seriously affected agricultural sector for meeting increased requirement of employment, income and food for the people. The salinity intrusion has not only barred the production of some of the more desired crops, it has caused serious damage to certain crops cultivated in certain areas of the region. There has also been an acute shortage of grazing land for the cattle following salinity intrusion in surface water and cultivation of shrimp or 'Baghda'.
Meanwhile, other human induced environmental changes have also occurred following increased use of ground water for irrigation, domestic and industrial uses and the expansion of number of shrimp farms in and around greater Khulna and Jessore districts. It is feared that the entire area of the Gangetic basin would be useless for human habitation as the ingress of salinity might turn the fresh water zones into saline water zones. It is held that the decline in the Ganges-Padma water level also seriously affected the continuous flow of sedimentation in the Bay of Bengal. And this might cause environmental and ecological change in the atmosphere leading to 'Sidr' like devastation.
Water logging in the south-west region (swr)
Bangladesh has been struggling for existence due to 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.
But in Bangladesh water logging presents a serious problem. The problem is acute in the southwest region, more particularly in the coastal region.
It is indeed  big concern for the people of the southwest region . Rivers are dead and these are heavily silted. In the wet season, there appears a heavy flood in the SWR as the flood water overflow the silted rivers and canals. Bangladesh being a lower riparian country she is to bear the brunt of such excess of  water that comes from upper riparian countries  like India. The prolonged water logging has been making a severe damage to the low lying areas in rural Bangladesh. This happens during the wet season. Crops are damaged and the affected people are forced to live in waterlogged condition.        
Drinking water is a big problem in the water logging areas as tube-wells are under water. The same is true with latrines. These, too, are under water. People also suffer from various water borne diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, skin diseases. It is a harrowing tale of the sufferings of the people, particularly, children, old people and patients. People cannot use bath room as most of the houses are under water. Any heavy shower brings untold suffering to the people. Snake-bite is also rampant. Most important part of water logging is absence of fire-wood. There is also acute shortage of fodder.  Farmers suffer because they cannot utilize farm fields as these are under water. Many people are jobless.    Education has also suffered. Most of the schools are also now under water. The position is threatening during wet season or during heavy shower and cyclone. The problem is acute at Bhavadaha in Jessore. Keshabpur under Jessore district suffers badly.
Ganges Barrage Project : The only solution for Bangladesh
I recall my moments as far as 1967 when I worked for Pakistan Observer and interviewed Pakistan Foreign Minister either Sharifuddin Pirzada or Mr. Arshad Hussain at Bernamara in Kushtia regarding Ganges Barrage issue. India unofficially commissioned Farakka Barrage and our engineers working in the Ganges Kobadakh Project could foresee the bleak future for East Pakistan and now Bangladesh. The foreign Minister stressed the need for a Barrage that might turn into a water reservoir for the benefit of the Gangers Kobadakh Project. But in course of talks it was evident that the Minister was non commitant regarding the Barrage issue as these would  reaquire huge quantity of money. However the Minister stated  that there  had been efforts by the Government for dissuading India from taking any  unilateral decision. The Minister admitted that the Barrage was a necessity for the safety and security of the Ganges Kobadakh Project, the premier irrigation project of  East Pakistan. The project was designed to increase agricultural production by supplementing one rainfed paddy crop with irrigation water from the Ganges. Initially the project covered an area around 116,000 ha irrigated by gravity. The project area then has a population of approximately 2,1 million in 17 thanas within the four districts. At least over one million people were directly dependent  on the irrigation scheme of the project.
After the Great War of Liberation, it was expected that India would view the problems of Bangladesh compassionately but India continued with her design in setting up the Farakka Barrage and commissioned the Barrage accordingly. This led to strained relations between Bangladesh and India. The Awami League Government was adamant in setting up the Ganges Barrage but the technical difficulties delayed its construction.A high-powered committee  was  formed to revise the project and find alternative options for the best use of water.
The water experts are of the opinion that the construction of the Farakka Barrage by India at 18 km from the Bangladesh border was an ill-conceived project. She had already withdrawn and diverted  a huge quantity of water from Farakka Barrage  leaving  the Ganges  in Bangladesh( the Padma) and the   Gorai river full of silts  and these  were no more navigable. The flow of the Ganges  towards Bangladesh dropped and the mouth of the Gorai now completely silted up or closed. According to water experts, 123 rivers in Bangladesh  have so far died. This has necessitated the construction of the Ganges Barrage at an early date.  
Meanwhile, it has been reported that India plans to build 16 new dams on the Ganges. These would further destroy Bangladesh and no water would flow to Bangladesh through the Ganges.  Bangladesh would turn into a  mere  veritable wasteland.
