Turning into a Myth? -Fahmida Mehreen
Bangladesh is a riverine country enriched in beauty by the rivers following all across. It is crisscrossed by more than 200 waterways. Rivers are the lifeblood of this country since they help shape the geographical landscape, play a vital role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem as well as act as a sustenance for the people through agriculture, trade and transport. Not only is this a means for the livelihood for millions of people, but also rivers of Bangladesh are a part of its cultural heritage deeply woven into the fabric of the society. The mighty rivers like Padma, Meghna, Jamuna, Buriganga amongst others are celebrated through art and culture. Rivers undoubtedly play an essential role in Bangladesh’s rise as an economic tiger.
However, this rise is coming at a severe cost for these great rivers. As environmental activists point out, a big number of rivers of Bangladesh are dead or dying. Many of them, especially around the big cities, have already died out, and an enormous number are on the verge of dying across the country. Unfortunately, the deaths of this rivers can be attributed to several reasons.
Pollution is one of the most significant problems. It emanates from industrial waste dumping which includes toxic chemical fluids along with acids used in numerous tanneries. Garments and textile industries whose dying and washing processes require huge amount of water, discharge the water from its facilities without proper treatment that eventually end up in the river, carrying chemical residues, colorants and other pollutants that severely harm the environment and aquatic life. The locals who are suffering cannot use the water and those who use it fall prey to deadly diseases like cholera, diarrhea etc.
Although some factories have green certification, majority of the small, and in certain cases, medium enterprises having minimal margin, cannot afford such treatment facility. Thus, they all end up using the rivers as their drains. Water sample from these rivers indicate dangerous levels of chromium and cadmium. Buriganga River in Dhaka and Shitalakkhya River in Narayanganj are prime examples of two such rivers facing pollution due to industrial waste, sewage and solid waste disposal. This severely hampers the health and well-being of the people who are heavily dependent on these rivers. Many of these once actively flowing rivers have just become a shadow of their past selves.
Another factor is encroachment of land along the rivers. The rivers of Bangladesh are constantly under the threat of illegal land encroachment along with its banks. The width of the rivers is being significantly compromised by land grabbers and unauthorised construction projects that are constantly affecting the flow capacity of the rivers while obstructing the natural ecosystem to grow. This in turn also affects the natural floodplains significantly resulting in severe flooding. Encroachment often involves the use of heavy construction materials like steel, iron etc.
As a result, the river flowing channels are reduced, leading to increased water levels from clogging and subsequently flooding of the surrounding areas. The delicate balance of the ecosystem is lost, and the communities dependent on the water-bodies have to pay the price of its harmful consequences. The water level is falling day by day with the rise of riverbeds. The tidal system is being ruined as well.
Next comes deforestation which is ever increasing. The annual deforestation rate in Bangladesh is 2.6% which is almost double the global average, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Again, a similar devastating story in this chapter plagues the country and bears a dark fate for its rivers. Deforestation includes illegal logging of trees, land grabbing and commercial projects. Unbound population expansion followed by the need for rapid industrialisation have escalated deforestation. With continuous aggressive felling of trees, hydrological balance of the ecosystem is lost, excessive sedimentation occurs as there are fewer trees to absorb and regulate the rainwater. Land erosion is a natural consequence which washes away the topsoil into nearby rivers. Excessive sedimentation ultimately reduces the depth of the rivers and disrupts the rivers’ ecology, contributing to the formation of shoals and sandbars. The rivers therefore lose their ability to sustain aquatic life, both plants and other aquatic organisms and thus start losing their characteristics.
Furthermore, in connection with pollution, lack of proper waste management is also a contributing factor to the problem. There is insufficient waste management infrastructure in the country. Plastic waste is one of the more vicious problems in this regard. Across the industrial cities, especially in Dhaka, plastic and polythene waste have been continuously dumped into the rivers, leading to congestion in the river canals and the city’s drainage systems. Citizens continuously use plastic bags in shops, markets and bottled water which are thrown away. So, even after a light rainfall, the entire city is flooded and citizens’ lives are faced with extreme inconveniences due to clogging of the drains. The authorities have repeatedly claimed to rid the canals and drains of the sewers and plastic wastes but all are in vain. The cities become waterlogged. This puts adverse pressure on the riverine system. The plastic particles are even finding its way into the human body through the food cycle, creating various complex diseases including cancer. A lot of the plastic effluents are dumped into the rivers. Unlike the developed countries, Bangladesh has not developed a separate waste disposal system for recyclable materials. The government fails to regulate the production of plastic materials from the source and set proper guidelines regarding its usage and disposal process. The ministry and the city corporations concerned fail to form a functioning monitoring cell to track the use and disposal of plastic.
Another element of wastage is the discharged liquid waste from the garments industry. Garments industry has propelled Bangladesh out of poverty and has placed it in the world’s map as one of Asia’s emerging economies. Garment industry contributes more than 80% of the country’s export and employs millions of the population. Sadly, as stated earlier, the majority of the garment factories and textile mills release liquids full of toxic chemicals in the absence of proper waste treatment facilities. This goes into the river, gradually poisoning it. The materials used in production for these garments itself are harmful due to the materials consumed during the production process, and in this age of ‘fast-fashion’, these materials are too often disposed of, inevitably ending up in the riverine system. The various use of chemicals in the form of dyes, bleaches and finishing agents all lead to severe water pollution. Textile wet processing and water intensive fiber production generate huge amounts of untreated wastewater affecting both the ecosystem and the local communities. Efforts are being made to promote use of more sustainable water treatment facilities, use of eco-friendly dyes and chemicals as well as adopting cleaner production technologies. Globally, a trend for sustainable fashion has also been hyped which may help to protect the rivers in future.
