A line of brick field chimneys at Kerani Haat area of Chattogram’s Satkania upazila. Picture was taken on 4 June 2021.
Sourav Das

World Environment Day is on Saturday, 4 June 2021. The United Nations General Assembly declared 4 June as the World Environment Day in 1972. The day has been being observed since 1974. This year, the theme of the day is ‘ecosystem restoration’. This year’s World Environment Day holds more significance because the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 also began on this day. That’s means all countries of the world will try throughout the next decade to restore the damage we have caused to ecosystem for livelihood and development activities to date. But environmentalists will wait to see how much will happen. Before that, we must learn about the state of various ecosystems in Bangladesh and what to do to restore it.

Destroying forestland must stop

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, forests in Bangladesh decline at a rate, 2.6 per cent, double than that of the average rate globally. According to the forest department, 287,453 acres of forestland has been illegally grabbed across the country. Forty-one forests have been declared reserved, but these are not very secure now. For example, the biodiversity-enriched Sangu-Matamuhuri protected forest vanishing. The forest holds another significance since it is in Asia’s biodiversity-enriched area, the Indo-Burma hotspot. Other than the Sundarbans, only this forest is considered suitable for the revival of the critically endangered Bengal Tiger.

There are many endangered species living there. Existence of 37 species of mammals, 46 species of reptiles, 19 species of amphibians and 11 species of rare birds have been found in this forest. More than 200 species of birds are believed to have lived in the nearby area of Sangu. This forest is not only important for biodiversity but also for the livelihood and socio-economic condition of the people living there. So, if the forest is destroyed, their livelihood will be in danger.

On the one hand, there are discussions on protecting the Sundarbans, but on the other hand, we have been witnessing various initiatives for the destruction of this forest. Many people may recall how Chakaria Sundarbans of Cox’s Bazar vanished before our eyes 12 years ago—there is no existence of an entire forest now.

However, the government has taken positive initiative to protect forests and biodiversity along the coast, in the estuary of rivers and the sea. Safari parks are being established in various forests of the country. But we have to keep in mind that the main thing of protecting and restoring ecology is the preservation of natural forest. Simply planting trees while destroying natural forests and biodiversity won’t be able to tackle the environmental disaster.

We have learned lessons from some positive experiences gathered through several projects, including Tanguar Haor, Cox’s Bazar, and Nijhum Dip projects, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), taken up by the united efforts of the government, the private sector and the locals to protect the ecology of biodiversity. Co-management projects have played an effective role in protecting these wetlands and forests. Such initiatives should be increased.

In addition to reserved forest and wildlife sanctuaries, we can also consider setting up of community conserved area by the local people and with their participation.

It’s been often proved that local people are more skilled at protecting ecology using traditional knowledge. How much the natural forest has been protected and restored, will have to be assessed. And it is necessary to formulate an updated national biodiversity register.

Effective measure to stop hill cutting

Hills are being destroyed to build houses, though hills are one of main elements to protect the natural balance of the country. Some 123 hills were destroyed in Chattogram city from 2003 to 2020. Twenty million (2 crore) cubic feet of soil has been removed from 15 to 20 hills in Chunti forest area of Cox’s Bazar. Hill excavation has increased landslides. Some 128 people died in landslides in Chattogram in 2007. On the other hand, according to the Department of Environment (DoE) and the various environment bodies, there are 412 hills and hillocks in the city and various upazilas of Sylhet. Sixty-one hills have already vanished and half of 351 hills are at risk now.

The natural forest and biodiversity are being lost in the shadow of commercial and development activities. Though the department of environment has been imposing fines sometimes, hill destruction seems to be legal, simply by paying the fine. Village Common Forest (VCF), the innovative method of local and hill people, can be expanded to protect nature and biodiversity in hilly area. Using this process, hill communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts protect forest near their houses at their own initiative and meet their livelihood from there.

Water bodies, wetlands return to life

Once Chalan Beel, the largest natural water body in the country’s north-western region, was famous for its fish resources. Now the existence of Chalan Beel is under threat because of various unplanned development activities. Its area has now reduced to about 200 square kilometers from about 1,000 square kilometers. A lot of aquatic life is dying as numerous rivers, canals and water bodies connected to Chalan Beel are dried up. As a result, livelihood as well as environment, ecosystem and biodiversity related to Chalan Beel is under threat. Many local species of fishes have become extinct.

