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Threats to Meghna river basin ecosystem: A wake-up call for Bangladesh, India

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A wide range of threats facing the ecosystem of Meghna river basinis constitute a wake-up call for both Bangladesh and India. But neither country is showing any interest to protect or promote the basin's ecosystem.

An ecosystem is a geographical area, where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscapes work together to form a bubble of life.

The eco system of the Meghna, flowing southward across India and Bangladesh, is neglected by both the countries, despite its huge importance as the natural 'biogeographical gateway' located in the transition zone between Indian, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese regions.

The Meghna river basin drains a total area of 82,000 square km, of which 47,000 square km or 57 per cent of the total area is in India and 35,000 square km or 43 per cent is in Bangladesh.

According to a recent study, the basin's ecosystem is endangered by a number of threats.The study, supported by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is a wakeup call to address large socio-economic disparities throughout the region.

At a three-day virtual dialogue, split into 10 thematic sessions, hosted by the Meghna Knowledge Forum (MKF), participants from Bangladesh and India called upon the two neighbouring countries to develop cooperation to protect and promote the ecosystem services in the Meghna river basin for the benefit of 50 million people in the two countries including the Garo, the Khasi and the Jaintia communities.

They said such cooperation would also increase the benefits to the people in downstream Bangladesh, and build trust between stakeholders across the border.

The Meghna river basin, shared by Bangladesh and India, has 29 transboundary rivers originating in India which flow through Bangladesh before falling into the Bay of Bengal.

Located in the transition zone between Indian, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese regions, the Meghna river basin is their 'biogeographical gateway'. The ecosystem services provided by the river basin directly support life and livelihoods of over 50 million people in Bangladesh and India including the Khasi, the Garo and the Jaintia communities.

The study is also a call to wake up without wasting further time to develop cooperation for joint solutions and basin level integrated approaches to tackle challenges posed by recurring floods and droughts troubling millions of people in the two neighbouring countries.

The two countries could make the Meghna river basin the most vibrant region in South Asia. Over 100 participants, 40 of them from the Garo and the Kashi communities, of the two countries took expressed concern over neglecting the basin's eco system.

Saber Hossain Chowhudhry, MP, chairperson, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ministry, called for moving from conflict to cooperation through the Meghna Knowledge Forum.PR Sambharia, senior joint commissioner, Ground Water and Flood Management at Indian Jal Shakti Ministry, requested the IUCN   to share its findings with Bangladesh-India Joint River Commission and provide them to the relevant government departments of the two countries.

Malik Fida A Khan, executive director, Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services, said that Article 6 of the Framework Agreement for Cooperation between Bangladesh and India, mandates the two countries to work together for the preservation of ecosystems of shared rivers.

He said, "This provides an entry-point for strengthening cooperation for the formation of the Mghna River Basin Organisation for multi-level cooperation for the sustainable management of the Meghna basin."

The IUCN will disseminate the outcomes of the Meghna Knowledge Forum (MKF) at bilateral and global platforms, including at the September 2021 IUCN World Conservation Congress, to be held in Marseille, France, the IUCN said a news release.

"We felt the need to assess the downstream benefits to the people in Bangladesh from such initiatives. However, this will help build trust between stakeholders across the border and for the benefit of 50 million people living in the region shared by the two countries across the border," said Dr P Shakil Ahammed, principal secretary, Water Resources, Fisheries, Food and Civil Supplies.

The basin's importance stems from the fact that more than 50 million people in Bangladesh and India, particularly, farmers, fishermen and forest dependent communities like the Khasis, the Garos, and the Jainitas in the haors inSylhet region of Bangladesh depend on it for their sustenance.   The two countries have no choice but to cooperate, and work together to protect the basin's ecosystem. The three-day dialoguelaid the foundation for a multi-stakeholder knowledge exchange platform for the inclusive management of the Meghna river basin. 

The participants shared their perspectives on a wide range of issues linked to culture, water governance, climate change and inland navigation to promote partnerships among the stakeholders to address knowledge gaps for integrated water resource management in the Meghna river basin.     About the significance of Barak-Meghna river system, Dr Rajdeep Roy, MP, from Silchar, Assam, India described the Barak river as 'rich in biodiversity with its more than 100 species of fish, including the Ganges Dolphin, listed as endangered.' 

More than 70 community managed fish sanctuaries have been established across Meghalaya, and many of these are located in transboundary tributaries of the Meghna river basin, such as the Someshwari, and Simsang rivers originating from Garo hills in India, he said.

The initiative led to increase in the fish population and improvement in water quality.

At the first webinar participants discussed the importance of the Megha basin from the socio-economic and ecosystems perspectives.

The Meghna basin supports one of the largest Hilsa fisheries in the world, providing a source of protein for millions of people living in Bangladesh and India.

Vishwa Ranjan, programme officer, water and wetlands, IUCN Asia, said, "The basin includes more than 1,000 wetlands located in the haor region of Bangladesh and the Barak Valley of India. These buffer against flooding, and also provide habitat for thousands of migratory waterfowl annually."

The basin has high cultural significance, with a number of indigenous communities including the Jaintia and the Khasi living in it, said Sabyasach Dutta, executive director, Asian Confluence.

He said, "The ancient Jaintia kingdom used to span both sides of the border and was replete with monuments, cultures, folklore and art forms.The ancient Jadukatariver festival, celebrated even now, is an example of the cultural value of the rivers for the people."

Despite such importance, the Meghna basin is facing a wide range of threats, shows the IUCN supported study.

Dr Saudamini Das, professor, the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, said, "Indigenous communities living in the forest dominated landscapes of Meghna basin are poor, and depend on the forest for their socio-economic well-being."

"Development of innovative Payment of Ecosystem Services mechanisms could provide economic security of indigenous people and the protection of watersheds for the long-term water security across the basin."

FW Blah, chief forest officer of the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council, Meghalaya pointed out the impact of mining and shifting cultivation on the forests of the Jaintia Hills, the source of many transboundary tributaries of the Meghna river, including Myntdu and Umngot.

He said, destructive mining has stopped, but deforestation, forest fragmentation, and soil degradation continue to threaten the ecosystem.

Blah described the Jaintia Hills Autonomous Council as an elected governing body of the Jaintia people and it plays a key role to promote the region's culture. Panelists and participants discussed the benefits of sharing as an opportunity in the transboundary context.

Dr AK Enamul Haque, director of the Asian Centre for Development, Dhaka, highlighted the potentials ofbilateral benefits of sharing the Meghna basin.

The webinar highlighted the need to strengthen collaboration within the basin to maintain the Meghna's status as one of the last remaining long free-flowing rivers in Asia.

According to a recent article published in the Nature journal, Mapping the Worlds Free-Flowing River, the Meghna river has been identified as one of the last remaining long free-flowing rivers in Asia.

The Brahmaputra river is, however, listed as a non-free-flowing river, with good connectivity, and the Ganges is also categorised as a non-free-flowing river, with very limited connectivity.

The webinar also demonstrated the cultural importance of the river to indigenous communities, and their dependence on the ecosystem services provided by the river.

The webinar series aims at building the water governance capacity of a network of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the GangesBrahmaputraMeghna (GBM) River Basin.

The webinar series is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) through the Oxfam Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) programme.

Its focus is to strengthen CSO engagement in transboundary water management issues.

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