Sand extraction spells mayhem for Someshwari river

Photo shows an aerial view of Someshwari river in Durgapur, Netrokona on 18 October 2023. Once famous for its scenic view, sand and pebble extraction are rampant in Someshwari river destroying its environment and biodiversity.
Suvra Kanti Das

Someshwari river in Netrokona is in a state of mayhem. Grabbing and pollution have been a part and parcel of various rivers. But in the case of Someshwari River that flows down from the mountains seems, this is not just grabbing or pollution. Unabated corruption is underway, and a devastating scenario can be seen from the riverbank in Battala intersection of Birishiri, Netrokona.

Ruling party men are extracting sand after taking the lease of the river, ignoring the conditions of the lease. Once a scenic river, nowadays nobody takes any effective to save this river.

The loud sound of several thousands of unapproved dredgers, locally known as Bangla Dredger, is heard from a distance of one or one and a half kilometres away. The environment is contaminated. The situation turns catastrophic. Loud noise makes it impossible to stand on the bank of the Someshwari river for a while. Several thousands of trucks are filled with sand, pebbles and coal extracted from the river. People are hardly seen near the river except for workers extracting sand and persons appointed to supervise the lease. Nobody comes to see the beauty of Someshwari anymore. Once the riverbanks that turned lively with nature lovers from various places of the country is now patrolled by special forces deployed by sand poachers.

Once a mountain spring

The Someshwari river was famous for its scenic beauty and various species of aquatic animals including rare Mahseer. Someshwari originates from Garo Hills in the Indian state of Meghalaya. The Garo Hills lie to the north and the east like a bow, and the Someshwari flows through it.

Photo shows an aerial view of Someshwari river in Durgapur, Netrokona on 18 October 2023. Once famous for its scenic view, sand and pebble extraction are rampant in Someshwari river destroying its environment and biodiversity.
Suvra Kanti Das

Rapidly flowing from the Garo Hills, the Someshwari river enters the plain land of Bangladesh in the Durgapur upazila of Netrokona, flows through via Zaria from Durgapur and on the west side of the Banchail Bazar and eventually falls on Kangsa river.

Fishing in the Someshwari river was the main source of living for local fishermen. As people from different places of the country visited the river, tourism was also another major source of earnings for locals. Water flowing from upstream hills has also brought sands and pebbles for thousands of years, and that eventually has become a curse for this river.

Nayan Mia, a boatman from Babuipara of Durgapur, was waiting with his dinghy at BGB Ghat on 18 September. There was no passenger. Nayan said people hardly come here these days and those who come are mostly daily wagers.

No river, only sand areas

The government has designated the Someshwari river as a sand area. An initiative was taken in 2005 to dredge the river to maintain the navigability of the river, but later sand poachers started using the dredging method as a tool to loot the river.

Visiting the Bangladesh entry point of the Someshwari river in Durgapur on 18 September, huge activities on sand extraction and transportation are seen on the 22km area of the river though the government leased five sand areas of about 2,000 acres.

Sandhills were seen on both sides of the road starting from Shyamaganj of Durgapur. This sand was transported by trucks to different places in the country. Pebbles and coals are being separated from sands using special machines that are making loud noise breaking the silence of village life.

The word ‘sand poaching’ fits right instead of ‘sand extraction’. Standing on Birishiri bridge, several hundreds of Bangla Dredgers are seen extracting sand from the river. Someshwari becomes a narrow canal now. Shallow machines and dredging equipment have been set up on bamboo loft to extract sands, followed by filling the waiting trucks. A dredger machine can extract 50-60 tonnes of sand and pebbles daily, and such activities continue round-the-clock.

Lots of bamboos are seen lying on the ground, and those are used to set up and relocate dredging machines, but when dredging machines are moved to another place those bamboos are not removed. Harun Sangma and several locals from Debthail village said bamboo poles are not removed from rivers creating severe problems for the movement of boats and vessels, as well as casting nets for fishing. Besides, fuel from dredging machines falls on rivers, polluting water.

