Will Bangladesh have any river in 2021?

Wahidul Islam

Had Manik Bandopadhyay been very a young man and gone on an excursion to the Hardinge Bridge point of 330km-long river Padma in June, he wouldn’t have written his novel ‘Padma Nadir Majhi’. From the riverbed if he could see overhead a train passing through the Hardinge Bridge, play football match with his fellows there in the Padma ‘desert’ Bangla literature must have been deprived of the characters like Kuber majhi, his sister-in-law Kapila, Hossain and many more.
Similarly toeing the footsteps of Manik Bandopadhyay Advaita Malla Burman wouldn’t have written the great novel ‘Titas Ekti Nadir Nam’ if he were a young boy to see the river’s choking. Titas is no more a river in Brahminbaria because the water body which doesn’t flow and interrupted halfway through can’t sustain as a drain let alone as a river. It is divided into two halves with the dumping of earth in the middle of Titas. A road is constructed across the Titas to facilitate transit of a country which killed dozens of our river, thanks to withdrawal of water from international rivers in the upstream and utter mismanagement in the downstream. It is choked in the middle, creating two lakes. Boats can’t ply with life and goods along the river. River communications have been snapped, life stalled, income of people on the banks of Titas dropped substantially to facilitate a water aggressor only.

During the War of Independence in 1971 Bangladesh had 24000km river, not surprisingly most of them were first class. There over 2.30 crore acre water bodies that is now failing to feed its people.
Old saying goes ‘Machhe bhate Bangalee’ but those days have gone for fishes have disappeared for using multinational company pesticides prescribed by World Bank; food productivity is decreasing day by day for salinity. And that is due to water aggression by India. There are several dozen countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives whose export basket is dominated by fish. Can you imagine in this sujala sufala shashaya shamala Bangladesh food and fish autarky to remain a distant cry? How could it be? Whereas crores of sons and daughters of this soil could have sustained and survived for thousands of years as it did in the past. Frozen fish export could have been the major foreign currency earner, replacing the readymade garment. But now dozens of fish species are extinct due to water aggression through unilateral withdrawal by upper riparian country looting and theft.

The hardscrabble community
In a recent report labeled ‘Access to Fisheries Resources of Poor Fishermen during Lean Season and Income Generation in Bangladesh’ revealed that ten per cent people including 1.3 million fulltime fishermen are dependant on the fishing. The project financed by EU-USAID was technically assisted by FAO and MOF. Eighty seven per cent fishermen are poor which is much higher than national average 40 per cent (BBS 2005). Seventy three per cent earn less than Tk 5000 a month, according to Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies report.
On an average each Bangladeshi eats 1460 gram.

First and Second Class Rivers
Do you know what is 1st class river route? The river having 12 to 15 feet deep water can be termed 1st class waterway. In a 2nd class route a river has to have 7-11 feet water for navigation. But a 5-feet water body is never navigable as it is shallow water. The country became independent from repressive Pakistan in 1971 but became dependent on ‘repressive’ India for water of 54 international rivers. Now there are 6000km rather 3800km first class river route crisscrossing the country. Just in a span of 40 years Bangladesh has lost 20200km river route at a rate of 505km a year. Thanks to Awami League, BNP and JP rules for 40 years. If rivers shrink and lose navigability at such rate Bangladesh is most likely to lose most of the river routes just in a space of 12 years. That means for the 30-feet deep and 276km-long Meghna, the mightiest river of Bangladesh, will have to collect at least 19 feet sediment on the riverbed.

Rivers Lost
Eight hundred to one thousand rivers have criss-crossed Bangladesh; 54 of them are from or through India which are called international rivers. Apart from unilateral water withdrawal by the upper riparian country, sedimentation, sand encroachment and effluent dumping have led 18000km rivers to die. Since independence Tk 24000cr has been allocated to dredge and develop the rivers but so far the authorities concerned could spend Tk 125cr. (Prothom Alo) The govt has 10 dredgers and hired 15 others. The river routes recently died are as follows: Saidpur-Srinagar 18, Bhairabazar 240km, Godagari-Bholahat 307km, Narsingdi-Katiadi 84, Baithabaria-Gazipur 9km, Satak-Atgram 141km, Rostompur-Kaliakoir 10, Savar-Nayarhat-Dhamrai 10km, Manmukh-Moulvibazar 20km, Ichli-Faridganj-Charpagla 93km. Paikgachha-Ashashuni-Pratapnagar 85km, Kopotakhya-Tepakhali 85km in Jessore, Kalikapur-Madaripur-Nandipara 56km, Khulna-Kalikapur 138km, Kongso river lost its Paglamore-Mohonganj route amounting 43km. This year we are likely to lose 505km river route.

Groundwater depletion
Apart from losing river route we are losing groundwater. With depletion of surface water and loss of rivers, the level of groundwater is going down and down. Groundwater is used for 80 per cent of irrigation covering 5.22 million hectares of Boro land in the dry seasons and the cultivation contributes to 55 per cent of the country’s annual food output. Out of the total available water in Bangladesh, agriculture alone consumes 86 per cent out of which 73 per cent comes from groundwater and the rest 27 per cent from surface water sources (New Age). According to BADC country’s critical shallow tube well areas fell by six per cent from over 14441 square km to 13691 square km from 2004 to 2010. Four lakh shallow tube wells out of 16 lakh across the country go out of operation during March and April. Six to seven meter fall in water table during the dry seasons is accountable for the decrease. Vast tracts of land remain uncultivated due the fall of water table in the northern belts due to withdrawal of water by Farakka Barrage. Twenty rivers have died due to Farakka Barrage of India.
Depletion is not only true in the case of periphery but it is appalling in the case of Dhaka. The number of tube wells rose to 491 from 49 in 1970 in Dhaka city, which needs 220cr litre water everyday to cater to its 130crore citizen. As a result of centralization of capital resources, offices, jobs in Dhaka and Chittagong — where 90 per cent resources of the country are concentrated — people are rushing to settle in Dhaka everyday. Why is WASA going to be responsible for this water shortage? The successive govts must answer for giving rise to over 29 crorpatis most of whom live in Dhaka and Chittagong.

