Bangladesh is set to disappear under the waves by the end of the century

June 21, 2008

Battling the waves: many Bangladeshis depend on the ocean.

Photo: Independent. 

Bangladesh, the most crowded nation on earth, is set to disappear under the waves by the end of this century – and we will be to blame. Johann Hari took a journey to see for himself how western profligacy and indifference have sealed the fate of 150 million peoplewent to see for himself the spreading misery and destruction as the ocean reclaims the land on which so many millions depend.

By Johann Hari, Independent, UK. Friday, 20 June 2008

This spring, I took a month-long road trip across a country that we – you, me and everyone we know – are killing. One day, not long into my journey, I travelled over tiny ridges and groaning bridges on the back of a motorbike to reach the remote village of Munshigonj. The surviving villagers – gaunt, creased people – were sitting by a stagnant pond. They told me, slowly, what we have done to them.

Ten years ago, the village began to die. First, many of the trees turned a strange brownish-yellow colour and rotted. Then the rice paddies stopped growing and festered in the water. Then the fish floated to the surface of the rivers, gasping. Then many of the animals began to die. Then many of the children began to die.

The waters flowing through Munshigonj – which had once been sweet and clear and teeming with life – had turned salty and dead.

Arita Rani, a 25-year-old, sat looking at the salt water, swaddled in a blue sari and her grief. “We couldn’t drink the water from the river, because it was suddenly full of salt and made us sick,” she said. “So I had to give my children water from this pond. I knew it was a bad idea. People wash in this pond. It’s dirty. So we all got dysentery.” She keeps staring at its surface. “I have had it for 10 years now. You feel weak all the time, and you have terrible stomach pains. You need to run to the toilet 10 times a day. My boy Shupria was seven and he had this for his whole life. He was so weak, and kept getting coughs and fevers. And then one morning…”

Her mother interrupted the trailing silence. “He died,” she said. Now Arita’s surviving three-year-old, Ashik, is sick, too. He is sprawled on his back on the floor. He keeps collapsing; his eyes are watery and distant. His distended stomach feels like a balloon pumped full of water. “Why did this happen?” Arita asked.

It is happening because of us. Every flight, every hamburger, every coal power plant, ends here, with this. Bangladesh is a flat, low-lying land made of silt, squeezed in between the melting mountains of the Himalayas and the rising seas of the Bay of Bengal. As the world warms, the sea is swelling – and wiping Bangladesh off the map.

Deep below the ground of Munshigonj and thousands of villages like it, salt water is swelling up. It is this process – called “saline inundation” – that killed their trees and their fields and contaminated their drinking water. Some farmers have shifted from growing rice to farming shrimp – but that employs less than a quarter of the people, and it makes them dependent on a fickle export market. The scientific evidence shows that unless we change now, this salt water will keep rising and rising, until everything here is ocean.

I decided to embark on this trip when, sitting in my air-conditioned flat in London, I noticed a strange and seemingly impossible detail in a scientific report. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – whose predictions have consistently turned out to be underestimates – said that Bangladesh is on course to lose 17 per cent of its land and 30 per cent of its food production by 2050. For America, this would be equivalent to California and New York State drowning, and the entire mid-West turning salty and barren.

Surely this couldn’t be right? How could more than 20 million Bangladeshis be turned into refugees so suddenly and so silently? I dug deeper, hoping it would be disproved – and found that many climatologists think the IPCC is way too optimistic about Bangladesh. I turned to Professor James Hansen, the director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, whose climate calculations have proved to be more accurate than anybody else’s. He believes the melting of the Greenland ice cap being picked up by his satellites today, now, suggests we are facing a 25-metre rise in sea levels this century – which would drown Bangladesh entirely. When I heard this, I knew I had to go, and see.

1. The edge of a cliff

The first thing that happens when you arrive in Dhaka is that you stop. And wait. And wait. And all you see around you are cars, and all you hear is screaming. Bangladesh’s capital is in permanent shrieking gridlock, with miles of rickshaws and mobile heaps of rust. The traffic advances by inches and by howling. Each driver screams himself hoarse announc-ing – that was my lane! Stay there! Stop moving! Go back! Go forward! It is a good-natured shrieking: everybody knows that this is what you do in Dhaka. If you are lucky, you enter a slipstream of traffic that moves for a minute – until the jams back up and the screaming begins once more.

Around you, this megalopolis of 20 million people seems to be screaming itself conscious. People burn rubbish by the roadside, or loll in the rivers. Children with skin deformities that look like infected burns try to thrust maps or sweets into your hand. Rickshaw drivers with thighs of steel pedal furious-ly as whole families cling on and offer their own high-volume traffic commentary to the groaning driver, and the groaning city.

I wanted to wade through all this chaos to find Bangladesh’s climate scientists, who are toiling in the crannies of the city to figure out what – if anything – can be saved.

Dr Atiq Rahman’s office in downtown Dhaka is a nest of scientific reports and books that, at every question, he dives into to reel off figures. He is a tidy, grey-moustached man who speaks English very fast, as if he is running out of time.

