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    What’s wrong with Bangladesh’s rivers?

    CountriesBangladeshWhat’s wrong with Bangladesh’s rivers?
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    What’s wrong with Bangladesh’s rivers?

    The priorities of the government of Bangladesh have gone into fighting disasters, most of them hydrological in nature. Sustaining rivers and their ecosystem has been the last of the priorities and there is a need to plan for rivers as a first step to conserve them.

    The monsoon is on time and so are the preparations for the annual, even ritual, floods in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in SouthAsia.

    Yet, huge silting from upstream sources have sapped the ebb and flow of life of 507 rivers in the country. The situation is particularly bad in the coastal area, also the low-lying country’s delta region where rampant land grabbing is chocking the rivers. Government data puts the number of sizable land grabs at over 4,900 river grabs across the country’s 64 districts, mostly by politically influential people.

    Worse, these rivers have become unnavigable and many rivers have vanished. And with these, hundreds of thousands have lost homes, livelihoods and have been forced to migrate. Only 172 rivers criss-crossing the delta region are currently navigable.

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    Experts urge for immediate engineering work, essentially dredging of river beds, as a first aid.

    Mohammad Azaz, the chairman of Bangladesh’s River and Delta Research Centre (RDRC) says that most of the rivers vanished over the past 50 years, while several others lost navigability.

    Azaz cites the example of the south-central region of Barisal where many small rivers and their tributaries have disappeared.

    There were a total of 1,274 rivers in Bangladesh in 1971, when the country gained independence, he says. Since then, a total of 507 have vanished. There has been no effort by the government to document the rivers, he says. Azaz wants the government to draw up a list of dead and endangered rivers.

    No baseline survey

    Activists like Azaz are not impressed with the government’s proposed 100-year delta plan, especially because there is hardly any scientific documentation available to make such a plan. A scientific approach to a plan is important in view of the impacts that climate change can have on the country, he says.

    “For example, the Buriganga is the heart of Dhaka and no one knows how many channels and canals the Buriganga has and how much water the river holds in monsoon or in dry season,” he says.

    “Nobody knows how many drains are connected directly to the river and how many spots are just being used as open dumping zones,” he argues, and adds that many industries have mushroomed in the vicinity of the river.

    “We have so many rivers, yet no river has a proper baseline survey,” he says.

    Bangladesh rivers vanishing

    Lack of political will

    The priorities of the government for much of the time since the country was formed in 1971 have gone into fighting disasters, most of them hydrological in nature, Azaz explains. But sustaining rivers and their ecosystem has been the last of the priorities he says, stressing on the need to plan for rivers as a first step to conserve them.

    “Without political will, rivers cannot be salvaged,” he says. “The lens through which we see rivers is very important. If we consider rivers just a flow of water, it would be a big disaster – we treat rivers mostly as drains, water channels or a place to catch fish and for transportation.”

    “But rivers are the lifeline of our habitat [as] they facilitate our culture, food, economy, ecology, transportation and communication as well as our civilisation and daily life.”

    This lack of political will also leads to a lack of initiative on the diplomatic level, Azaz says. Bangladesh’s rivers flow in from India and from China (through India) and also from Myanmar and the country’s thrust on inter-country diplomacy on river water sharing has been week, he says.

    “This poor health of rivers prevails due to weak diplomacy. We prepared the Bangladesh Delta Plan-2100 but we don’t have a definite policy as to how we deal with the constant challenge and negotiate with India for a fair share of waters of common rivers,” he says.

    “A river could be dead or affect other rivers to die if we dredge rivers in an unplanned method,” he warns.

    He offers the example of the Teesta river that originates from the eastern Himalayas. The Teesta is going dry during the summer and 11 small rivers depending on the water flows of Teesta are now dying, he says.

    Do Also Read: South Asia ‘Sorely Needs Transboundary River Accord’

     

    Image: Hippopx, licensed to use under Creative Commons Zero – CC0

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