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Rivers dominate in River Intense Bangladesh - SANDRP

Water 2024-01-29, 1:38am


Rivers of Bangladesh - South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and people.

In this overview of 2023 issues related to Dams, Rivers and People in Bangladesh, we see how rivers dominate the discourse in one of the most river intense nations of the world. As expected, as India and Bangladesh share the rivers in so many ways, the bilateral issues also dominate. These includes fisheries, power sharing, navigation, besides of course water sharing. As expected, Teesta water sharing issue dominates more than others.

The role of rivers in making of a nation Bangladesh’s physiography characterises her as a riverine country, and this unique geographical landscape played a part in the region’s glorious history, politics and spatial dynamics.

The River and Delta Research Centre (RDRC) conducted studies and prepared several maps that help us understand the geographical features of the rivers and water bodies of Bangladesh in 1971 and how they influenced the birth of the country.

The key features of this map have geopolitical and geostrategic implications as it highlights Bangladesh through the frame of her canals, streams and more than 1,200 rivers. 1971 can be used as the baseline or reference point to compare the current situation of rivers and water bodies.  (16 Dec. 2023)

Music makes waves in river conservation Rivers are intrinsic to Bangladesh’s culture and economy, but they are increasingly under threat. After passing a judgment giving legal protection to the country’s rivers, Ashraful Kamal, a Supreme Court judge, noted: “Once upon a time, Bangladesh was home to over 1,300 rivers, but currently, it has only 405 rivers listed officially.”

With its music, Nodi Rocks is seeking to highlight the urgent need to reverse this decline. It builds on a long tradition of songs about the magnificence and beauty of Bangladesh’s rivers, the many stories that they carry and the philosophical significance of the flowing water.  (16 June 2023)

Documentary on Bangladesh Rivers  (24 Sept. 2023)

Banned but abundant, gillnets pose main threat to river dolphins Bangladesh is home to around 2,000 Ganga River dolphins and 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins, found mostly in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Both species, considered threatened on the IUCN Red List, run a high risk of entanglement in the gillnets used by local fishers. Gillnets are banned in Bangladesh, but remain popular among local fishers, with the government unable to crack down on their use. To conserve the freshwater dolphins, the government has embarked on a 10-year action plan that includes declaring more areas as dolphin sanctuaries and raising awareness among fishers.  (26 Jan. 2023)

How Bangladeshis are fighting climate change impacts Bangladesha river delta nation, is on the front line of climate change. Now, its most profound threat is water, in its many terrible incarnations: drought, deluge, cyclones, saltwater. All are aggravated to varying degrees by climate change, and all are forcing millions of people to do whatever they can to keep their heads above it.

Floating Crops in flooded areas What do you do when the rivers swell and drown your crops? If you’re Shakti Kirtanya, you grow your crops on top of the water. If the water rises, they rise, too. They float and bob. “If you see the harvest, it will fill your heart with joy,” he said. Mr. Kirtanya learned this farming technique from his father, who learned it from his. It’s been practiced for 200 years in his low-lying district, Gopalganj, where land is usually inundated for half the year. Now, because climate change is spreading the risk of flooding to many other areas, the floating gardens of Gopalganj are spreading. Over the past five years, the government has supported floating gardens in 24 of the country’s 64 districts.

Mr. Kirtanya cuts the stems of water hyacinths in the lake near his house, lets the pile stew in the sun, and shapes it into long, wide seedbeds on top of the water. He sows watermelon and amaranth in summer, cabbage and cauliflower in winter. The garden is a source of income and, for his family, a source of fresh produce grown without chemicals. “Whether the rains are late or early, it doesn’t affect it,” Mr. Kirtanya said. “It doesn’t get hurt in the heat either.”

There is one looming threat. Seawater is coming farther inland. The water is becoming too salty for the sundari. They are dying. Other mangrove species are taking over. The landscape is changing.