“It is clear from all the data we are gathering here in Bangladesh that the IPCC predictions were much too conservative,” he said. He should know: he is one of the IPCC’s leading members, and the UN has given him an award for his unusually prescient predictions. His work is used as one of the standard textbooks across the world, including at Oxford and Harvard. “We are facing a catastrophe in this country. We are talking about an absolutely massive displacement of human beings.”

He handed me shafts of scientific studies as he explained: “This is the ground zero of global warming.” He listed the effects. The seas are rising, so land is being claimed from the outside. (The largest island in the country, Bhola, has lost half its land in the past decade.) The rivers are super-charged, becoming wider and wider, so land is being claimed from within. (Erosion is up by 40 per cent). Cyclones are becoming more intense and more violent (2007 was the worst year on record for intense hurricanes here). And salt water is rendering the land barren. (The rate of saline inundation has trebled in the past 20 years.) “There is no question,” Dr Rahman said, “that this is being caused primarily by human action. This is way outside natural variation. If you really want people in the West to understand the effect they are having here, it’s simple. From now on, we need to have a system where for every 10,000 tons of carbon you emit, you have to take a Bangladeshi family to live with you. It is your responsibility.” In the past, he has called it “climatic genocide”.

The worst-case scenario, Dr Rahman said, is if one of the world’s land-based ice-sheets breaks up. “Then we lose 70 to 80 per cent of our land, including Dhaka. It’s a different world, and we’re not on it. The evidence from Jim Hansen shows this is becoming more likely – and it can happen quickly and irreversibly. My best understanding of the evidence is that this will probably happen towards the end of the lifetime of babies born today.”

I walked out in the ceaseless churning noise of Dhaka. Everywhere I looked, people were building and making and living: my eyes skimmed up higher and higher and find more and more activity. A team of workers were building a house; behind and above them, children were sewing mattresses on a roof; behind and above them, more men were building taller buildings. This is the most cramped country on earth: 150 million people living in an area the size of Iowa. Could all this life really be continuing on the crumbling edge of a cliff?

2. ‘It is like the Bay is angry’

I was hurtling through the darkness at 120mph with my new driver, Shambrat. He was red-eyed from chewing pan, a leaf-stimulant that makes you buzz, and I could see nothing except the tiny pools of light cast by the car. They showed we were on narrow roads, darting between rice paddies and emptied shack-towns, in the midnight silence. I kept trying to put on my seatbelt, but every time Shambrat would cry, “You no need seatbelt! I good driver!” and burst into hysterical giggles.

To see if the seas were really rising, I had circled a random low-lying island on the map called Moheshkhali and asked Shambrat to get me there. It turned out the only route was to go to Coxs Bazar – Bangladesh’s Blackpool – and then take a small wooden rowing boat that has a huge chugging engine attached to the front. I clambered in alongside three old men, a small herd of goats, and some chickens. The boat was operated by a 10-year-old child, whose job is to point the boat in the right direction, start the engine, and then begin using a small jug to frantically scoop out the water that starts to leak in. After an hour of the deafening ack-ack of the engine, we arrived at the muddy coast of Moheshkhali.

There was a makeshift wooden pier, where men were waiting with large sacks of salt. As we climbed up on to the fragile boards, people helped the old men lift up the animals. There were men mooching around the pier, waiting for a delivery. They looked bemused by my arrival. I asked them if the sea levels were rising here. Rezaul Karim Chowdry, a 34-year-old who looked like he is in his fifties, said plainly: “Of course. In the past 30 years, two-thirds of this island has gone under the water. I had to abandon my house. The land has gone into the sea.” Immediately all the other men start to recount their stories. They have lost their houses, their land, and family members to the advance.

They agreed to show me their vanishing island. We clambered into a tuc-tuc – a motorbike with a carriage on the back – and set off across the island, riding along narrow ridges between cordoned-off areas of sand and salt. The men explained that this is salt-farming: the salt left behind by the tide is gathered and sold. “It is one of the last forms of farming that we can still do here,” Rezaul said. As we passed through the forest, he told me to be careful: “Since we started to lose all our land, gangs are fighting for the territory that is left. They are very violent. A woman was shot in the crossfire yesterday. They will not like an outsider appearing from nowhere.”

We pulled up outside a vast concrete structure on stilts. This, the men explained, is the cyclone shelter built by the Japanese years ago. We climbed to the top, and looked out towards the ocean. “Do you see the top of a tree, sticking out there?” Rezaul said, pointing into the far distance. I couldn’t see anything, but then, eventually, I spotted a tiny jutting brown-green tip. “That is where my house was.” When did you leave it? “In 2002. The ocean is coming very fast now. We think all this” – he waved his hand back over the island – “will be gone in 15 years.”

Outside the rusty house next door, an ancient-looking man with a long grey beard was sitting cross-legged. I approached him, and he rose slowly. His name was Abdul Zabar; he didn’t know his age, but guessed he is 80. “I was born here,” he said. “There” – and he points out to the sea. “The island began to be swallowed in the 1960s, and it started going really quickly in 1991. I have lost my land, so I can’t grow anything… I only live because one of my sons got a job in Saudi Arabia and sends money back to us. I am very frightened, but what can I do? I can only trust in God.” The sea stops just in front of his home. What will you do, I asked, if it comes closer? “We will have nowhere to go to.”

