Stemming the waters of Bangladesh

Credits: © Jim Holmes / Panos Pictures

This tranquil scene of a woman fishing in Bangladesh belies the pressures facing many of the country's rivers. There is a strong misconception that Bangladesh is a country of too much water. Despite having as many as 52 rivers coming from India, local environmentalists complain that Bangladesh has little control over them. Its neighbour, India, has built dams on practically all of them stemming the flow of water to Bangladesh. 

Especially affected is the River Padma, as the Ganges river is called when it reaches Bangladesh. Its water flow has been reduced by 40 per cent owing to India's Farakka Barrage, 19 kilometres away from the Indo-Bangladesh border. As a result, the once mighty Padma today looks more like a broad but dwindling waterway scattered with shoals and sand dunes. During the dry season the river collects an enormous amount of silt leaving flood prone areas more vulnerable. "Previously when the floods ended, the earth would be replenished and ready for new crops to be sown. Now the moisture evaporates so fast due to siltation that the soil is left completely dry and unfit for agriculture.

Natural aquifers have also been destroyed in the process," said Hasna Moudud an environmental activist. Other effects are equally frightening. The Gorai, once a major river, is almost dead and many others are in the process of drying up. About 17 per cent of the total Sundari trees of the Sunderbans, the world's largest estuarine swamp, have already fallen prey to the top-dying syndrome due to increased salinity, threatening the survival of the few Royal Bengal tigers that are left. According to the Bangladesh Water Development Board, around 4 million acres of land have been affected by water withdrawal resulting in irrigation loss, moisture depletion and increased salinity, endangering the lives of about 40 million people With rivers drying up, many women now have to walk miles to bring water for daily washing, cooking and drinking.

Many fishing villages have disappeared in the southwest region and thousands of fishermen have and boatmen have lost their only means of livelihood. Ashok Swain, Assistant Professor at Upsala University in Sweden, estimates that two million people from the fishing areas of Kushtia and Rajshahi have left without a trace. Many have migrated to the cities working as rickshaw-pullers or daily wage labourers, earning a fraction of what they did before.

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