Harvesting Rain when sea water comes in Sheela Biswas faces the crisis of salinity everyday. Salt has intruded into canals and ponds that her village relies on for drinking and washing. An estimated 30 million people who live along the coast face the problem of saltwater intrusion to varying degrees. The area where Ms. Biswas lives is among the worst hit. It wasn’t like this when she came as a bride 30 years ago. Then, most people ate rice that they grew on their land. They drank water they collected in their pond. Then came “white gold,” shrimp. Shrimp farms spread. People let in saltwater through a canal from the river, so saltwater spread, too. Ms. Biswas’s pond turned too salty to drink. First, she hired a cart to buy water. Then she turned to a neighbor who built an underground tank to collect rainwater. She invented her own rainwater harvesting system with what she had at home, jiggering plastic pipes to channel rainwater from her tin roof through a fishing net and into earthen jars.

Growing vegetables in compost pots Farther south, where the soil is too salty to plant crops, women have started growing vegetables in pots filled with compost and manure. Or they’ve turned empty rice sacks into planters, even plastic boxes that once took shrimp to market. Their slapdash efforts to secure the most basic human needs, food and water, are a glimpse into the epic struggle of hundreds of millions of people who are trying to cope with climate risks every day. Money for adaptation, $29 billion to all developing nations in 2020, is a small fraction of what is needed: at least $160 billion a year, according to United Nations estimates. (25 Jun 2023)

Small-scale fishers The government imposes an annual ban of 65 days to protect the Bay of Bengal’s fish stock. There are two other annual ban periods – from March 1 to April 30, to protect the Hilsa breeding and nursery grounds in some coastal rivers, and a 22-day ban in October to protect female Hilsa in all rivers and the sea. Although these bans benefit the fishing industry, they also result in a loss of livelihood for small-scale fishers.  (30 March 2023)

Western approach can not prevent river erosion To control erosion, the authorities so far have used Western methods that focus on construction of hard structures, such as groynes, spurs, concrete revetments, hardpoints, etc. Also, following the Western advice, the authorities adopted the Cordon approach to rivers and constructed embankments to cordon off floodplains from rivers. Unfortunately, neither the embankments nor the hard structures have proven to be effective in Bangladesh. In fact, they have proven to be a deadly combination instead.

The experience of the Jamuna River provides a good example. The Cordon approach was applied to this river through the construction of the Brahmaputra Right Hand Embankment (BRHE) in the 1960s to cordon off the right-hand-side floodplains from the river. This project was financed largely by the World Bank. Also, numerous hard structures were built to prevent the right bank from erosion. Yet, the river eroded its right bank and moved westwards by more than 1.5 kms on an average. The BRHE had to be continually retired and moved back, by more than nine times at some places. As a result, currently only 41 kms of the original 180 kms embankment remain standing. In many places, the embankment has virtually ceased to exist. The experience with other rivers has been in essence similar.

The reason why the Western approaches have not succeeded is because rivers in Bangladesh are not the same as those commonly found in Western countries. There, rivers are generally timid, with low volumes of water, very little sediment, and no pronounced seasonal fluctuations. By contrast, the major river systems in Bangladesh have high volumes of water, contain enormous amount of sediment, and are characterised by extreme seasonality.

Investigating into the problem, Peter Rogers, professor of environmental engineering at Harvard, concluded that the “physical force of Bengal rivers is so great that no amount of engineering works can withstand it.” He also observed that “the search for embankment protection from floods in the great delta is almost certain to lead to waste & disappointment.” Prof Rogers also reminded the Western consultants of the necessity for “awareness of being outsiders” (Eastern Waters Study, Pg 73-74). Unfortunately, Prof Rogers proved to be a minority, if not lone, voice among the Western consultants, and his views did not accord well with the material interests of water agencies in Bangladesh as well as Western lenders, who are always eager to push for big-budget construction projects. Prof Rogers was shunned.

Hence, to mitigate the erosion problem, the first thing that Bangladesh needs to do is to shun the Cordon approach and return to the Open approach that is suitable for the country’s special physical conditions, and which the people of this country have been following from time immemorial. This also requires resuscitation of the smaller rivers, rivulets, canals, etc, that used to keep the major rivers connected with the floodplains. In addition to kata khal, Bangladesh also needs to revive the old practice of Ashtomashi bandh, i.e. temporary dams lasting for eight months of the year. These dams allowed river overflows to be preserved in the floodplains and flow back to the river during the dry season to stabilise the flow across the seasons and keep the riverbed ready for extra bed scouring, rather than bank erosion, needed to hold the summer flow.