I was taken to the island’s dam. It is a long stretch of hardened clay and concrete and mud. “This used to be enough,” a man called Abul Kashin said, “but then the sea got so high that it came over the dam.” They have tried to pile lumps of concrete on top, but they are simply washed away. “My family have left the island,” he continued, “They were so sad to go. This is my homeland. If we had to leave here to go to some other place, it would be the worst day of my life.”

Twenty years ago, there were 30,000 people on this island. There are 18,000 now – and most think they will be the last inhabitants.

On the beach, there were large wooden fishing boats lying unused. Abu Bashir, a lined, thin 28-year-old, pointed to his boat and said, “Fishing is almost impossible now. The waves are much bigger than they used to be. It used to be fine to go out in a normal [hand-rowed] boat. That is how my father and my grandfather and my ancestors lived.

“Now that is impossible. You need a [motor-driven] boat, and even that is thrown about by the waves so much. It’s like the bay is angry.”

The other fishermen burst in. “When there is a cyclone warning, we cannot go out fishing for 10 days. That is a lot of business lost. There used to be two or three warnings a year. Last year, there were 12. The sea is so violent. We are going hungry.”

Yet the islanders insisted on offering me a feast of rice and fish and eggs. I was ushered into the council leader’s house – a rusty shack near the sea – and the men sat around, urging me to tell the world what is happening. “If people know what is happening to us, they will help,” they said. The women remained in the back room; when I glimpsed them and tried to thank them for the food, they giggled and vanished. I asked if the men had heard of global warming, and they looked puzzled. “No,” they said. We stared out at the ocean and ate, as the sun slowly set on the island.

3. No hiding place

Through the morning mist, I peered out of the car window at the cratered landscape. Trees jutted out at surreal angles from the ground. One lay upside down with its roots sticking upwards towards the sky, looking like a sketch for a Dali painting. Shambrat had spat out his pan and was driving slowly now. “There are holes in the ground,” he said, squinting with concentration. “From the cyclone. You fall in…” He made a splattering sound.

It was here, in the south of Bangladesh, that on 15 November last year, Cyclone Sidr arrived. It formed in the warmed Bay of Bengal and ripped across the land, taking more than 3,000 people with it. Like Americans talking about 9/11, everybody in Bangladesh knows where they were when Sidr struck. For miles, the upturned and smashed-out houses are intermixed with tents made from blue plastic sheeting. These stretches of plastic were handed out by the charities in the weeks after Sidr, and many families are still living in them now.

There have always been cyclones in Bangladesh, and there always will be – but global warming is making them much more violent. Back in Dhaka, the climatologist Ahsan Uddin Ahmed explained that cyclones use heat as a fuel: “The sea surface temperatures in the Bay of Bengal have been rising steadily for the past 40 years – and so, exactly as you would expect, the intensity of cyclones has risen too. They’re up by 39 per cent on average.” Again I circled a cyclone-struck island at random and headed for the dot.

The hour-long journey on a wooden rowing boat from the mainland to Charkashem Island passed in a dense mist that made it feel like crossing the River Styx. The spectral outline of other boats could sometimes be glimpsed, before they disappeared suddenly. One moment an old woman and a goat appeared and stared at me, then they were gone.

The island was a tiny dot of mud and lush, upturned greenery. It had no pier, so when the rowing boat bumped up against the sand I had to wade through the water.

I looked out over the silent island, and saw some familiar blue sheeting in the distance. As I trudged towards it, I saw some gaunt teenagers half-heartedly kicking a deflated football. From the sheeting, a man and woman stared, astonished.

“I was in my fields over there,” Hanif Mridha said. “I saw the wind start, it was about eight at night, and I saw everything being blown around. I went and hid under an iron sheet, but that was blown away by the wind. The water came swelling up all of a sudden and was crashing all around me. I grabbed one of my children and ran to the forest” – he pointed to the cluster of trees at the heart of the island – “and climbed the tallest one I could reach. I went as high as I could but still the water kept rising and I thought – this is it, I’m going to drown. I’m dying, my children are dying, my wife is dying. I could see everything was under water and people were screaming everywhere. I held there for four hours with my son.”

When the water washed away and he came down, everything was gone: his house, his crops, his animals, his possessions. A few days later, an aid agency arrived with some rice and some plastic sheeting to sleep under. Nobody has come since.

His wife, Begum Mridha, took over the story. Their children are terrified of the sea now, and have nightmares every night. They eat once a day, if they’re lucky. “We are so hungry,” she said. The new home they have built is made from twigs and the plastic sheet. Underneath it, they sleep with their eight children and Begum Mridha’s mother. The children lay lethargically there, staring blankly into space over their distended bellies.

Begum Mridha cooks on a lantern. They eat once a day – if that. “It’s so cold at night we can’t sleep,” she said. “The children all have diarrhoea and they are losing weight. It will take us more than two years to save up and get back what we had.”

If cyclones hit this area more often, what would happen to you? Hanif looked down. He opened his mouth, but no words came.

4. Bangladesh’s Noah

In the middle of Bangladesh, in the middle of my road trip, I tracked down Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan. He was sitting under a parasol by the banks of a river, scribbling frenetically into his notebook.

