'Kutubdia biodiversity in danger'

Iftekhar Mahmud . Dhaka | Update:

Here was the embankment that had saved Kutubdia from different cyclonic stroms over the years. Photo: Jewel SheelBoth local and foreign investors are keen to set up industries in Kutubdia island while the government also has similar plans. However, environmentalists warn unplanned growth of industries may destroy the environment and biodiversity of the island.

Coastal islands like Maheskhali, Kutubdia, Sonadia and St Martin's are sanctuaries for amphibians and aquatic animals. There are four to five species of dolphins and two species of tortoise that are on the verge of extinction.

Director general of the Department of Environment (DoE), AKM Rafique Ahammed, told Prothom Alo, “Those who want to set up industries in the island have to get an approval. If any of the industries poses a risk to the environment, it has to carry out Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)."

According to Petrobangla, local company Beximco has sought 700 acres of land to the power, energy and mineral resources ministry. Beximco in its website said the island would be its centre of investment for the energy sector.

Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA) also wants to establish an economic zone in the island.

Two Indian companies dealing with Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) have shown their interest to set up terminals in Kutubdia as well, as did another Indonesian company.

Petrobangla officials said investors in the energy sector are also showing interest in Kutubdia.

The government is constructing a sea port at Matharbari. Once it is done, large vessels carrying heavy machinery will be able to berth at the Matarbari seaport and it would be a suitable place to establish an LNG terminal. Kutubdia is four kilometers away from Matarbari. This will facilitate bringing in raw materials and LNG containers.

Kutubdia upazila chairman Faridul Islam Chowdhury said there is no electricity in the area and most of the embankments are damaged. After the cyclonic storm in 1991, many people left Kutubdia. Some are still leaving, too.

He said the prime minister had pledged that electricity will be available by 2020.

Local people get employment opportunities if industries are set up, he further said, arguing that they will not leave.

Shahera Begum lives in a hut near Kutubdia island. While talking to this correspondent on 27 December 2018, she had said her house would be protected due to the embankment despite the fury of the sea.

After the cyclonic storm Fani had hit the island on 4 May, a fisherman of the island said a portion of the embankment was engulfed by the sea. However, Shahera’s cottage survived. But it is now at risk of erosion.

A big portion of Kutubdia island was engulfed by the Bay of Bengal and the embankments were damaged by the storms one after another. The residents of the island are leaving their ancestral houses, crop fields and fish enclosures. Where they are settling anew, they are naming the place ‘Kutubdiapara’.

According to the local administration, these people are settling at Cox’s Bazar Sadar, Maheskhali, Ramu, Chakaria, Dulahazara and Kekua, Khagrachhari, Bandarban, Rangamati Sadar and Chattogram Sadar and Anwara upazila.

The lighthouse which had been giving light to sailors since 1848 it broke down during the cyclone of 1991. The administration did not take any steps to this end. People have now started living in the area named ‘Lighthousepara’.

Life and risk

One has to go to Kutubdia from Magnama Ghat of Pekua Upazila of Cox's Bazar by trawler. There is a small bazaar one kilometre away from the ghat. Fish and salt are sold in the market here. One can see the towers of windmills few kilometres later.

There is no boundary around the power plants set up on nearly eight acres of land. The security system is not up to the standard while electricity supply is not more than one megawatt. A total of 350 families receive electricity for seven to eight hours a day. There is also a solar and a diesel-powered power station. Only 12 per cent of the islanders get electricity.

There have been bumper production of both salt and rice this year. More than 700 tonnes of salt were produced in about 7,000 acres of land. The farmers are, however, worried for its low price. Again, the paddy invented for salty lands by the scientists had a good yield. But the rice prices are also low.

Four researchers from two US universities published a research report on geographical changes in Kutubdia in 2017. The study says the size of the island was 77 square kilometres in 1972, but it shrunk to 68 square kilometres in 2013.

Meanwhile, a study carried out by the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), a government agency, says the total area of Kutubdia island was about 100 square kilometres in 1840. As many as 40 square kilometres of the lands were reduced due to erosion. Upazila administration data also give similar impression.

Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, executive director of Coast Trust, an organisation working on coastal development, said due to erosion and lack of damns the island and the residents’ lives are at stake.

"Scattered plans will not help to protect this island. We need an inclusive plan. The problem will increase if the residents are displaced," he added.

As per the upazila administration data, there was a 40-kilometre embankment around the island. Half of the damn collapsed in the 1991 cyclone. It was reduced to eight kilometres by the onslaught of the cyclone Sidr, Aila, Roanu, Mahasen and the latest Fani. As a result, a large part of the island goes under water in regular tide.

Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Dipak Kumar Roy said he has requested the Water Development Board to repair the damn as soon as possible.

The water level of the sea is very high at the moment. It should be kept in mind while repairing the embankments, he added.

Secretary to the Ministry of Water Resources, Kabir Bin Anwar, said the ministry had decided to repair and rebuild the damns.

Also, mangrove forests will be created to protect the coast as the Ministry of Forest and Environment and the directorate will remain responsible to protect the biodiversity of the island.

According to Kutubdia upazila administration, every year there is erosion in different places of the island in normal tide. Two years ago the island’s population was about 300,000. It is less than half now.

Another 5,000 people have been left vulnerable due to cyclone Fani, he added.

Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmed, former country director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), stressed the need for rehabilitating the residents of the island.

"Local residents must be protected before any project is implemented there and erosion must be stopped, too," he said.

"Otherwise, being one of the vital source of salt and fishes, the island, its inhabitants and the proposed investment will be in danger," he observed.

"Coastal islands like Kutubdia protect the country from the initial strike of storm surge. Before upgrading it to an industrial area, it’s overall wellbeing has to be kept in mind," Inshtiaq further said.

*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo's print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam and Farjana Liakat.

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