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Never-ending miseries of haor people

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Md Mizanur Rahman :
Haors is a floodplain depression located in the north-eastern region of Bangladesh, comprising 7 districts which cover 20,022 sq km of area and most which remains under water for 6-7 months. There are 373 haors which cover an area of about 8,58,460 hectares. These haors play a vital role in ensuring our food, nutrition security and preserving the environmental balance of the country. However, it is mostly populated by poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people living in flood prone areas. Road connectivity along with the transportation system is a serious concern.
Haors are precious for the environment, ecology, and biodiversity. They are the integral part of the local ecosystem and closely related with local cultures, support the livelihoods of 20 million people engaged in diverse such as farmers, fishermen and boatmen. These haors are the 2nd largest sweet water reservoir for fish in the country; it is one of the unique biodiversity heritages in the world which honors the people living in haor areas. Moreover, country's only crude oil mine has been explored in the haor region so far.
In haor area, around 30 per cent of the population lives below the lower poverty line. Of the population around 38 per cent is illiterate and 29 per cent is unemployed. The haor is lagging behind in many development indicators like, extension of lean season associated with the annual cycle of flooding, results in widespread and severe food insecurity and striking levels of indebtedness, though the awareness to save the natural resources is increasing among the people of all walks of life.
Women in haor communities experience gender inequity and discrimination like, experiencing heavy workloads, high levels of food insecurity and poor nutrition which limit access to basic healthcare services, as reflected by the very high levels of maternal and infant mortality. In particular, they face higher rates of malnutrition and maternal mortality than in other parts of Bangladesh. Students, especially girls are often prevented from continuing secondary school education due to difficulties of transport.
Livestock is one of the substantial livelihood components in the haor area with fisheries and agriculture. The incidence of livestock husbandry as a livelihood activity in the haor region has been declining over time, due to the conversion of grazing land to paddy cultivation and increased disease burden on animals due to increased temperatures associated with climate change. Once there was abundant forest which was a safe habitat for wildlife and birds, but that forest has almost vanished, so birds have to move to human habitat areas.
Fisheries are a substantial livelihood component in the haor area with agriculture. There are about culture and capture fisheries area is 127,482 ha where per year production is 57,199 mton. Excessive use of pesticides in paddy cultivation is degrading the land quality which results a threat to most of birds and fishes in dry season. Illegal fish farm is being established in the khas lands of haor and this has created a negative effect on natural movement of fish as well as breeding.
Boro paddy cultivation in the haor region is about 5.3 million tons, grown in 710,000 hectares, resulting to almost 16 per cent of the national rice production and 6.8 per cent of the national GDP on an average, but this crop very often damaged by flash flood. Department of Agriculture has taken initiative encouraging farmers to cultivate short term paddy and also following mechanized cultivation to shorten the calendar of rice production to avoid early flash flood damaged. Local government can provide interest free/low interest loan to those farmers for crop cultivation.
Inclusion on Economic Importance of haor in National Curriculum is imperative, so that the new generation can understand their economic and environmental significance. Government has extended cooperation for gaining knowledge in this area by establishing a haor research institute in Mymensingh and also opening haor development department in Sylhet Agricultural University. More such initiatives, like people-centric as well as eco-friendly creative thinking and proposal need to be continually appreciated and supported by the government.
Haor region has low levels of access to improve sanitation facilities which reflects the difficulty of maintaining sanitation infrastructure. This region has a very low coverage of drinking water source and in many areas ground water is contaminated with arsenic. Government has to continue prioritizing sanitary and drinking water program as a thematic programming niche area in the Haor region.
The haor region situational analysis highlights the critical negative impacts of flash floods and afal on the extreme poor livelihood security like, employment opportunities, food security, damaging housing and property, and access to basic services of healthcare and education of the women and girls. So, building resilience through humanitarian action, including emergency response and recovery to flash flooding events, and programming to promote disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) has to continue to the Haor region.
Despite geographical isolation, haor areas have huge potentials of having biodiversity niche including home for migratory birds, aquatic wildlife and tourism scope in some areas. Ecotourism in haor areas may result in higher income and living standards for local people. It is likely to stimulate the rural economy by creating demand for local products. A detail plan on the development of ecotourism can be prepared in light of Haor Development Master Plan.
National level policy makers have little understanding of the reality of this region because of paucity of credible data and robust analysis. A traditional approach cannot encounter the problem at hand not can it address the need for the kind of development that is needed. This requires a multifaceted development operational modality with diverse and innovative engagements and wide-ranging partnerships including government entrepreneurial collaboration, public-private partnership, and government and media partnership.
Government has already developed a 20-year (2012-32) framework plan and is being implemented on short, medium and long-term basis, integrating the multifaceted development interventions including flood management, environmental sustainability, crop production, fisheries and livestock, expansion of education, settlement and health facilities, road communication, navigation, water supply and sanitation, industry, afforestation, and power & energy generation. To avoid the risk of duplication of efforts the silos should be dismantled and strong coordination among all government agencies working in haor areas be established.
In conclusion, it can be said that the underlying theme of sustainable development goals (SDGs), leaving no one behind, food for everybody else, no poverty and quality education requires special provisions for underprivileged and marginalized community people of these haor areas. The people are the ends and means of any development initiative, and eco-friendly solutions are needed for sustainable development, so that it will have no adverse effect on the future generation and indeed the vital ecosystem of this region. These potentials of haor areas can play a vital role for achieving SDGs. The 7th Five Year Plan has also emphasized on inclusive growth of all over the country. Therefore, prioritizing the underdeveloped and hard-to-reach region, like haor areas, should be our commitment. Development will never be sustainable unless it becomes inclusive, create job opportunities to educated youths.
(Dr. Md. Mizanur Rahman, Economist and Researcher; mizan12bd@yahoo.com)

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