“The catastrophe in Bangladesh has begun,” he said. “The warnings [by the IPCC] are unfolding much faster than anyone anticipated.” Until a few years ago, Rezwan was an architect, designing buildings for rich people – “but I thought, is this what I want to do while my country drowns? Create buildings that will be under water soon anyway?”

He considered dedicating his life to building schools and hospitals, “but then I realised they would be under water soon as well. I was hopeless. But then I thought of boats!”

He has turned himself into Bangladesh’s Noah, urging his people to move on to boats as the Great Flood comes. Rezwan built a charity – Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, which means self-reliance – that is building the only schools and hospitals and homes that can last now: ones that float.

We clambered on to his first school-boat, which is moored in Singra. In this area there is no electricity, no sewage system, and no state. The residents live the short lives of pre-modern people. But now, suddenly, they have a fleet of these boats, stocked with medicines and lined with books on everything from Shakespeare to accountancy to climatology. Nestling between them, there are six internet terminals with broadband access.

The boat began to float down the Curnai River, gathering scores of beaming kids as it went. Fatima Jahan, an unveiled 18-year-old girl dressed in bright red, arrived to go online. She was desperate to know the cricket scores. At every muddy village-stop, the boat inhaled more children, and I talked to the mothers who were beating their washing dry by the river. “I never went to school, and I never saw a doctor in my life. Now my children can do both!” a thin woman with a shimmering heart-shaped nose stud called Nurjahan Rupbhan told me. But when I asked about the changes in the climate, her forehead crumpled into long frown-lines.

I thought back to what the scientists told me in Dhaka. Bangladesh is a country with 230 rivers running through it like veins. They irrigate the land and give it its incredible fertility – but now the rivers are becoming supercharged. More water is coming down from the melting Himalayan glaciers, and more salt water is pushing up from the rising oceans. These two forces meet here in the heart of Bangladesh and make the rivers churn up – eroding the river banks with amazing speed. The water is getting wider, leaving the people to survive on ever-more narrow strips of land.

Nurjahan took me up to a crumbling river edge, where tree roots jutted out naked. “My house was here,” she said. “It fell into the water. So now my house is here –” she motioned to a small clay hut behind us – “but now we realise this is going to fall in too. The river gets wider day by day.”

But even this, Nurjahan said, is not the worst problem. The annual floods have become far more extreme, too. “Until about 10 years ago, the floods came every year and the water would stay for 15 days, and it helped to wet the land. Now the water stays for four months. Four months! It is too long. That doesn’t wet the fields, it destroys them. We cannot plan for anything.”

When the floods came last year, Nurjahan had no choice but to stay here. She lived with her children waist-deep in the cold brown water – for four months. “It was really hard to cook, or go to the toilet. We all got dysentery. It was miserable.” Then she seemed to chastise herself. “But we survived! We are tough, don’t you think?”

We sat by the river-bank, our feet dangling down towards the river. I asked if she agrees with Rezwan that her only option soon will be to move on to a boat. He is launching the first models this summer: floating homes with trays of earth where families can grow food. “Yes,” she said, “We will be boat-people.”

I clambered back on to one of the 42 school-boats in this area. Young children were in the front chanting the alphabet, and teenagers at the back were browsing through the books. I asked a 16-year-old boy called Mohammed Palosh Ali what he was reading about, and he said, “Global warming.” I felt a small jolt. He was the first person to spontaneously raise global warming with me. Can you tell me what that is? “The climate is being changed by carbon dioxide,” he said. “This is a gas that traps heat. So if there is more of it, then the ice in the north of the world melts and our seas rise here.”

I asked if he had seen this warming in his own life. “Of course! The floods in 1998 and 2002 were worse than anything in my grandfather’s life. We couldn’t get any drinking water, so the dirty water I drank made me very sick. The shit from the toilet pits had risen up and was floating in the water, but we still had to drink it. We put tablets in it but it was still disgusting. What else could we do?”

Mohammed, do you know who is responsible for this global warming? He shakes his head. That answer lies a few pages further into the book. Soon he, and everybody else on this boat, will know it is me – and you.

5. The warming jihad

What happens to a country’s mind as it drowns? Professor Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University believes he can glimpse the answer: “The connection between climate change and religious violence is not tenuous,” he says. “In fact, there’s a historical indicator of how it could unfold: the Little Ice Age.”

Between the ninth and 13th centuries, the northern hemisphere went through a natural phase of global warming. The harvests lasted longer – so there were more crops, and more leisure. Universities and the arts began to flower. But then in the late 13th century, the Little Ice Age struck. Crop production fell, and pack ice formed in the oceans, wrecking trade routes. People began to starve.

“In this climate of death and horror, people cast about for scapegoats, even before the Black Death struck,” he says. Tolerance withered with the climate shocks: the Church declared witchcraft a heresy; the Jews began to be expelled from Britain. There was, he says, “a very close correlation between the cooling and a region-wide heightening of violent intolerance.”

This time, there will be no need for imaginary scapegoats. The people responsible are on every TV screen, revving up their engines. Will jihadism swell with the rising seas? Bangladesh’s religion seems to be low-key and local. In the countryside, Muslims – who make up 95 per cent of the nation – still worship Hindu saints and mix in a few Buddhist ideas, too. In the Arab world, people bring up God in almost every sentence. In Bangladesh, nobody does.