Unfortunately, the water authorities seem to be heading in the opposite direction. Thus, instead of abandoning the BRHE, which has met its natural death, the authorities, together with the World Bank, have chalked up a new project called the River Bank Improvement Programme (RBIP) to rebuild the BRHE in the form of a four-lane highway, costing about $1 billion. The past experience shows that this project will only aggravate river erosion and prove to be another huge wastage of Bangladesh’s resources. (Dr S Nazrul Islam)  (26 Aug. 2023)

Living along a dead Buriganga river The Buriganga, or the ‘Old Ganges’, is so polluted that its water appears pitch black, except during the monsoon months, and emits a foul stench through the year. The South Asian nation of nearly 170 million, with about 23 million living in Dhaka, has about 220 small and large rivers and a large chunk of its population depends on rivers for a living and transport.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-biggest garment exporter after China but citizen activists say the booming industry is also a major contributor to the ecological decline of the river. Untreated sewage, by-products of fabric dyeing and other chemical waste from nearby mills and factories flow in daily. Polythene and plastic waste piled on the riverbed have made it shallow and caused a shift in course. (19 Apr 2023)

Sad plight of Sutang river Sutang, a transboundary river that stretches about 82 km into Bangladesh’s territory connecting three upazilas of Habiganj, is reportedly in such a pathetic state that it can no longer be classified as a natural source of water. This has real consequences for the people who live nearby. Over the last decade, several hundred factories have sprung up on the banks of the river, and they discharge their waste there indiscriminately. Among them are tiles, dyeing, chemical and battery factories. Their waste has led to the water turning “blacker and thicker than tar”, as per a recent BBC report.

Sutang is one of the three rivers believed to be in the worst state among the 56 that were surveyed by the Rivers and Delta Research Centre as part of a year-long study. Its findings, unveiled in mid-March, showed massive levels of pollution during the lean period when the natural flow of rivers is at its lowest. It urged the concerned authorities to take stern action against those illegally dumping waste in rivers. (4 Apr 2023)

INDIA-BANGLADESH Shared Rivers, Shared Issues

Renewal of the Ganges water treaty? The Ganges Water Treaty between Bangladesh and India will expire in 2026, as the year will complete the treaty’s 30-year lifespan. Lower Riparian Bangladesh and Upper Riparian India signed this treaty in 1996. After 27 years, many new issues have arisen that need to be solved. Whether the treaty would be renewed or not is also another question.  (22 May 2023)

Better management of shared waterways needed India & Bangladesh signed a protocol in 1972 for using waterways through 11 different routes to carry goods. Only three of the designated 11 routes are in regular use at present, as most of the routes lack depth for the navigability of large vessels.

Routes identified in the protocol 1 Ghorashal, Bangladesh, to Bandel, West Bengal 2 Mongla, Bangladesh, to Haldia, West Bengal 3 Mongla, Bangladesh, via Narayanganj to Karimganj, Assam 4 Sirajganj, Bangladesh, to Pandu, Assam 5 Ashuganj, Bangladesh, to Silghat, Assam 6 Chilmari, Bangladesh, to Dhubri, Assam 7 Rajshahi, Bangladesh, to Dhulian, West Bengal 8 Sultanganj, Bangladesh, to Maia, West Bengal 9 Chilmari, Bangladesh, to Kolaghat, Assam 10 Daudkandi, Bangladesh, to Sonamura, West Bengal 11 Bahadurabad, Bangladesh, to Jogighopa, Assam (Source: Mongabay India.)

The Bangladesh government recently awarded a $71 million contract to a Chinese company to dredge rivers as part of a World Bank-financed project to boost transport routes between mainland India and the northeastern states via Bangladesh. Experts suggest that, besides taking on extensive dredging work, the rivers need proper management like maintenance of channels and embankment protection, otherwise silt will close the channels in a short time.  (05 Jan. 2023)

NGT case underlines Need to review safety on transboundary river navigation A 2.5-year legal battle in NGT over how fly ash is transported between India and Bangladesh has revealed significant problems in how transboundary shipping is regulated. In 2020, the West Bengal fishers organisation – the Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum (DMF) – appealed to the NGT after a series of boat collisions and sinkings on the rivers and estuaries that they depend upon for their income and survival. The DMF argued for better regulation of barges carrying fly ash, a residue from coal burning that contains toxic heavy metals and other pollutants. When fly ash is spilled into rivers, these can contaminate water and harm aquatic life.