Being ‘deaf and numb’

The mayhem of sand extraction continues on the riverbed stretching from the river’s endpoint in the north via Pharongpara to Batala, the ending point of the river in the country. There is a barbed wire fence in Garo Hills on the other side of the border in Meghalaya.

Trucks carrying sands and pebbles move on the nearly dead Someshwari river in Durgapur, Netrokona on 18 October 2023.
Suvra Kanti Das

Dredgers create a loud noise in the area. Even one must shout to speak to the person standing next to him on the riverbank. Mohammad Raihan, a tailor from Durgapur Shibganj, said they cannot sleep well at night because of the noise coming from the dredging machine.

“So, why do you not protest?” In reply, he vented his anger saying, “To whom we will protest. If anyone wants to say anything, people of the lessees will come with the police and take everyone to the police station. Nobody says anything out of fear. Everyone keeps their mouths shut.”

Loud noise causes hearing problems for many people. People have apparently become ‘deaf and dumb’ and live in an inhuman atmosphere in adjacent areas of the river.

Water Development Board’s Netrokona executive engineer Md Sarowar Jahan told Prothom Alo the existence of river are threatened and the environment is being destroyed because of extracting sand by “unapproved Bangla Dredgers”.

He said they do not have any actual survey, but approximately 2.1 million cubic feet of sand and pebbles are extracted every day. As per the rules, dredgers must extract sand after carrying out a hydrographical survey. “We have conducted a survey by experts of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology on the entire river and submitted it to the Water Development Board for a proposal,” he added.

People of the ruling party get lease

The ruling party people invariably get lease of the sand areas (sand mahals). This time, around 1914.34 acres of area over the Someshwari River has been leased out as five sand mahals. Areas from Bhabanipur to Durgapur Shashmanghat, from Shashmanghat to Chaitati Ghat, from Birisiri bridge to Keronkhola Bazar, from Chaitati Ghat to Gaokandia and from Banjail to Uttar Shankarpur have been declared as sand mahals.

The vehicle weighing machine is yet to be operative for unknown reasons two years after the instalment. The picture was taken on 18 October 2023.
Suvra Kanti Das

According to the district administration, these five sand mahals have been leased for around Tk 770 million. Influential persons from the ruling party have got all of these. Four of the sand mahals have been leased to Mostak Ahmed alias Ruhi, former MP from the Netrakona-1 constituency. He got those in the name of his business firm Ruhi Enterprise at a cost of Tk 740 million. Jahangir Alam, son of Birisiri union parishad chairman and Awami League leader Rafiqul Islam, has got the lease of the other sand mahal. Prothom Alo tried to reach him. However, his phone was switched off.

Mostak Ahmed is in Thailand now for his daughter’s treatment. Speaking to Prothom Alo over the phone, he said he got the lease only five months ago. The damage to the river had already been done by that time. He is working on the extracting sands without doing any harm to the river. He has brought several changes in the processes of extracting sands. CCTV cameras have been set up in the sand mahals.

Speaking regarding the use of illegal dredgers, Mostak Ahmed said, “There is a two-kilometre char from the zero point area. Swing dredgers cannot move through this. Chars have been emerging in this area for around 100 years. Those who failed to secure the lease and some local politicians and smugglers have been spreading propaganda against me.

Roads damaged by sand laden trucks

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Sarwar Jahan, chief executive of Netrakona Water Development Board said around 2000 truck regularly ply on the road from Shyamganj to Birisiri to carry sands.

The 37 km roadway from Shyamganj to Birisiri entirely occupied by the sand-laden trucks. The situation is the worst on the 12-kilometre stretch of the road from Krishnachar Bazar to Durgapur. The Roads and Highways department constructed the road just three years ago at a cost of Tk 3.16 billion. Now the road seems to be a ploughed land.

