Prothom Alo: What do water resources mean for Bangladesh?
M Inamul Haque: Water carries multifaceted meanings for a nation, especially for a riparian and riverine nation like Bangladesh. Every year, water collected from a vast region, many times larger than our country, flows through hundreds of rivers to the sea. This water comes from rain or snowfall. The entire amount of water from the catchment becomes the water resources of Bangladesh. These can be ponds, canals, wetlands, rivers and the underground reservoirs in the form of aquifers.
Wetlands are indispensable for the sustainability of the vast aqua resources of Bangladesh. Once there were wetlands, locally called beels, in nearly every village of the country or between two villages. The beels are recharged in the rainy season. The water bodies run by the rules of nature. The wetlands never dry up. Some water evaporates and some flows out of the beels, but a certain amount of water always remains there so that the parent stocks of fishes can survive. This was maintained naturally. When the rainy season starts, the parent fish swim upstream against the current to spawn in the upper reaches. The fish lay eggs in the upper part of the beels to make sure that their fries cannot be washed back into the rivers. The fish that used to live in the beels or wetlands wouldn’t survive in the ecosystem of the rivers. That is why the fish in the rivers swim to the canals to spawn to then return.
Once all of the wetlands in the country were public ‘khas lands’ and these were considered sanctuaries for the fish. There was no law to lease out the wetlands. However, some dishonest quarters in the concerned government offices managed to lease out parts of the natural water bodies in the name of fish farming. The leasers gradually took control of the entire water bodies. These activities destroyed the open water fisheries. At present, mainly cultured fishes are available in the market. But, we should keep in mind that open water fisheries are a must for a sustainable future of the nation.
Prothom Alo: Are the country's water resources enough for the huge population?
M Inamul Haque: Bangladesh gets 2,300 mm rain annually on average. The amount of water Bangladesh generates each year is about 1,350 billion cubic metres. One fourth of that comes from the rain on our tiny territory. The rest of the water comes from 15 times larger areas than our country. The water is carried through rivers to the Bay of Bengal. In my research, I found about 180 transboundary rivers Bangladesh shared with neighbouring nations.
For thousands of years, the vast amounts of water created this vast aquatic ecosystem here. That is why the land rich in aquatic resources had attracted people from all over the world. People from Iran, the Middles East, Afghanistan and even from western countries came here to settle. Now we see Bengali diaspora around the world. This is a modern phenomenon. There is no record of people migrating elsewhere from ancient Bengal.
Due to the rich resources, Bangladesh has transformed into a territory with one of the densest populations in the world. People in this land naturally could cultivate three crops a year, which was impossible anywhere else in the world. In Europe, for instance, they used to cultivate a single crop in a span of a year. In some areas, just about two crops were possible.
We have a huge number of water bodies. These water bodies have created a vast kingdom of open water fisheries as well. Nature has gifted us with water dependent rice and fish as staple food.
This Bay of Bengal is one of our key sources of fish. Our sea has the largest far stretching continental shelf in the world. This is made of silt deposits from upstream rivers with large shallow beds. Large amounts of sweet water from upstream makes a mixture of salt and sweet water ecosystem in the bay. The mixed water and shallow bed generate huge volumes of food for the fish that attracts a variety of open sea fishes to arrive and spawn. That is why people from different countries come here to fish in the Bangladesh waters.
If the sweet water which is essentially required to maintain the ecology of the bay, is withdrawn upstream, the total ecosystem will collapse. That shouldn’t be allowed.
Prothom Alo: What about the management of water resources?
M Inamul Haque: Here water resource management means some irrigation projects and directing water to the cities for livelihood.
Water resources are managed through embankments for flood protection and digging canals for drainage. It worked, but in the long run siltation in the riverbed damaged the system. Excessive excavation drained the natural water bodies, affecting the ecosystem and fish sanctuaries.
There are deep tube-wells for irrigation. But over the withdrawal of water by the deep tube-wells lowered the aquifers and shallow tube-wells went out of operation. Every year, a huge amount of water flows out into the ocean. It’s a natural process. Ganges contributes 30 per cent of the total water to the bay and Brahmaputra 50 per cent. During dry period the Brahmaputra contributes 75 per cent, Ganges 17 per cent, others 8 per cent. The Farakka Barrage bars nearly 80 per cent water of the river from reaching the sea in dry periods. Teesta water is also being intervened.
Diversion or withdrawal of water is done for the sake of agriculture and water supplies for urban life. But, we should first consider the natural ecosystem. If the water could recycle back to the rivers again, the damage can be minimised, but India is withdrawing Teesta water to transfer it to Bihar. So this water is not recycling back to the rivers. This is affecting this entire ecosystem of densely-populated region.
Prothom Alo: How have we failed in the management of the huge volumes of rainwater we receive every year?
M Inamul Haque: Traditionally, we used to reserve rainwater in our ponds, 'dighis', lakes and so on. The dighi is like a lake varying from 5 to 40 acres in area. These were traditionally created water bodies to preserve water across the country. We have destroyed these natural reservoirs.
The ponds maintain a natural process. This depends on its bed soil. If the layer of bed soil has a connection with any distant river, its water fluctuates according to the tides of nearby rivers. Clay has the capacity of containing more water. Adam Dhighi and ponds of Cumilla’s Lalmai hill areas have clay beds.
The average open water evaporation is 1,000 mm in the country. The northeastern regions of the country experience nearly 5,000 mm rain annually while the western region has 1200 mm only. This is the main cause of varying water levels in the different parts of the country.
Prothom Alo: What about Dhaka city?
M Inamul Haque: Dhaka city had many ponds as well, but these are now just memories. The authorities seemed to have deemed that landfills were more beneficial than ponds full of water. That is unfortunate. So far I can recall there was a big pond in Hatirpool area and large ones in front of Dhaka College and in Azimpur Daira Sharif Area. All of them have been grabbed. The canals of Dhaka city met the same fate. The extinction of ponds and canals created two problems: the city lost its natural capacity to preserve water and its natural drainage system has disappeared. Later, the WASA’s culvert system replaced the canals, but those are just being used for discharging sewerage out the city. There is no natural drainage system in the city right now and the culvert system is often blocked by the debris. So, when it rains, Dhaka floods.
To revive the system, the government must revive the natural drainage system. Without the natural drainage system, the flood condition of Dhaka cannot be improved. In Jurain and Pagla areas, we see extended flooding every monsoon. We have to revive our natural canals today or tomorrow.
The government should clean up the WASA culverts immediately. Either the culverts should be opened up for open drainage system or monitoring should be regular and stricter to keep the free flow of water.
Prothom Alo: Will Dhaka run dry as the water level is depleting every year?
M Inamul Haque: We are often worried about Dhaka city’s groundwater recharging and its repletion. There is a deep aquifer under the Dhaka city. Dhaka’s groundwater aquifer is linked with Jamuna River and the aquifer is recharged by the river. Dhaka is located on the lower part of the aquifer. Withdrawing groundwater from Dhaka will not be a concern if we can manage the groundwater withdrawal properly. It is to be refilled through the aquifer channels. The underground water supply of Dhaka will not run dry but will be depleted.
On the other hand, we can take the initiative to reserve rainwater to minimise the problem. It can be managed through a building-wise plan. Every owner of the building could link their underground reservoir with rainwater from rooftops.
Prothom Alo: How much has mismanagement of the water resources cost our ecosystem?
M Inamul Haque: Building embankments proved to be disastrous to the ecosystem. When we make embankments, fish migration is directly hampered. The migrating fishes, chiefly carp, cannot come to the breeding places. This has immensely affected the ecology and natural fish culture in the area. We had a variety of flood sustained crops. Due to the lack of flood flows, the crops have become extinct. The natural fish population in the water bodies has significantly been reduced.
Prothom Alo: What is the political economy of the water resources?
M Inamul Haque: Water politics is an interstate issue. More water begets more green country. In terms of water politics, we must consider the international convention and norms.Neither Bangladesh nor India signed the UNWCC. India simply assures us that it will not do anything that harms our country. But we must make our demand on the basis of international norms. We must raise our objections, highlight our difficulties and raise our rights as a co-riparian. But, there is no such politics. We keep our mouths shut either out of ignorance or weakness.
Prothom Alo: Do you suggest any joint water resource management with the neigbouring countries?
M Inamul Haque: Joint water resource management is not possible as the laws and other legal implications vary from one country to another. But, a common consent can be reached on international norms. There is a huge scope to work in this arena. We have the will and the commitment, but not the effort and determination to make a bid.
We always talk about friendship and cooperation, but we fail to raise our demands with our neigbours. We feel shy. I do not know why. Everything is possible through discussion.
Prothom Alo: We say water is our big problem as well as our big asset. Why are we failing to transform it into a fortune?
M Inamul Haque: We made embankments to shield against floods, to save our crop lands. But actually floods are not our enemies. The floods will remain a curse for us so long as the population is a curse itself. We need population-based plans. Development plans without a concrete idea on the size of population is meaningless.
Our land is limited, but the problems are many.
Prothom Alo: Where is the solution?
M Inamul Haque: Population should be the epicentre of every development plan of the country.
We do not even have an exact understanding of what should be the size of our population. The population is skyrocketing. We must have a concrete plan on how many people can be sustained on this tiny land. We also should have a clear idea about the meaning of sustainability. Does it mean leading a poor life or a decent one? The parameters of a decent life must be set up. Everything should be planned centering this issue otherwise nothing will sustain.
We must change the notions about natural resources and the environment. We must change our behaviour as well. That is the key. If we cannot change our behaviour, some changes may come but will not survive.
Humans have historical rights that must be upheld in all planning.
We often talk about good governance. It is actually a matter of accountability. Service organisations must be accountable. Each and every plan must be managed and implemented by the local authorities and representative. Local representatives must be the centre of every action.