The Tribunal’s final judgment on 20 March 2023 contained two positive elements. First, it acknowledged the harm caused by fly ash barges capsizing, and said that victims must be compensated on the principle of absolute liability. Second, the Tribunal noted the potential for damage to fisheries and the “need to take mitigation measures against such incidents in future… This requires revisiting the applicable regulatory framework,” it said, issuing a broad hint that the existing regulatory regime is not adequate. Less positively, the Tribunal did not exert any significant pressure on regulators to Change.  (Avli Verma a researcher with Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, 2 June 2023)

TEESTA Officials have said that they will gauge geopolitical issues regarding Chinese offer to build a dam on or dredge Teesta river before going ahead with it, since Teesta flows from India to Bangladesh.   (28 Dec. 2023)

Cooperation For India and Bangladesh, an opportunity exists to come to an agreement with a more equitable relationship over shared rivers. (By Shafiqul Elahi, a retired government official of Bangladesh)

The two countries have advanced cooperation in technical and infrastructure development over trans-boundary rivers, though the water sharing issue is often delayed to the future. For example, the inauguration of the Maitri Setu over the trans-boundary Feni River was a successful venture in both parts in 2019. However, the Feni-water sharing agreement is yet to be concluded by India, which will allow Bangladesh to be able to withdraw 1.82 cusecs of water. Also, the Aminbazar-Gopalganj 400KV power transmission line over the Padma River came to function in 2022, allowing the country to transport electricity from the Payra and Rampal power plants to Dhaka. A Teesta River water sharing agreement, by contrast, is yet to come. This is a grave situation, particularly given that India is about to establish three hydro-electric plants in the Darjeeling hills. The W Bengal government has recently decided to build two canals to divert water flows – a worrisome development for the lower riparian Bangladesh.  (03 May 2023)

India-Bangladesh-Nepal-Bhutan Power Trade India will assist Bangladesh in importing hydropower from Nepal and Bhutan through the Indian Territory. However, India has asked Bangladesh to increase the capacity and network of transmission lines. Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said these issues came up in the Foreign Office Consultation (FOC) meeting of the two countries in Dhaka on Feb 16 2023.  (16 Feb. 2023)

Dam mooted to break Teesta logjam A policy maker in Bangladesh has said the nation doesn’t stand a chance of getting extra Teesta water from Bengal from a realistic point of view and his country should, instead, construct a reservoir on the river with financial support from India to conserve monsoon water. Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury, the chairman of the National River Conservation Commission in Bangladesh, said that the proposal was personal.

River expert Ainun Nishat, however, has a different view. “Such a step will not provide a long-term solution. Rather, I think river experts from both the countries should sit together with an open mind; and try to find a solution which will benefit most people on the banks of the Teesta…. Let politics follow the scientific solution,” he observed.  (10 Feb. 2023)

‘Take Bangladesh into confidence on Teesta river projects’ India should take Bangladesh into confidence before going ahead with hydel projects on the Teesta river, a leading water expert from Bangladesh said.

Continued disruption of the Teesta river because of canals & hydel projects in India could disturb its agricultural sector, potentially creating multiple levels of crisis for South Asia: Ainun Nishat. (16 Mar 2023)

India plans fresh Teesta hydro projects The W Bengal govt decided in principle to set up three hydropower projects in the Darjeeling hills. The newspapers reported, quoting an unnamed W Bengal govt official, that in-principle approval was given to the preparation of a detailed project report on the Teesta Low Dam Project (TLDP) I & II, on the Bara Rangeet river, with a combined capacity of 71MW. A similar approval has been given for a DPR on the 38 MW Balason Hydroelectric Project on the Balason and Rangbhang rivers.  Two new canals were being dug under the Teesta barrage project for withdrawing more water for irrigation in Jalpaiguri & Coach Bihar.  (13 March 2023)

Bangladesh on Bengal Canal Plans This PTI story from Bangladesh says Bangladesh is waiting for India’s response on India’s plans of building additional canals to divert Teesta water for irrigation in WB districts of Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri. Bangladesh will determine its course of action after that. “This is an old project which was stuck due to some land-acquisition-related problems and a lack of funds from the central government. We have solved the land-related problems and sent a report to the centre,” Yeasmin, WB minister of state for irrigation and waterways said on March 16 when Bangladesh raised the issue.  (23 March 2023)