Trucks carry sands and pebbles extracted from Someshwari river in Durgapur, Netrokona on 18 October 2023.
Suvra Kanti Das

The road can accommodate two vehicles side by at most. Many of the large sand carrying trucks even do not have registration numbers. These trucks carry more than its normal capacity by attaching planks on the cargo portion of the truck. The trucks also carry wet sand which is illegal. There are signboards on either of the road which read carrying wet and extra sand is prohibited. However, there is no one to monitor.

A road scale (vehicle weighing centre) was set up in front of the Ansar Camp around two years ago to weigh the trucks. However, it is yet to be launched.

The trucks move slowly due to carrying heavy loads of sand. Therefore, traffic congestion is constant on this road. In addition to that, small and major road accidents are very common on this road. On 8 June, a college student named Shah Alam was killed in a road crash here. Agriculture University student was run over by a truck on 15 June. A total of 15 persons were crushed under trucks on this road as of October this year.

Trucks carrying sands and pebbles extracted from Someshwari river leave the area in Durgapur, Netrokona on 18 October 2023.
Suvra Kanti Das

Speaking to Prothom Alo, executive engineer of the Roads and Highways department in Netrakona Al Nur Salehin said, “Several spots of the road from Shyamganj to Birisiri have been damaged due to carrying heavy loads of wet sands. We now have to spend more than Tk 10 million per kilometre to repair the road.

Mouth of the Atrakhali closed

There is a large bridge after the Birisiri bridge over the Atrakhali river in Durgapur. Atrakhali is a branch of the Someshwari river. A road has been constructed to carry sands from Someshwari. And the mouth of the Atrakhali river has been closed down due to this. Therefore, there is no connection between Atrakhali and Someshwari. The Atrakhali river has turned into a shoal nowadays. Rain water has accumulated like a puddle on the river. The river has died at the hands of the sand poachers.

Deputy commissioner Shahed Parvez told Prothom Alo that he is new in the district. He is trying to find a way to save the Someshwari river. A letter has been sent to the lessees on behalf of the district administration with directives to stop using illegal dredgers and carrying wet sands to stop public sufferings on 4 September, he said.

“We will conduct drives to monitor whether the directives are being abided by or not. Besides, initiatives have been taken to launch the road scale within two months,” the DC added.

He further said, “A lot of sand comes down from upstream into the river. Therefore, the river will be blocked if sand is not extracted. Sand extraction is needed to save the river. However, it is not acceptable either that the lessee will extract sand defying the law and by hampering the environment. The district administration regularly conducts drives as part of monitoring and imposes fines for breaching the laws. The drives will continue.”

Natural flow must be restored

However, it’s hard to believe that the administration has any vigilance to control illegal activities seeing the current condition of the Someshwari river.

Former chairman of the National River Protection Commission Mujibur Rahman Haoladar said, “The way sand is extracted from the Someshwari river are punishable offences. The equipment being used in extracting sands is not legal either. Those who are involved in this have the backs of the political leaders. As a result, the river is being killed in front of the government agencies.”

Trucks carrying sands and pebbles extracted from Someshwari river leave the area in Durgapur, Netrokona on 18 October 2023.
Suvra Kanti Das

Speaking to Prothom Alo , Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA) chief executive Rizwana Hasan said, “Someshwari is not a river anymore. It has turned into weak stream. The river is being looted. Sand is being extracted everywhere using illegal equipment. Sand mining lease must stop immediately.”

“It is the duty of the government to protect the river, not the businesspersons. Sand lifting should be banned for at least three-four years to bring back the normal environment of the river and to turn it into an abode of the mahseer fish as before,” she added.

Syeda Rizwana Hasan said the current of this river carries a lot of sand. Therefore, some sand must be lifted from the river. However, it is not acceptable that people will extract sands whimsically killing the river in the name of development. Sands should be lifted to an extent which is needed for maintaining the navigability. To ensure this, sand could be extracted under government management with specific equipment in a scientific way.”

*This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna and Ashish Basu