While nations observe the World Wetlands Day on the theme of “Wetlands and Biodiversity”, the reality is much different in Bangladesh.
Dr Reza Khan
Wildlife expert and conservationist
I spent the first decade of my life in Boropara of Ballia village located in Dhamrai of Dhaka district. A kilometre south of our locality, there was a 2-5 square kilometre marshland called Shraddher Beel. It used to retain crystal clear water even during the lean months.
We used to fish there throughout the year, and during monsoon, it would connect with the Bangshi River that was one kilometre north of our locality. In the early 1950s, Calcutta bound ships from Assam used to pass through this Bangshi River that originated from Dhaleshwari at a place called Kedarpur under Nagarpur Thana. This river used to feed water to the beel from late June to October. The beel almost got contiguous in places connected with the Bangshi River.
In addition to cultivating fish throughout the whole year, farmers would plant both Aush and Aman paddies on the banks of the beel, leaving one square kilometre of water-body during the peak of winter. Boro fields used to get water from this little marshland.
Now, there is a sign of Shraddher Beel and Bangshi River being dead for almost 11 months turning into an embanked canal. Dhaleshwari River is also dead, for most parts, barring tributaries like Kaliganaga that oases by Tara Ghat in Manikganj to Sayedpur near Dhaka.
In my childhood, from 1945 till the end of 1956, our journeys by boats were limited to visiting Gorai, Warshi-Paikpara, Rajapur-Koila, Nagaorpara-Mozdoi under Mirzapur Thana, Mailjani under Nagarpur Thana in Tangail; Gulotia by Tara Ghat and Manikganj Proper, where we later on settled from 1957 for our siblings' education.
There were land routes as such but once in a while, we would have access to horse-driven carts to the ferry from Ballia to Manikganj, during the post-1957. Now, there is not a single river between Gorai in Mirzapur to Manikganj that remains alive. Gone with these rivers are the beels and haors that were back then, located on 4-5 km away from each in any direction we moved.
In the Shraddher Beel, we used to see many species of ducks and even geese, in addition to hundreds of waders such as Gulinda (Curlew), Chapakhi (Sandpipers), Kadakhucha or Chaga (Snipes), Batan (Plovers), Gangchil (Terns), Jolkobutor or Bodhoshaher Kobutor (Seagulls), Egol (Harriers Buzzards, Eagles, etc).
Hordes of tiny migrants like the Khonjoni (Wagtail), Bhorot pakhi (Pipits), Patafutki (Leaf Warblers), Chotok (Flycatchers), Babil (Swallows), Bogheri (Bbuntings), etc, passed by the beels, ponds, haors, and baors as well as through the villages and cultivated fields.
Today, none of the water birds, waders or wetland birds can be seen in any of the villages lying between Manikganj, through Saturia Thana to our own village Ballia under Dhamrai Thana.
The Ballia-Manikganj situation is now prevailing everywhere in the country, including the hilly areas of the North-East.
The groundwater level has gone down and time is coming when we shall have to survive on rainwater or rationed water, or bottled water for the rich and affluent!
The nation has lost aquatic vegetation, specific flora, and aquatic animals, especially fishes. Several species of the latter are extinct in the country.
Otters, fish eagles, Kalim, Dahuk, Kura, Jolmurgi, Jol Pipi, Jol Mayur, Duburi, Machhranga, Pankowri and Shankhachil numbers are dwindling whereas the Kura or Bowl Pallas's Fish Eagle has disappeared from the countryside barring Tanguar Haor.
The recent fish culture has allowed the return of the fish-eating birds such as kingfishers, herons, mechho egol (Grey-headed Fish Eagle), and Mechhobiral (Fishing Cat) but others are still showing a decline in population due to loss of wetlands.
To get back some of the wetland flora and fauna, in addition to retaining fresh water for drinking purposes and irrigation of crop fields, the government must start converting Khash Land and acquired lowlands into large multipurpose deep lakes that will be replenished by rainwater and will fulfil the requirements of the freshwater needs of people, their domestic animals, and wildlife during lean months. We must harvest rainwater for ourselves and the wildlife.
Mohammed Anisuzzaman Khan
Biodiversity Conservation Officer
In Bangladesh, wetlands are shrinking fast, being obliterated, and are stripped of their features because of mindless human intervention. Sadly, the word wetland is meaningless to us and wetlands have become synonymous to wastelands.
Wetlands are areas of land that are either temporarily or permanently covered by water. As defined by the Ramsar Convention on Wetland, wetlands include a wide variety of inland habitats such as marshes, peatlands, floodplains, rivers, and lakes, and coastal areas such as salt marshes, mangroves, and seagrass beds, but also coral reefs and other marine areas that are not deeper than six metres at low tide, as well as human-made wetlands such as waste-water treatment ponds and reservoirs.
Hence, as mentioned above, wetlands include a vast swath of what Bangladesh is and the wetlands shape Bangladesh's economy and livelihood in one way or another. These are teeming grounds for biodiversity destruction which have left a deep mark on our greater parts of life.
I have travelled over wild Bangladesh throughout my life and witnessed this destruction firsthand. The major reasons I have found are the introduction of flood control and irrigation drainage systems.
Beels and Haors are no longer regarded for what they stand for – crop once a year and fish round the year. They are being converted into paddy fields and permanent fish production sites.
We have cut through the wetlands to run roads and embankments that have snapped the links of the wetlands with the rivers. Henceforth, other than Hakaluki Haor, Tanguar Haor, and Hail Haor, all other wetlands are in decline. I have found that about half the wetlands are now disconnected from the rivers.
We have a Haor and Wetland Development Board, National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, and Integrated Coastal Zone Management plan. However, implementation has not taken place in regards to its' recommendation(s); there is no real organization to manage the wetlands.
Swamps in the hill tracts such as Sangu, Baga Lake or Raikhiong lake have not been assessed yet. Coastal zones are turned into poulders to stop tide and to facilitate fish growing.
We have forgotten the fact that this is just inviting disaster because other than the biodiversity they represent, wetlands are the major source for freshwater in winter. They were once our major water reservoirs.
They helped keep our underground water table stable. Now, when they are gone, our land is becoming drier, needing more irrigation with environmental disaster. This is what has been happening in Chalanbeel in the north and Arial Beel in Munshiganj. They have become mere ponds today.
We have never tried to make sense of the value of the wetlands, we have always thought of them in terms of money and so we have destroyed them. The main ecosystem of Bangladesh is wetlands as far as the definition of the Ramsar Convention (1972) is concerned. Ramsar convention highlighted that the wetlands purify, replenish our water, and provide the fish and rice that feed billions.
Wetlands act as a natural sponge against floods, droughts, and protect our coastlines. Only 3 % of the world's water is fresh and most of that is frozen. Values and functions of wetlands include ecological value, economical value, aesthetic value, maintaining balance in nature, food chain, food pyramid, climate circle, produce freshwater, and so on.
Bangladesh is the largest delta in the world predominantly comprised of a large network of rivers and wetlands. Wetlands in Bangladesh are represented by inland freshwater, estuarine brackish water, and tidal salt-water coastal wetlands.
More than 90% of the country's total area consists of alluvial plains, crisscrossed by a complex network of rivers and their tributaries. Now, as far as the Ramsar convention is concerned, it is an urgent need to change the vision and act as per the modern concept of sustainable development.
Hence, national wetlands policy, strategy and conservation action programme is the key demand to fulfil the national obligations for managing wetlands; ensuring wise usage of its precious biological and other renewable natural resources in a sustainable way.