90pc fish of Teesta extinct About 90 per cent of fishes and most of other aquatic lives that once made the waters of the Teesta, Dharla and Brahmaputra rivers their abode have vanished over the past three decades, according to an estimate by the Rangpur divisional office of the Department of Fisheries. The dramatic decline of aquatic lives in the rivers, which have now transformed into dozens of narrow localised streams crisscrossing the country’s northern region, was caused by a sharp fall in the water flow of the rivers because of interruptions in the upstream in India, said river experts and government fisheries officers.

‘In the latest fish census last year, we detected only 27 fish species in the Teesta, Dharla and Brahmaputra,’ said Saifuddin Yahiya, deputy director, Department of Fisheries, Rangpur division. The DoF carries out a fish census every rainy season at the height of water flow in the rivers — which usually falls in October. In 1988, the DoF official said, as many as 267 fish species had been found in the rivers. ‘We fear that the species we still have will be lost over the next few years,’ said Yahiya.

The number of fishermen dropped to just about 3,000 now from 17,000 in 2010 following the decline of fish species, officials at the fisheries department said. In 1988, sweet-water dolphins and crocodiles were among 317 other species of aquatic lives found in the rivers, the fisheries department said, adding that these species are mostly extinct.  (27 March 2023)

Kushiyara: hared festivity in bordering river Boundaries were blurred in a river of faith and festivity on Oct. 24 as the symbolic undercurrents of the Kushiyara, the river that separates south Assam’s Karimganj from Sylhet in Bangladesh, eased amid a joint chorus of Vijaya Dasami invocations to goddess Durga from either bank. Idols were simultaneously immersed at Kalibari Ghat on the Karimganj side of the river and Jakiganj in Sylhet division under the vigil of BSF and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB). Nearly 270 Durga idols were immersed at Sadhar Ghat point of the Barak river in Silchar.

“The people of Bangladesh and this part of India have a common culture and language, and this comes across during the annual Durga immersions in the Kushiyara. We wish there is more cooperation between the countries,” said North Karimganj MLA Kamalaksha Dey Purkayastha.  (25 Oct. 2023)

3,950 MT Hilsa exported to India ahead of Durga Puja The West Bengal govt’s tough stance on the signing of the 2011 Teesta water-sharing agreement was seen as the cause of Bangladesh banning the fish export in 2012. Bangladesh, however, had cited the “low availability” of the fish as the reason behind the ban.

Syed Anwar Maqsood, secretary, Fish Importers’ Association, said, “Though permission was given to export 2,900 MT Hilsa in September 2022, only 1,300 MT could be shipped due to the lack of time. We had requested to give at least 60 days instead of the usual 20-30 days since such a large quantity cannot be exported in such a short span. We will request Bangladesh to lift the ban. Just about 5,000 MT of Hilsa was exported to India every year (until 2012)”. The price of 1 kg of fish in the local market varies from Rs 1,400-1,600. (21 Sep 2023)

Padma lost 50pc volume in 40 yrs In 40 years, the volume of the Padma river has decreased by half. This has reduced the flow along with the depth of the water. Various native species of fish are in danger of extinction due to loss of habitat. The entire biodiversity of Padma is under threat. Researchers have said that this crisis has arisen because of the Farakka Dam. A group of researchers said that this information appeared in the Jan 2023 issue of the international science journal ‘Biodiversity and Conservation’ published by Springer.

Associate Professor of Fisheries Department of Rajshahi University Shams Muha Ghalibwas in the research team. He said, ‘We were investigating the process of fish species relationship with hydrological, climatic and anthropogenic changes in Padma from 1982 to 2017. The reduction in Padma flow has affected the entire biodiversity of Padma. The study was conducted on a 70 km stretch of Padma from Godagari in Rajshahi to Sarada in Charghat. Samples of fish species were collected at nine points in the area. Data is taken from 27 fishing villages of Padmapar. The research team has tried to bring out the current image of Padma by analyzing the images taken from the satellite.  (07 May 2023)