Agriculture is the backbone and essential for Bangladesh’s economic survival. However, unsustainable agricultural practices are having a negative impact on the rivers. The abundant use of fertilizers and pesticides along with improper irrigation practices are proving detrimental to the soil quality in the long run. This phenomenon inevitably leads to soil erosion and water pollution, damaging the rivers and aquatic balance in the process. The water management is not efficient enough and leads to severe water scarcity and depletion of the river. In addition, some basic socio-economic challenges are there as well such as the farmers’ inability to adopt sustainable methods. Also, the lack of education results in farmers wanting to make immediate short-term profits rather than focusing on long-term sustainable growth and the protection of the environment.
The bad river policies from neighbouring countries also affect the riverine system. Unilateral water withdrawal by numerous hydroelectric projects in India, Bhutan and China had already made major river basins vulnerable including the Brahmaputra and Surma-Kushiara.
Another vital factor on the side is the heavy construction of numerous bridges all across the country which can potentially impact the flow of water if the projects are not adequately planned keeping the marine system in mind. One of the major risks of bridge construction is the potential possibility of river width reduction along with creating alterations in the flow pattern of the river. This change can specifically upset the aquatic life balance, affect natural sediment deposition and disrupt the migration route of the fish.
In order to bring back the rivers into its previous form or even an attempt to do so will require drastic measures and extremely well-coordinated efforts from the concerned authorities. Water governance should be bolstered through development and enforcement of proper regulations regarding water extraction practices as well as enforcing pollution control standards. Additionally, agricultural practices should be steered towards more organic methods in all its features like soil conservation techniques, agro-forestry and irrigation methods. There should be responsible use of fertilisers and pesticides on the part of the farmers which will be enforced through vigorous training and institutional support. The garment and textile industries should be properly regulated and closely monitored for the enforcement and installation of proper wastewater treatment facilities in order to prevent untreated sewage and industrial effluents from entering the rivers. This should be meticulously monitored and deviances from this prerequisite should call for action. The involvement of government bodies, private entities and other social development organisations of the society should all be involved in the proper restoration of the rivers of Bangladesh. The government made a list of over 37000 river grabbers who gobbled up 48 rivers of the country and the government should make the list public. The government should also develop international partnership amongst neighbouring countries to develop collaborative management of the river basins in Bangladesh. There should be effective negotiations made with the upstream and downstream countries to ensure proper share of water amongst the countries. Several initiatives have already been given like dredging the river for prevention of the natural flow of the water from being disrupted by construction projects, shallow land and private projects.
The geo-political issues also play a significant role in this regard, the primary of which is the Farakka Barrage problem that has been plaguing Bangladesh for decades now. Farakka Barrage in India is a continuous process of desertification in Bangladesh, killing dozens of rivers in Padma basin. Even public opinion is becoming stronger in India concerning the discontinuation of Farakka Barrage, especially when its challenging effects are observed in states like Bihar. Bangladesh has been regularly suffering from India’s ‘one-sided’ control of the barrage gates where water is withdrawn and released in a unilateral manner. As a result, the 16.5 km long barrage has become responsible for reducing water flow across the Bangladesh side, rising salinity as well as the drying up of rivers in the Sundarban delta. Over the years, several negotiations have taken place between the governments of India and Bangladesh that have resulted in treaties like the Ganges Water Treaty along with several other agreements and MoUs being signed whereby both the countries agreed bilaterally to solve the water sharing problem. However, India has time and again neglected such bilateral agreements, staying oblivious to the fact that such actions have had devastating consequences for the ecology of north-west Bangladesh. Fresh water flow has been significantly reduced with increased salinity, drying up the Baral River extending into many regions of Bangladesh. Coastal land elevation possibility has been stunted making Bangladesh more vulnerable to flooding caused by sea-level rise. Bangladesh resorted to the UN and despite several directives, India has failed to comply on the rightful share of water. Similarly, the Teesta Water Sharing Treaty has also become a mirage. In the process of catering to the demands of the irrigators of West Bengal of India by its state government, India has failed to accommodate Bangladesh’s demand for a more rightful share of Teesta. Hence, it goes without saying that immediate intervention is required from the Bangladesh government for positive changes in riverine treaties with neighbouring countries to salvage whatever is left of the ecology and riverine economy of the country.
Nonetheless, the actions taken are quite meager in the face of what is required in this imminent situation. Unfortunately, some of the biggest pollutants are government-regulated institutions. In this regard, awareness programmes are very crucial for every social entity to become aligned on the mission to protect the riverine system of Bangladesh. If the rivers cannot be reserved from dying out, future generations will not be able to benefit from them, neither ecologically nor economically. Hence, before it is too late, we should repair the damages done and put an end to the possibility of damaging the rivers further.