But then, as we returned to Dhaka, I was having a casual conversation with Shambrat. He had been driving all night – at his insistence – and by this point he was wired after chewing fistfuls of pan, and singing along at the top of his voice to the Eighties power ballads. I mentioned Osama bin Laden in passing, and he said, “Bin Laden – great man! He fight for Islam!” Then, without looking at me, he went back to singing: “It must have been love, but it’s over now….”

I wondered how many Bangladeshis felt this way. The Chandni Chowk Bazaar – one of the city’s main markets – was overcast the afternoon I decided to canvass opinions on Bin Laden. I approached a 24-year-old flower-seller called Mohammed Ashid, and as I inhaled the rich sweet scent of roses, he said: “I like him because he is a Muslim and I am a Muslim.” Would you like Bin Laden to be in charge of Bangladesh? “Yes, of course,” he said. And what would President Bin Laden do? “I have no idea,” he shrugged. What would you want him to do? He furrowed his brow. “If Osama came to power he would make women cover up. Women are too free here.” But what if women don’t want to cover up? “They are Muslims. It’s not up to them.”

A very smartly dressed man called Shadul Ahmed was strolling down the street to his office, where he is in charge of advertising. “I like him,” he said. “Bin Laden works for the Muslims.” He conceded 9/11 “was bad because many innocents died,” but added: “Osama didn’t do it. The Americans did it. They are guilty.”

As dozens of people paused from their shopping to talk, a pattern emerged: the men tend to like him, and the women don’t. “I hate Bin Laden,” one smartly dressed woman said, declining to give her name. “He is a fanatic. Bangladeshis do not like this.” As the praise for Bin Laden was offered, I saw a boy go past on a rickshaw, stroking a girl’s uncovered hair gently, sensuously. This is not the Arab world.

The only unpleasant moment came when I approached three women selling cigarettes by the side of the road. They were in their early thirties, wearing white hijabs and puffing away. Akli Mouna said, “I like him. He is a faithful Muslim.” She said “it would be very nice” if he was president of Bangladesh. Really? Would you be happy if you were forced to wear a burqa, and only rarely allowed out of your house? She jabbed a finger at my chest. “Yes! It would be fine if Osama was president and told us to wear the burqa.” But Akli – you aren’t wearing a burqa now. “It’s good to wear the burqa!” she yelled. Her teeth, I saw, were brown and rotting. “We are only here because we are poor! We should be kept in the house!”

I wanted to track down some Bangladeshi jihadis for myself, so I called the journalist Abu Sufian. He is a news reporter for BanglaVision, one of the main news channels, who made his name penetrating the thickets of the Islamist underground. He told me to meet him at the top of the BanglaVision skyscraper. As the city shrieked below us, he explained: “In the late 1980s, a group of mujahideen [holy warriors] who had been fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan came back to launch an Islamic revolution here in Bangladesh. They tried to mount an armed revolt in the north and kill the former Prime Minister. But it didn’t come to much.”

Islamic fundamentalism is hobbled in Bangladesh, because it is still associated for most people with Paki-stan – the country Bangladesh fought a bloody war of independence to escape from.

But Sufian says a new generation of Islamists is emerging with no memory of that war. “For example, I met a 21-year-old who had fought in Kashmir, whose father was a rickshaw driver. He said it was his holy duty to establish an Islamic state here through violence. Most were teenagers. All the jihadis I met hated democracy. They said it was the rule of man. According to them, only the rule of God is acceptable.”

He said it would be almost impossible to track them down – they are in prison or hiding – but my best bet was to head for the Al-Amin Jami mosque in the north-west of Dhaka. “They are fundamentalist Wahhabis, and very dangerous,” he said. Yet when I arrived, just before 6pm prayers, it was a bright building in one of the nicer parts of town. Men in white caps and white robes were streaming in. An ice-cream stall sat outside. I approached a fiftysomething man in flowing robes and designer shoes. He glared at me. I explained I was a journalist, and ask if it would it be possible to look inside the mosque? “No. Under no circumstances. At all.”

OK. I asked a few polite questions about Islam, and then asked what he thought of Osama bin Laden. “Osama bin Laden?” he said. Yes. He scowled. “I have never heard of him.” Never? “Never.” I turned to the man standing, expectantly, next to him. “He has not heard of Osama bin Laden, either,” he said. What about September 11 – you know, when the towers in New York fell? “I have never heard of this event, either.” Some teenage boys were about to go in, so I approached them. Behind my back, I can sense the Gucci-man making gestures. “Uh… sorry… I don’t think anything about Bin Laden,” one of them said, awkwardly.

I lingered as prayers took place inside, until a flow of men poured out so thick and fast that they couldn’t be instructed not to speak. “Yes, we would like Osama to run Bangladesh, he is a good man,” the first person told me. There were nods. “He fights for Islam!” shouted another.

The crowd says this mosque – like most fundamentalist mosques on earth – is funded by Saudi Arabia, with the money you and I pay at the petrol pump. As I looked up at its green minaret jutting into the sky, it occurs to me that our oil purchases are simultaneously drowning Bangladesh, and paying for the victims to be fundamentalised.