Wetland makes up seventy percent of the country’s total area, but most of the rivers and wetlands are not protected. Ecology and biodiversity of wetland face growing risk. A joint survey of the Bangladesh Bird Club, the DoE and the coalition of environmental organisations International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that this year the country’s wetlands there were about 20,000 less migratory birds this year than last year. IUCN study shows the movement of migratory birds has increased in protected wetlands only. So, if all rivers and wetlands are not protected, biodiversity won’t be protected. And livelihood of numerous people will be uncertain.

Sustainable conservation of huge marine resources

The 118,813 square kilometres of the Bay of Bengal is full of marine resources. There are 500 species of fishes, 300 species of snails and shells, 36 species of shrimps and 20 species of crabs in the Bay of Bengal.

But the obstruction to water flow has become a big threat to the marine ecology. Rivers have dried up downstream because of discrimination in trans-boundary waters . On the other hand, building dams and such are obstructing water flow. As a result, saline water has been entering the river from sea. Biodiversity and ecology are being damaged because of the disruption in water flow. The new threat of plastic pollution has also affected the marine environment.

A sustainable, green and environment-friendly development project will have to be taken up in this region to utilise the huge resources of the Bay of Bengal.

Desire for green city

It’s difficult to expect green cities in a country where biodiversity of forests is endangered. Greenery is gradually declining in our cities. Cities become entirely dependent on dusty concrete buildings. Dhaka is now one of the most pollulated cities in the world. The amount of concrete is increasing. According to Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP), greenery accounts for 9.2 per cent of total area in Dhaka and it declined by 37 per cent in last 20 years.

There has been inadequate development of the cities’ sewerage system over last several years. Dhaka city has only 20 per cent sewerage pipelines. Only two per cent of sewage is recycled and the remaining is dumped in open water bodies, resulting in pollution in biodiversity and ecology of river, canal and sea. Besides rivers and canals surrounding the cities are being filled up every day because of waste and chemical wastage and illegal land encroachment. There are 65 canals in Dhaka. Forty-three of these have been grabbed and water flows partly in 24 of these.

Protecting arable land

Arable land has been declining alarmingly because of industrialisation, urbanisation and growing housing projects. According to the World Bank, the amount of arable land stands at 0.44 hectares per person in the country. About 80,000 hectares of the country’s land are going to the non-agriculture sector for various reasons including construction of houses and roads every year. That means arable land is declining by one per cent annually and by 219 hectares a day.

Besides, toxic waste of industries and factories are getting mixed with arable land after being dumped into canals, resulting in the decline of soil fertility and loss of habitat of local species of fish and various aquatic lives. Insecticides and herbicides are also being used in the land. The use of fertilisers causes an adverse impact on environment. It is necessary to bring 30 agricultural ecosystem areas under protection plan to protect arable land of the country.

Roadmap from 2021 to 2030

Formulation of a specific roadmap is necessary to prevent the existing negative trend of biodiversity and ecology and to retrieve it from the impact of the pandemic like coronavirus. Firstly, all stakeholders of the society will have to be involved in it. Secondly, a coordinated system will have to be taken with all departments, offices and agencies of the government. Thirdly, since several causalities are international, all countries of the world, global and multinational organisations and companies will have to be involved in this process.

If the existing state of ecology and biodiversity is understood properly, a specific strategy can be formulated to implement a road map. For the first step, a target can be set for conserving 30 per cent of total land and 30 per cent of wetland to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030. Secondly, it is necessary to make plans, coordinating between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge. Traditional knowledge, local conservation methods, community-based conservation initiatives have been proved to play a big role in protecting worldwide ecosystem. Thirdly, local and regional conservation centres will have to be built. Fourthly, there is no alternative to emphasising the protection of natural environment and the green and renewable energy. Above all, an independent, living, nature-friendly and accountable monitoring system must exist. Only then will it be possible to create a positive forest environment for a balanced healthy and better life.

* Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir is a professor at the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka and chairperson of Unnayan Onneshon. He is the vice chairperson of IUCN Asia Regional Members Committee and chairperson of IUCN Bangladesh - National Committee. He can be reached at [email protected].

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna