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Dying rivers of Panchagarh threaten life, environment

  • Published at 09:58 pm May 18th, 2016
Dying rivers of Panchagarh threaten life, environment
Jainul and Nur Islam are 60 and 55 years old respectively. Both were fishermen on the Karatoya river for the better part of their lives, but have lost most of their livelihoods in the last few decades. Jainul, who lives on what was once the banks of Karatoya, in Dhakkamara, Panchagarh, now grows paddy in the riverbed, and pulls a van besides to make a living. Nur's family, from Tulardanga Khalpara village, has been in this profession for three generations, although he says he might be the last in this line. “I have been doing this for almost 35 years. Now there's no water, and no fish. I do other sorts of work most of the year,” Nur Islam said. Panchagarh, a district intertwined with 27 rivers, was once known for water based commerce, fishing and boats. In 30-40 years, most of the rivers have died out or lost their flow as India built one dam after another upstream. The powerful Mahananda and Karatoya rivers now have many shoals where locals raise crops. These two, as well as, Dahuk, Chawai, Shenua, Kurum, Ghoramara, Jamuna, Mora Teesta, Talma and Nagar originate in India's Jalpaiguri and Sikkim and in the Himalayas in Nepal. At the upstream, Indians have built barrages, dams, sluice gates, regulators, reservoirs and feeder canals, impeding the natural flow of water. The country has also built a 221km circular embankment along the district's border. In 1990, India began building the Gajoldoba barrage on Mahananda river in Siliguri. The river used to run along the Bangladesh-India border for about 20km from Banglabandha Zero Point to Tetulia Sadar. The river is now almost dry. Karatoya originates in Jalpaiguri and enters Bangladesh through Bhadreswar border area in Tetulia. At Rajganj Madanbari, India has built a dam and barred almost all of its water. Indians have also built dams, sluice gates and regulators on Dahuk, Chawai, Shenua, Kurum, Ghoramara, Jamuna and Mora Teesta rivers. Every year in dry season Indian authorities divert this water through feeder canals to dry areas in West Bengal and Bihar for irrigation. During monsoon on the other hand, all barrages, dams and sluice gates are opened up, causing floods in Panchagarh. The district's agriculture, environment and biodiversity have been devastated by the death of its rivers. Navigability has declined drastically. Groundwater levels have dropped to 18-19 feet. Fish fertility has fallen. Birds and animals are losing habitat. Thousands of fishermen have lost their livelihoods and vast areas of agricultural land has become fallow due to the lack of water. Panchagarh Livestock Officer Mosharraf Hossain said the dying rivers were causing species extinction in the area. “Waterbirds, fish, other aquatic animals like snails, turtles, snakes, aquatic plants and insects are dying out because of the drying rivers,” he said. Rafiqul Islam, deputy director of Panchagarh Agricultural Extension Department, said farmers were cultivating Boro crops in the riverbeds now. “But the water tables are down, so they have to irrigate more,” he said. Local environmentalist Sheikh Sajjad Hossain said farmers were using strong insecticides and chemical fertlisers when farming in the riverbeds, which reduced fish fertility and harmed the local wildlife. The Joint River Commission (JRC) between Bangladesh and India has failed to take practical action in ensuring the country's fair share in river resources despite international agreements to treat joint rivers as shared assets. Panchagarh Environment Council President Topwhidul Bari said under the JRC agreement, India is obligated to consult with Bangladesh before building dams and sluice gates on joint rivers. “But India did not consult with Bangladesh before building these dams. The dams are threatening our biodiversity and environment and the region faces the risk of desertification,” he said.