Loss of river has got many more causes to havoc. As the underground water is the most valuable natural resources of the country so salinity in the water table will spell death to the Flora and Fiona of the deltaic land. The upconing of salinity will affect 97 per cent people dependant on groundwater sources as they get 80 per cent of water for their total need from underground. And the less water in the rivers salty water is rushing to the headquarters.
The most salinity-affected districts —Khulna, Jessore, Magura, Jhinaidah, Narail, Satkhira, and Bagerhat — where 60 million people live on area of 17 of the total land.

Joint River Commission
As per the declaration Joint River Commission is supposed to hold four meetings a year. Since the inception of the commission in 1972 Indian side convinced their Bangladeshi counterparts to hold seven meetings until they could operate the Farraka Barrage on experiment basis. Since then as the Indian side is reluctant to hold JRC meeting only 38 meetings could take place whereas JRC was supposed to hold 160 meetings in a span of 40 years since independence in 1971. Even some JRC members are heard to speak against the lower riparian country about water.

Farakka Barrage
When completed in 1970 by India, the Farakka Barrage, around 18 kilometres upstream of Monohorpur, seemed a rather innocent venture by India at just ‘saving the Calcutta Port from silting’.
The reality was felt by the Bangladeshis over the next few decades as the entire south-western region of Bangladesh was affected due to the dearth of water. The country also faced long term losses in the agricultural, fisheries, forestry, industry, navigation and other sectors.
The barrage also caused some fatal damages over the years through floods, droughts, excessive salinity and depletion of groundwater. The then-Bangladesh government tried to solve the impending problem through bilateral talks immediately following the formation of the Indo-Bangladesh joint river commission (JRC) in 1972.
After being assured in the 1974 summit between the two countries that the Farakka barrage would not be put into operation before an agreement was reached on sharing the dry season flow of the Ganges between the two countries, Bangladesh allowed India to test the feeder canal of the barrage in 1975. (NewAge Xtra)
A group of patriotic Bangladeshi civil society experts estimated the damage done by Farakka Barrage worth of Tk 55,000cr (Amar Desh).

Tipaimukh Dam
Despite the assurance given by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 8th September 2011 at a Dhaka University Conference saying that, “I wish to make a public statement and make it clear that India will not take steps that will adversely affect Bangladesh” yet Indian Government betrayed their friendship with Bangladesh by signing an agreement on 22nd October 2011 forming a joint venture to construct the Dam on the Barak River in Manipur to produce “so-called 1,500-MW Tipaimukh hydroelectric project” keeping Bangladesh in dark.
In a research paper titled “Hydrological Impact Study of Tipaimukh Dam of India on Bangladesh”, published by the Institute of Water Modelling, Bangladesh, 2005, it was revealed that the erection of this dam would bring disaster to Bangladesh and “…cause long and short term effects of multiple dimensions – eco-hydrological, morphological, geological, biodiversity and environmental, climatic change and desertification, socio-economical, and finally political…”.
The research paper at page 61 further expressed that if India is allowed to erect the Tipaimukh dam, the average annual monsoon inflow from the Barak River at Amalshid to the Surma-Kushiyara River system would be reduced by around 10% for the month of June, 23% for July, 16% for August and 15% for September. Water level would fall by more than a metre on average during the month of July at Amalshid station on the Kushiyara River, while this would be around 0.25 metre, 0.15 metre and 0.1 metre at Fenchuganj, Sherpur and Markuli stations respectively. On the other hand, at Kanairghat and Sylhet station on the Surma River, average water level would drop by 0.75 metre and 0.25 metre respectively in the same month. Moreover, flows in July, August and September would be reduced by as much as 27%, 16% and 14% respectively – 4%, 2% and 2% higher than the volume reduction found for average monsoon year”
It is also mentionable that the proposed Tipaimukh Dam would be constructed by India at a place on Barak River which is highly vulnerable to earthquake. “…If an earthquake of magnitude 7 or above jolts the region…” Mr Akbar Ali Khan opined that, “…it would damage the dam causing the risks of flood in Sylhet region of Bangladesh”. In the past, many dams were damaged by earthquakes. Due to an earthquake in 1925, the Sheffield dam at Santa Barbara in the USA collapsed. In 2008, Japingo dam in China caved in due to an earthquake. The most serious threat to this dam arises from the possibility of overtopping of water from reservoir caused by unusually excessive rainfall during the flood season (Akbar Ali Khan, “The Proposed Tipaimukh Dam: Search for Eternal and Perpetual Interests of India and Bangladesh” in The Journal of Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, June 2010).
If river encroachment by political land-grabbers and utter mismanagement by successive govts go on unabated, if India continues to withdraw water in the name Farakka Barrage, Tipaimukh dam, Fulertal Barrage and River Linking Project is not strongly condemned both internally and externally, virtually Bangladesh will have no river except those like Feni. Without sweet waters we won’t survive because there will be saline water to change whole landscape of Bangladesh. Bangalis, Bengali, the country, art, culture, society, religio-politics and ethnic diversity, Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Shah Jalal, Shah Makhdum, Moulana Bhasani, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Major Zia will survive if its rivers will survive.
Annada Shankar Ray wrote ‘As long as the Padma Meghna Gouri Jamuna would be flowing’, ‘In the very heart of people Sheikh Mujibur Rahman will be living’.

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