After half-an-hour of watching this conversation and fuming, the initially recalcitrant man strode forward. “Why do you want to know about Bin Laden? We are Muslims. You are Christian. We all believe in the same God!” he announced.

Actually, I said, I am not a Christian. There was a hushed pause. “You are… a Jew?” he said. The crowd looked horrified; but then the man forced a rictus smile and announced: “We all believe in one God! We are all children of Abraham! We are cousins!” No, I said. I am an atheist. Everyone looked genuinely puzzled; they do not have a bromide for this occasion. “Well… then…” he paused, scrambling for a statement… “You must convert to Islam! Read the Koran! It is beautiful!” Ah – so can I come into the mosque after all? “No. Never.”

6. The obituarist?

In a small café in Dhaka, a cool breeze was blowing in through the window along with the endless traffic-screams. The 32-year-old novelist Tahmima Anam was inhaling the aroma of coffee and close to despair.

She made her name by writing a tender novel – A Golden Age – about the birth of her country, Bangladesh. When the British finally withdrew from this subcontinent in 1948, the land they left behind was partitioned. Two chunks were carved out of India and declared to be a Muslim republic – East Pakistan and West Pakistan. But apart from their religion, they had very little in common. The gentle people of East Pakistan chafed under the dictatorial fundamentalism imposed from distant Islamabad. When they were ordered to start speaking Urdu, it was enough. Her novel tells how in 1971, they decided to declare independence and become Bangladesh. The Pakistanis fought back with staggering violence, but in the end Bangladesh was freed.

Now Anam is realising that unless we change, fast, this fight will have been for the freedom of a drowning land – and her next novel may have to be its obituary.

Anam came to Bangladesh late. Her Dhaka-born parents travelled the world, so she grew up in a slew of international schools, but she always dreamed of coming home. Her passion for this land, this place, this delta, aches through her work. About one of her characters, she wrote: “He had a love for all things Bengali: the swimming mud of the delta; the translucent, bony river fish; the shocking green palette of the paddy and the open, aching blue of the sky over flat land.”

“You can see what has started to happen,” she says. The vision of the country drowning is becoming more real every day. Where could all these 150 million people go? India is already building a border fence to keep them out; I can’t imagine the country’s other neighbour – Burma – will offer much refuge. “We are the first to be affected, not the last,” Anam says. “Everyone should take a good look at Bangladesh. This story will become your story. We are your future.”

It is, she says, our responsibility to stop this slow-mo drowning – and there is still time to save most of the country. “What could any Bangladeshi government do? We have virtually no carbon emissions to cut.” They currently stand at 0.3 per cent of the world’s – less than the island of Manhattan. “It’s up to you.”

Anam is defiantly optimistic that this change can happen if enough of us work for it – but, like every scientist I spoke to, she knows that dealing with it simply by adaptation by Bangladeshis is impossible. The country has a military-approved dictatorship incapable of taking long-term decisions, and Dutch-style dams won’t work anyway. “Any large-scale construction is very hard in this country, because it’s all made of shifting silt. There’s nothing to build on.”

So if we carry on as we are, Bangladesh will enter its endgame. “All the people who strain at this country’s seams will drown with it,” Anam says, “or be blown away to distant shores – casualties and refugees by the millions.” The headstone would read, Bangladesh, 1971-2071: born in blood, died in water.


Modhumati, Nabaganga river continue to dry up

June 17, 2008

Livelihood of fishermen threatened

NewAge, June 17, 2008. 

The Modhumati and Nabaganga — two major rivers in Narail — has dried up at different points, affecting the livelihood of a large number of people in the district.

Hundreds of people, particularly the fishermen, have become jobless due to continued drying up of the two rivers, according to local sources.
   Fishermen in the district are passing through hard times as they hardly find any fish due to siltation and drastic fall in the water level of the two rivers, the locals said.

Even movement of people in small boats is also being hampered due to continued siltation and emergence of a good many shoals in the rivers, they added.
 ‘Now I find it very difficult to earn my livelihood. I have no alternative to earning as continued siltation has made the river almost dead,’ a fisherman living near the River Modhumoti, said.

The two rivers lost their navigability long ago forcing the service of water vessels including steamer and launches to stop.
 The rivers once played a vital role in transportation of merchandise and movement of people to different places.
 A good many market places had been developed near the banks of the rivers passing through three upazilas of the district— sadar, Lohagora and Kalia upazilas.
 These market places always remained abuzz with trade activities.

Farmers living in the river-side areas, who used to irrigate their crop fields with the water from these rivers, cannot use river water now due to siltation and fall in the water level.
   The sharp fall in the water level of the two rivers and their tributaries has resulted in almost disappearance of fish, local sources said.
 Once various kinds of fish were found aplenty in the two rivers and fishermen got huge catch.

The ferry services on the Baroipara-Kalia, Kalna-vatiapara, Phordanga-Gopalgonj and Bardia-Mahajan routes are also frequently disrupted due to shoals at several points of the rivers.
The total area of shoals in the two rivers covers around 3,000 hectares, according to sources at the Department of Agriculture Extension, Narail.

Local people have long been demanding that the government should immediately dredge the rivers to increase their navigability of the two rivers. 