In 1981, the  site or location of the Barrage was reportedly proposed  at 4 km downstream of Hardinge  Railway Bridge (Hardinge). In 1986, considering possible backwater affecting the Indian territory, the site was shifted to a further down stream near Habashpur, Rajbari.But  this was  afterwards abandoned and  a new  site is yet to be selected.  In view of India's continued  unfriendly attitude towards Bangladesh, there appears no alternative other than the Ganges Barrage. If the Ganges Barrage is built, it is estimated that an additional 2.6 million tonnes of food grains would be produced and 240,000 tonnes of fish would be available.  
The above study of water and culture issues in Bangladesh clearly suggests that water is the very basis of life and activities in Bangladesh. In the past, it is the abundance of water by rain and river that made the country fertile and rich. The rivers then had no sedimentation problem. People had land, and the population was not threatened. Even during the period of the Liberation War the population of East Pakistan was around 80 million. During Rabindranath Tagore's time, the number of people in undivided Bengal was 70 million. The majority of the people lived in villages and was non-literate. By village one could understand, a collection of dwelling houses, ill built and ill-ventilated and it was the den of poverty and ignorance. They had resources but no initiative. They could not even rise against themselves for a better future. They were, in fact, very passive. This was very much shocking for Tagore. He wrote in one of his poems quite lamenting, 'O Mother, You converted seven crore souls into Bengalese and not Bengalese into men!'
In East Bengal he had his zamindari or estate in Kushtia, Shahjadpur (Pabna) and Patisar (Rajshahi). In these three places he planned to bring about a change in the life of the rural people.
He tried his best to improve their condition by undertaking projects relating to poverty alleviation in rural Bengal. So much so, that he set up an Agricultural Bank in his zamindari or estate with his prize money which he earned as a Nobel Laureate for literature in 1913. But the attitude of the village people was negative. Life was easy as the land was fertile. Rivers were then full. People were thus happy go lucky. But the scenario has changed sharply. The country has been facing a serious type of population explosion. Now Bangladesh has 170 million people and unlimited poverty, and that has greatly reduced the GNP and has made all planning ineffective. There is temporary success in some sectors, but it cannot be called a sustainable one.
Water has become an increasingly scarce resource, and we must understand that every country has the right to have an access to fresh water source outside, and no country, no matter how powerful she may be, has the right to deprive others of doing so. This would be the violation of international rights and rules. Rivers are gifts of nature and we must allow them to flow naturally.
In Bangladesh the shortage of water is becoming very critical. The development of the country will suffer greatly if no measures are taken on a priority basis.
In view of the problems faced by the people, the Government of Bangladesh has undertaken measure to form a Joint River Commission with India. But it does not work because of India's non-cooperation. The Water Treaty between Bangladesh and India is no more effective. The Ganges Kobadakh Project, a premier irrigation project commenced in 1954 during Pakistani period now stands as a mute monument of gross failure because of non-availability of Ganges water. In view of this, the project had to be declared closed. A number of national and international seminars and conferences were held in Bangladesh and it was decided that the rivers should flow naturally. But all these are far cry and nothing substantial came out so far.
It is felt that all countries, particularly those who belong to the South Asian region should come forward in enhancing cooperation between nations towards sharing information on water and environmental issues and thereby creating jointly managed infrastructure facilities for the common good. These measures would help create new ways for civil society to participate in solving regional issues. There should be a regulatory body approved by the regional committee consisting of all four countries of South Asia, such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal and China for aging the Transboundary Rivers such as the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in regard to sharing water and environmental issues for mutual benefit. There is no doubt that India is one of the most powerful countries in the southwest region. But it is true that she needs the help of small countries, more particularly her neighbors like Bangladesh. Bangladesh is never hostile to India rather she desires a friendly relation with her. In fact, it is necessary that India should 'reassess its stance in the intra-regional and inter-regional issues.' Abdullah emphatically comments, SAARC has potentials and India can play a great role in strengthening and broadening mutual co-operation among its member countries. SAARC member countries are inter-related and have inter-dependent economies and these are unified and inter-twined for generations. The success of SAARC depends mostly on India. And the time has come for India to realize this truth. (Abdullah, AYM, 2011: 4-5).  In the present day world, no country, however powerful she may be, can survive alone.
Bangladesh is a small country. It survived many odds. Bangladesh believes in friendship and does not want any domination by any country. India is our best friend. She helped Bangladesh in the freedom fight and hope in our struggle for creating a better and a braveBangladesh. We should get support from India and all freedom loving countries in the world. Let culture dominate fearlessly with water shaping it.
(The writer Prof. Dr. Anwarul Karim was a Visiting Scholar, Divinity School, Harvard University, Presently, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Northern University, Banani, Dhaka. Chairman, Gorai Area Water Partnership. E mail : dranwar. karim@gmail.com)

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