Giving Bangladesh rivers a new lease of life

Shihab Sarkar | Published: March 22, 2018 21:27:06 | Updated: March 23, 2018 21:24:46

Against the backdrop of the mindless killing of its rivers, the demonstrations in the country demanding their protection might seem mere ritualistic to many. The International Day of Action for Rivers visits the country every year. So do the campaigns and programmes for saving these gifts of nature. These events do not go to the waste altogether. Through them the river-loving people at least can keep abreast of the plight of the country's rivers. The overall condition of the rivers prompts many of them to contribute to the advocacy programmes in their own way.

The International Day of Action for Rivers 2018 was observed across the country on March 14 amid emotion-filled appeal to the government and the people in general to come forward to save the rivers. The call was made at seminars; rallies and human chains. A few of the programmes took place along the banks of some nearly dead rivers.  With the Brahmaputra, the Padma, the Jamuna and hundreds of smaller rivers and tributaries long in their death throes, names of new rivers go on appearing on the list. In the run-up to the observance of the 'rivers day', news and photographs of some proverbially deep and vigorous rivers have appeared in the print media in close succession. The rivers include 'the Khoai' in Habiganj, 'the Pagla' in Chapainawabganj, 'the Baleshwar' in the south-west and some other rivers. Many rivers like 'the Atrai', 'the Mahananda', 'the Gorai' and 'the Chitra' in the country's south-western and northern parts now flow like narrow streams at places. In the previous years, 'the Titas' in Brahmanbaria, 'the Turag', 'the Balu', 'the Bangshi' and 'the Dhaleshwari' in greater Dhaka have shown clear signs of slow disappearance. The seemingly irreversible choking of the capital's 'Buriganga' caused by reckless pollution, and also of 'the Surma' in Sylhet is part of the grim episode.

Almost all of the around 700 rivers of the country have been passing through bad times over nearly three decades. Pollution and encroachment leading to the choking of rivers is relatively a new phenomenon.  They used to be plagued with dozens of maladies in the distant past, too. The flows of many were not completely free of obstructions, which were mainly caused by sediments carried from the rivers upstream. The shoals, 'Chars' in Bangla, were a common feature in the river-based life in the remote rural areas. Thanks to siltation, rivers used to continue to lose depth, and be in spate during monsoon. Seasonal floods would affect villages in the low plains. The situation has not changed today; rather it eventually took worse turns. In the later part of the 20th century, river-shore grabbing coupled with pollution unleashed the process of a dreadful change in river morphology, increasing the ferocity of floods. In fact, wrong river management has been contributing to the flows' erratic directions since the British period, observe river experts. The next setback to the rivers of Bangladesh, then the eastern wing of Pakistan, came in the 1960s. It was in this period that careless dealing with the land's rivers was about to complete a cycle. The decade witnessed the construction of a number of useless and, in effect, wasteful embankments built on some crucial rivers. In the 1980s in independent Bangladesh, the flood control dams constructed in accordance with the prescription of multilateral donors proved equally fruitless.

Apart from the obstructions caused by sediments flowing from upper riparian regions, the human-induced ones now pose no less threat to the country's rivers. River encroachment has in the last few decades emerged as a great environmental scourge in the country. The evil practice leads to the fast loss of agro-lands.  Besides having direct impact on day-to-day human lives, the narrowing of rivers hinders communication on water routes. A most distressing reality is grabbing of river shores by local influential people continues unabated --- all to the untold miseries of the people living in the surrounding areas. Although most of the nations can manage to keep the malady of encroachments at bay, and allow the rivers to flow naturally, a few developing countries are found stuck in the problem perennially. To the distress of its people, Bangladesh is one of them.

Pollution of rivers owing to commercial and industrial activities is universal. Developing countries in general and a handful of lesser developed ones experience this fallout of development. Occupation of river banks by syndicates of unscrupulous elements emerges as an act which may defy credulity in the developed parts of the world.

Humans in general view their rivers as some sort of national treasure coming from nature. Involuntary acts of river pollution are not uncommon in less advanced, as well as advanced, countries. But habitual pollution, coupled with river bank grabbing, is mostly found in South Asia. Bangladesh is one of those countries.

Although it sounds bitter, reality points to the fast-loosening bond between man and rivers in this country. This murky development should not have taken place. For the ethno-cultural essence of Bangladesh is inextricably linked to its rivers. Few small countries of the territorial size of Bangladesh are blessed with so many rivers and tributaries. Through the ages, life and many mundane activities, including those of trade, on this land have been shaped largely by its rivers. This wonderful and one of the earliest embodiments of nature has been composing the land's lore since ancient times. How can such a place survive without seeing the growth of early riverside human settlements? The discoveries of the ruins of urban centres in different parts of the country in the 20th and 21st centuries stand as proof to this premise. Rivers saw the birth of civilisations in many parts of the world. Notable among them are the civilisations along the Nile in ancient Egypt, on the valley of Tigris-Euphrates in Mesopotamia and on that of the Indus in the South Asian sub-continent. 

The nation has joined the race of progress, and quite spectacularly at that. It is sine qua non for meaningful survival in the modern times. But the march towards progress should not be soulless, i.e., it ought not to take place at the cost of the land's natural features. Few nations can boast their innumerable number of rivers like Bangladesh. The country has been synonymous with its rivers since ancient times. It can ill afford to indulge in the perverse act of damaging its rivers. Saving rivers is not a task too daunting. Lack of sufficient knowledge about rivers and river management and wrong plans and projects for embankments have kept aggravating the land's total river network. In the late 20th century, the scourge of pollution and river and river-bank grabbing has veritably driven the last nail in the coffin. Given the continued dying out of the rivers, the country's entire river system appears headed for an eventual disappearance. River experts are not sitting idle. They repeatedly suggest embarking on an all-out dredging work, besides framing stringent laws against river encroachers and polluters. The rivers of Bangladesh cannot be given back their former glory. But actions by governments can effectively halt their current process of decay. In this task, people's awareness of the benefits from the rivers and love for them deserve a major place. Being riverine, the country's present existence and the future is hinged on its rivers.

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