Call for Submissions: MAP Children’s Art Calendar Contest on mangrove forests and communities

June 15, 2008


Mangrove Action Project, 2008

Primary school children from tropical and sub-tropical nations are invited to participate in MAP’s annual international contest, which is increasing in popularity every year since its first publication in 2002.

This contest aims to promote appreciation and awareness of mangrove forests and communities, while encouraging and listening to creative voices of children living in mangrove regions.

Selected winners are published in the calendar, which is distributed worldwide.

Find out how to participate

Purchase 2008 calendar



Climate change: alternative farming method stressed to cope with situation

June 15, 2008
 The Daily Star, June 15, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh
Renowned environmentalist Dr A Atiq Rahman yesterday urged experts to put their heads together to find alternative methods of cultivation and new varieties of crops adapting to global climate change. 

He said it has become necessary to do so for ensuring food and occupational security for the people, especially of the southern part of the country.

“With the sea level rising and underground water level declining, salinity is going to be a major problem. Taking notice of it at this very moment, we need to find alternatives because farmers are not being able to grow traditional crops anymore,” Dr Atiq said during a workshop for journalists yesterday.

Although, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) has invented a new variety of paddy, which is currently at the testing phase right now and may grow in saline environment, it has not been proven to be high yielding, he said.

The Institute of Media and Communication Studies organised the workshop titled ‘Global Warming and Food Security in Coastal Areas of Bangladesh’ in Chhayanat Sankskritik Bhaban in Dhanmondi of the capital, as a part of a series of workshops on climate change.

Saying that rising sea level, changes in temperature, rainfall, hydrological patterns and salinity, also land degradation and climate extremes like frequent floods and cyclones, will result in loss of agricultural productivity and crop yields, Dr Atiq stressed the need for integrating the issue of climate change in both sectoral and national development policies and programmes.

While presenting the keynote, Dr Atiq, executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies also chairman of Climate Action Network South Asia, touched upon various aspects of climate change including its causes like greenhouse gas emission and global warming, rising sea level, rapid melting of icecaps, and changes in flood and drought regimes.

“It is estimated that the sea level will rise 1 metre by no later than 2050, causing one fourth to one fifth of the country to go under water, displacing 13 percent of the population,” Dr Atiq said.

From now on climate extremes like cyclones and floods are likely to occur with increasing frequency and ferocity due to the global climate change, he added.

“Back to back flooding in one season and super cyclones like Sidr and Nargis in the same region within a short span of time were not happening before,” he said.

For their geographical locations, countries like Bangladesh are likely to be the most affected by the global climate change, and developed nations which are more responsible for such changes, should take responsibilities to protect the countries bearing the brunt, Dr Atiq noted.

“The flood regime will change inundating more areas, and drought will cover more areas of the country’s western part,” he said.

In addition to increased salinity, waterlogging will also become a major problem contributing to loss of crop diversity and agriculture productivity, resulting in displacement of people from their homes and occupations.

“All of these together will cause food insecurity, malnutrition, hunger and poverty,” Dr Atiq warned, putting out a call for a multiple but combined and accelerated efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to help the population adapt to it.



River of sand

June 15, 2008

The Padma appears to be a “river of sand” with water receding fast since September last. Experts blame the drying up of the river on the Farakka Barrage upstream in India. The photo was taken yesterday at Srirampur, Rajshahi. Photo: STAR

The Gathering Storm

June 11, 2008

What Happens When Global Warming Turns Millions of Destitute Bangladeshi Into Environmental Refugees?

By George Black, On Earth, Summer 2008

By the end of the first day, it’s already become an ingrained reflex: brace for impact as yet another suicidal rickshaw, luridly painted with pictures of birds, animals, and Bollywood stars, swerves suddenly into our path. Our driver bangs on the horn, shimmies to the right, avoids an onrushing bus by a matter of inches, then calmly resumes his navigation of the demented streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. I relax my death grip on the dashboard and exhale. Mostafizur Rahman Jewel, our translator, raises an eyebrow in amusement.

“No problem,” I say, feigning nonchalance. “Piece of cake.”

“Piece of cake?”

“It’s slang. Something really easy, no sweat. Like not killing that rickshaw-wallah. How do you say that in Bangla?”

Panir moto shohoj,” he answers. “Easy like water.”

Easy like water. This is ironic, to say the least, because water, from the rivers, from the ocean, from the ground, is this country’s existential curse. Bangladesh and its 150 million people — the world’s seventh-largest population, compressed into an area the size of Iowa — have somehow contrived to have too much water, too little water, and more and more water of the wrong kind.

The long-range apocalypse facing the country is global warming and the accelerating sea-level rise that will accompany it. Think of the computer-generated image midway through Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which shows an inexorable blue wave engulfing a great swath of coastal Bangladesh. But while the Four Horsemen gather their forces, the daily short-term menace is the steady northward creep of salt from the Bay of Bengal. Today the land is saturated with people; little by little it is also becoming saturated with salt.

