The Himalayas is being so reconfigured that we may no longer have monsoon floods. Known as the 'third pole' because it contains more ice than any locations other than the North and South poles, its glaciers now melt ten times faster than ever before, resulting in glacier breakdowns, and mini-glaciers headed in different directions carrying different water loads. Even the Monsoon season hints at shifting its geographical trajectory: rains come earlier, flow away faster than can be absorbed by the underground water-table, and dump more water than perplexed people can combat. We saw glimpses of this in Sylhet from May 2022, but more glaring is the contrast between Pakistan's unprecedented Indus River floods with the drier Ganges in India and Bangladesh. Such a role-reversal, Planet Earth may be a taste of the future.
Historically the Gangetic Plains automatically sprang to mind when South Asian floods hit the headline, but the Himalayas has been losing one square mile of glaciers every year for the last 50 years in the Alaknanda basin, an annual size-loss likely to widen. Behind this tectonic change, caused no less by human negligence and overindulgence, severe downstream economic consequences await. Bangladesh needs a string of Plan B strategies in which creating fisheries (for protein), offsetting increasing salinity (to expand the food-base), and thwarting river pollution (demonstrate ecological sensitivity), play pivotal roles.
During those 50 years or so, the Farakka Barrage was commissioned in April 1975, a year after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's condition, raised during his 1974 India visit, of ensuring dry-season supplies, was met. Diverting Gangetic waters to the Bay of Bengal through Kolkata to both compensate for low winter flows and increasing saline waters, it caught Bangladesh flat-footed. Even the 1996 Ganges Water Sharing Treaty left the country dry. Yet these have now been tipped by glacier loss and Monsoon-rain paucity as the country's priority.
The Gangetic flows into Rajshahi have receded by about 20 per cent over those 50 years, and with Monsoon rains also diminishing over the past few years, the Ganges could become a dry-bed in the next 50 odd years. Whether the altered Monsoon rainfall areas of the last few years take a more permanent shape or not, Bangladesh must act now to avoid future catastrophe.
Already we see pastures, restaurants, and river walkways eastwards from Sardah in Rajshahi along the receding Ganges river line. What we do not see is how the fish supply-base, which has been an intrinsic component of Bangalee culture and customs, could narrow, and alongside both irrigation and drinking water become more scarce over time. What can we do?
One positive development has emerged independent of the river-flow crisis: growth of fisheries. These include not just inside the rivers, but also ponds, beels (lake-like wetland with static water), haors (bowl-shaped marshy wetland), khals (canals), lakes, and pen cultures, among other water bodies across the country. These inland water/fish capture and culture bodies combined with marine capture to boost net fish production by over 50 per cent in the last decade. Though marine capture remained static across that time-span (about 5 lakhs metric tons, annually), inland water/fish culture not only doubled from 12.5 lakhs mts but also helped nearly attain the net Vision 2021 target of 45.52 lakh mts (falling short by only 1.16 lakh mts).
Growth of this kind cannot but be sustained if deltaic Bangladesh is to keep its edge as the world's 3rd largest inland capture producer, 5th in aquaculture production, and 4th in tilapia production. Taken from the 2018-9 Fisheries Statistics Yearbook, such data confirm why fisheries constitute 25.7 per cent of the country's agriculture gross domestic production (GDP) and 3.5 per cent of the overall country GDP. With Bangladesh's upwardly-mobile 'developing country' target of 2026, fisheries cannot but play a larger role: two-thirds of each Bangladesh citizen's protein comes from fish, and the fisheries sector accounts for the livelihood of one out of every eight citizens. An increasingly salient part of the country's resource-base has become critical.
Naogaon, Natore, Pabna, and Serajgang join Rajshahi on the north of the Ganges river (some adjoining the Jamuna river too) as the country's leading fish producers. Yet, their northern neighbours and districts on the southern Ganges bank rank among the least productive. Revitalising them could also become pivotal to surviving the dry future.
This is where Farakka comes in, and with it the 30-year 1996 Ganges Treaty. Based on a 'quantum of water' formula, the treaty ignores today's climate change and environmental demands. By diverting 40,000 cubic feet of water per second to keep Kolkata port functional during the winter season, Farakka forced southwestern Bangladesh districts to face the very Kolkata port problems on the Bhagirathi-Hoogly river system that Farakka was built to resolve: water paucity and increasing salinity, both preventing land from producing crops, particularly rice. Shrimp-farming along Bangladesh's southwest coast adds to this increasing salinity in spite of fetching USD 350 million annually from exports. Yet, brackish aquaculture, cyclones, and tides have polluted half the coastal aquifers, thus making drinking water unsafe, while increasing miscarriages among pregnant women, not to mention tainting crop production, impose unfathomable social and dietary damages whose size and consequences we have yet to envision.
How do we renegotiate the Ganges Treaty in five years? When the country is expected to 'graduate' into a developing country by November 2026, we will have more industrial units and increased demands for resources, water, food, and sustainability to repair the unfolding damages. We must shed our complacency and short-term prisms to forge a formula to aggressively negotiate with India over Farakka in 2026: being 'nice' is too costly to survive.
Further cultivating the Meghna river offers a lifeline, especially after the 1983 Teesta Treaty up in the north sanctioned 39 per cent water to India and 36 per cent to Bangladesh. A subsequent proposal to reduce India's share to 37.5 per cent (but 42 per cent over the dry season), has consistently been vetoed by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, pushing Bangladesh to nudge China to block the river further upstream. Bereft of workable solutions, we will become even more to blame than anyone else.
How we have treated our rivers, our very lifeblood, suggests we deserve the blame. In an age of SDG (sustainable developmental goals) consciousness, corrections, and consent, industries built along riversides (a universally preferred location), increasingly threaten life. Dhaka, surrounded by five toxic rivers, is proof. When they were concentrated in Hazaribagh, leather factories released dyes, chemicals, and other putrid elements into the river, killing marine life. The leather fulcrum may have shifted to Savar, with an ostensibly functional effluent treatment plant (EPT), but anxious Dhaka residents await proof an irreversible recovery journey has begun. Many still hope to fish in these rivers, boat, even take a dip, as was possible in the 1960s. With Dhaka typifying the country's river pollution, the exploding special economic zones (SEZs)/export processing zones (EPZs), further blight our environmental future.
We have this luxury today: contemplating options. In the near future we will not, unless we act decisively now.
Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor, Department of Global Studies & Governance, Independent University, Bangladesh.