Kaptai Lake encroachment puts biodiversity at stake

Kaptai Lake, an important water body in Rangamati, has become narrow due to encroachment. Different establishments have been constructed occupying the lake area. The picture was taken from the police super office area of the town on Friday.Photo: Supriyo Chakma

Unscrupulous and influential people including politicians, law enforcers and public representatives have grabbed Kaptai Lake, putting its biodiversity at risk.

According to a study in 2018 by the fisheries department of Chattogram Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, the biodiversity of Kaptai Lake is being harmed due to encroachment and construction.

The municipality is responsible to protect water bodies as well as to prevent grabbing of  the lake alongside keeping the town clean.

But Rangamati municipality mayor himself has grabbed the lake.

District unit Awami League's Jubo League president and mayor Akbar Hossain has been constructing a building at Shilpakala ghat area encroaching the lake for about a year.

Various establishments including the police officers mess and Polwel Park, Awami League office, zila parishad community centre and Friends Club have also been constructed, encroaching the lake.

While influential people are openly constructing various establishments by grabbing the lake, the common land grabbers are active too. They are out in a competition to construct buildings. All people are grabbing the Kaptai Lake, endangering its biodiversity. 

The 2018 study of the fisheries department said there is no more fish where infrastructure has have been built. Pollution has also intensified and the biodiversity is being harmed.

When asked about the matter, municipality mayor Akbar Hossain Chowdhury claimed that his building has not occupied the lake that much. This will not be so harmful as only a small bit of lake has been occupied by the building, he said.

According to Section 16 of the second schedule of Local Government (municipality) Act, the municipality will take punitive action if any person or group make attempts to pollute or pollutes water bodies.  

Moreover, as per Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, the area identified as water bodies cannot be filled up or its classification cannot be changed in any way.

Kaptai Lake came into being after the construction of a dam on Karnaphuli river for hydropower. The construction of the dam was finished between 1956 and 1965. Some 54 acres of agricultural land were inundated due the dam. This is 40 per cent of the agriculture land there. Boro Horina area at Borkol area of Rangamati is the end of the lake on the Bangladesh side. The lake spreads to Mizoram of India. Karnaphuli originates from Lusai Hills in Mizoram. The lake is located in eight upazilas of Rangamati and Mahalchhari of Khagrachhari. The area of the lake is 68,800 acres.

The zila parishad building was being built before my posting here. I have stopped the construction of the Friends Club. There are already illegal establishments in the lake area. Whenever we get any information about new construction, we prevent it

The lake is mostly occupied in the municipality area of Rangamati. Some areas have been grabbed in Kaptai upazila. However, no agency has the full list as to how much area has been grabbed and who is liable.

In 2019, the National River Commission prepared a list of grabbers. Some 22 people of municipality and 8 of Kaptai upazila were in the list. However, the names of government agencies and politicians are not in the list. No further list has been made so far.

Encroachment causes a reduction of navigability and emergence of chars (shoals). Pollution has become a big problem due to these establishments. Household waste and water of sewerage lines and dirty water are regularly flowing into the lake, endangering lives of aquatic animals.

When asked about the matter, municipality town planner Subarna Chakma expressed his helplessness.

He said the total holdings in the municipality are 25,000. Only about 2,500 are legal. The remaining have been built illegally. About 7,000 establishments have been built illegally occupying the lake and its banks.

Kaptai Lake is an asset of the people which cannot be handed over. Nobody has the right to grab and pollute it. If this lake is not protected, there will be no value of Article 16 of the constitution where it has been directed to protect such assets
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive, Bangladesh Environment Lawyer Association (BELA)

This lake has been a boost to the tourism industry in Rangamati. Around 200,000 tourists visit Kaptai Lake annually. This lake has an important role in fish supply. This lake is a means of communication for six upazilas out of 10 with Rangamati town. According to the Rangamati launch owners association, at least 100,000 people depend on Kaptai Lake.

Bangladesh Fish Development Corporation (BFDC) is in charge of the management of the lake. The agency has earned Tk 116.8 million from the lake in the financial year of 2021-22.

About the role of BFDC to free the lake from grabbers, its chairman Kazi Ashraf Uddin told Prothom Alo that he took charge of the lake for a few days. "I am unaware of the encroachment on the lake."

