The sad tale of the river Sangu

Shihab Sarkar | Saturday, 5 February 2022

Hilly rivers around the world are synonymous with sparkling streams flowing through big and small rocky chunks and pebbles. Normally, dense and seemingly impenetrable forests on their two sides distinguish them from plain land rivers. Their look is somewhere in betweencreeks and ever-flowing wide canals. Being chiefly a plain and alluvial land, Bangladesh has few topographical swathes which can resemble the wild rivers. Yet thanks to the gift of nature, the land has been blessed with patches featuring semi-rocky yet lush green forests; and also people indigenous to the unusually different landscape. Over a century, the primordial beauty of the chunk of land called Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) in the country's south-east has continued fading away. In the 21st century, the hilly region can hardly be told from the dominant features of the present mainland. The crisscrossing rivers, large tracts of green and golden crops, the seemingly endless expanses --- and, of course, the sparsely populated villages --- all are on the way of disappearance. It might be called a decaying process of nature. The CHT appears to have been made to join the process of wearing a different look.

The thinning out of the country's only green-covered hilly region began considerably a long time ago. Unscrupulous elements, at times enjoying the patronage of influential quarters, have long swooped down on its rich forest resources. Felling valuable trees to set up structures ranging from brick kilns, private apartments to expensive rest houses have become a normal practice. The poverty-stricken indigenous people are forced to sell their crop lands and homesteads. In most cases they are short-changed. They find few local institutions to seek remedy to these naked injustices. Except the neighbourhoods of the three hill-district administrative headquarters in the CHT, the remote areas in the deep recesses of forests and their inhabitants are on the verge of being wiped out.

Of the three, the Bandarban district has lately emerged as the worst-off. Despite being recognised as the most attractive hilly region in terms of natural beauty, poverty rate of the district, studies say, is the highest in the CHT. Unlike the other two hill districts, Bandarban is blessed with a 270 km highly navigable river called Sangu. Khagrachhari and Rangamati have smaller rivers with patches becoming shallow. The Sangu, or the Shankha, river was once considered the life-line of the district; but not anymore. Lately the river has developed shoals in its mid-courses, causing disruptions to its communication network linking the areas in other districts. Apart from carrying myriad types of produce to the nearby river ports, the Sangu has been playing a great role in transporting small business people and the commuting passengers. Few have ever thought that a vibrant river like Sangu could develop shoals so soon. Normally, the season of high summer witnesses a fall in its water level. But the surfacing of shoals has been viewed as an aberrant one.

The Bandarban residents depended greatly on this hilly but wide river. After originating in the northern Arakan Hills in Myanmar, the Sangu flows through the different parts of the greater Chattogram district, to flow eventually into the Bay of Bengal. The proverbial river Sangu has long attained a mythic status in the local folklore. The Sangu shoals are inauspicious news for the Bandarban inhabitants. Its contribution to the livelihood of the local people has long been a strongly established truth. To speak ominously, of all areas in the district, the reserve forests in its hilly zone blessed by the Sangu are feared to bear the brunt, with the shoals obstructing its normal flow.

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