About the encroachment of Kaptai Lake, National River Commission chairman Manzur Ahmed Chowdhury said they have a list of grabbers of lake of earlier times, as provided by the district administration. The information of new grabbers is conveyed to the district administration. But there is negligence here. Steps will be taken if they get information of new encroachment.

The environment department has issued a number of notices and fines for grabbing the lake and its pollution.

Environment department of Chattogram region director Mufidul Alam said police have been warned for Polwel Park.

None lags behind in encroachment

While speaking at the Rangamati municipality office, town planner Subarna Chakma said a police officer mess has been built inside the lake. Nearby, there are about one hundred illegal houses in the Shanti area.

 Police super Mahmuda Begum said if the police mess is built by occupying the lake, then the municipality building is built over the lake. Because, both are in the same line. The police station was built six to seven years ago.

New three-storey building has been built in the old bus stand area of Rangamati town. The Awami League office was opened on the second floor about six months ago. The two-third of the building built on 12 decimals of land is on the water of Katai Lake and the remaining part is on the bank.

About the matter, Rangamati Awami League general secretary Musa Matabbar said, "The entire Rangamati town is inside the lake. There is no land here. Bungalows of the SP have been built on the lake. Our building has been built with the finance of zila parishad."

Reserve Bazar area is one and half kilometers away from the bus station. Alongside assisting others to grab the lake, zila parishad itself is building a big building by occupying the lake. A multi-storied building is being built on 20 decimals of land of the lake. A community centre will be housed in this building. This building is being built by taking a lease from the bazar fund.

Zila Parishad chairman Aungsui Puru Chowdhury is the president of Kaukhali upazila Awami League unit. However, the construction of this building was started by the former chairman Bisketu Chakma who is the Awami League president of Baghaichhari upazila.

While visiting the area, it was found that three floors have already been completed. The pillars of the ground floor have been inundated due to rain.

Zila Parishad executive engineer Birol Borua said this building is being built after taking a lease of land from the bazar fund for the sake of income generating projects. He, however, does not know whether permission has been taken from the municipality. Bazar fund is an organisation of zila parishad. The organisation looks after the allotment of land of the bazar of the district.

While visiting the Shilpakola ghat area, it was found that the building of mayor Akbar Hossain is being built in the water of the lake. The building will be utilized for business purposes.

Another building is being built entirely inside the lake at Tabolchhari area of the municipality. A social organisation named Friends Club is building this one.

The president of the club is MP Dipankar Talukder who is also the president of Rangamati district Awami League. The basement of this building has been finished recently. The pillars are standing on the water. After taking a lease of land from the bazar fund, this building is being built. Following an objection from the river commission, the work of this building was halted.

Dipankar Talukder said the area where the club is being built is not the main area of the lake. If you think in that way, you have to evict 5000 government and non-government buildings.

Besides, innumerable establishments including Anika Hotel, mosque and markets are being built at reserve bazar. These are not in the list of river commission.

Alongside the Rangamati municipality area, houses and shops are being built by occupying getighat area of Kaptai upazila.

According to the river commission, there are eight names of grabbers in the Ghiang para area of Chandraghona of Kaptai. There are allegations that they have built establishments in the water of the lake. Biplob Marma, Prodip Das, Milon Dey and Aung Thui Khiang are among them.

While visiting the spot, shops are found, which are built by occupying the bank of the lake. Local residents said there is a tendency of grabbing during the dry season.

None has right to grab Kaptai Lake

When asked about the role of district administration in freeing Kaptai Lake from encroachment, deputy commissioner Mohammad Mizanur Rahman said, "The zila parishad building was being built before my posting here. I have stopped the construction of Friends Club. There are already illegal establishments in the lake area. Whenever we get any information about new construction, we prevent that."

In replying to a question, he said he has not received any allegations of these establishments. He will look after the matter.

When the attention of encroachment of Kaptai Lake is drawn, Bangladesh Environment Lawyer Association (BELA) chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said, "We have to take decision now whether we will keep lake, river, Sundarbans and shalbon and sea or the future park and flyover for the next generation. Otherwise the next generation will not pardon us."

"Kaptai Lake is an asset of the people which cannot be handed over. Nobody has the right to grab and pollute it. If this lake is not protected, there will be no value of Article 16 of the constitution where it has been directed to protect such assets."

*This, report originally published in Prothom Alo print and online editions, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.