It all begins with topography. In his novel The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh, who grew up in Bangladesh, recounts the Hindu legend of how the Ganges Delta was formed. The goddess Ganga, from whom the river takes its name, descended from the heavens with such force that she would have split the earth apart had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent by weaving it into the ash-covered strands of his hair. But then his braids unraveled and the river divided into thousands of channels. Now consider the map of Bangladesh, where three formidable rivers — the Brahmaputra, the Meghna, and the Ganges (known, once it crosses the Indian border, as the Padma) — converge to form a vast, tangled delta that I will spend a week exploring with the photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, half on water and half on land. There is no other landscape like it on the planet.

Bangladesh’s problem, like Lord Shiva’s hair, has many strands. All three of its great rivers rise in the Himalayas, from which they carry a huge load of sediment, made worse in recent years by the deforestation of the Himalayan foothills. Because Bangladesh is as flat as a pool table, most of it no more than a few feet above sea level, the flow of its rivers is sluggish. Riverbeds clog with silt and water levels rise; shorelines erode, swallowing up farmland; islands of sand and mud form, disperse, reform elsewhere. From May to November, the monsoons blanket the country with torrential rain, pushing the rivers over their banks, driving people from their homes, drowning them. Some years Bangladesh is lucky and only a third of its territory is flooded. Sometimes it’s half; sometimes it’s two-thirds or more.

Go to On Earth website to read the rest of the story. 

Impact of Asian Development Bank (ADB) investment in the Water Sector in Bangladesh

June 11, 2008

By Zakir Kibria, BanglaPraxis

An earlier version of this paper was presented as a case study to the International Conference on ADB Water Policy Implementation Review, organized by NGO Forum on ADB, in Manila, The Philippines, November 2005. Download a PDF version of the case study presented in the conference. 

Photo: Zakir Kibria/BanglaPraxis

Water is so central to the lives of rural communities in Bangladesh that anything that affects these resources has livelihood implications. Bangladesh is a country where agricultural production is the mainstay of the rural communities’ livelihood system, and therefore livelihood strategies are inextricably linked to the nation’s water resources management. Indeed, the river system, most of which emanate from outside the country, have shaped much of the history, economy and culture of the people.

However, with a burgeoning population of 129 million expected to rise to 181 million by 2025 and 224 million by 2050, the county faces many challenges in the water sector ahead. Rapid urbanization is expected with 40% of the people living in the towns and major cities by 2025, and 60% by 20501. Poverty is still endemic with over half the population classified as poor2. The recent detection of arsenic contamination of the shallow aquifer has set back success in bringing safe drinking water supply to the rural communities. The “green revolution” model of agriculture of intensifying production has almost reached its limit3. Aquatic bio-diversity and natural environment are under severe threat from changes in flood plain management in the last three decades.

These changes take place within a social and institutional setting that is crucial in defining how the water is managed and allocated, and in particular the form that rights and entitlements of access of resources held by different sections of the community take. These changes of management of water, and the context, within which they take place, are increasingly being influenced and shaped by powerful international and multilateral institutions, donors and international financial institutions (IFIs) like ADB.

The recent review of ADB Water Policy is an interesting opportunity to understand its relevance to National Water Policy and impact of ADB funded projects in the water sector of Bangladesh.

This paper will investigate and analyze the relevance of ADB Water Policy to Bangladesh National Water Policy and the impact of ADB funded water sector projects in Bangladesh.This study will primarily focus on ADB investment in irrigation and Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), which also include river management. In Bangladesh the ADB funding in water sector has been concentrated in flood control and irrigation (FCDI) sector. ADB lending in this sector is increasing with a number of on-going projects, and further projects are in the pipeline. In recent times the ADB has renewed its intervention in public water and sanitary (WatSan)

Photo: Zakir Kibria/BanglaPraxis

Overview of the Water Sector in Bangladesh

This section will briefly describe the features of water sector. Bangladesh is the site of the world’s largest alluvial delta, and the formation of this delta is solely associated to the very distinguished water and sediment carrying features of the mighty Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin5. The total drainage area of these river systems is more than 1.55 million sq. km, of which about 0.12 million sq. km (7.5 percent) lies within Bangladesh. The rivers of Bangladesh form one of the largest networks of the world of about 700 rivers including tributaries, which have a total length of about 24, 140-km. The ebb and flow of these rivers sustain the agriculture, rich flora and fauna, and bio-diversity. Most of these rivers emanate form outside the country, of which 54 comes from India. While unilateral water withdrawal by India at Farakka barrage has been the most talked about issue of concern and conflict for years, there are numerous such structures on common international rivers constructed by India. One such structure is Gozaldoba dam on Indian part of Teesta River. India is constructing a cascade of hydroelectric and irrigation diversion projects on upper riparian portion of Teesta river6. Over the years Bangladesh witnessed peoples protest, outrage and frustration over international conflicts over common international rivers. There is a strong opposition in Bangladesh to the construction of dams by India on common international rivers; peoples protest over construction of Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project on Barak River in Manipur is one such instance7. Numerous meetings of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC)8 only contribute to the frustration. As many as 44 rivers that come into Bangladesh from India has some kind of structure on them. A complete database of these structures is not available, neither there is water-sharing treaty on these rivers except for Ganges/Padma River. After years of negotiation a water sharing treaty on Ganges/Padma was signed in 1996. The Inter-linking of Rivers Project (ILRP)9 of India envisages to divert water from Brahmaputra river, which will simply make this country dry as Brahmaputra carries almost 70 percent of water that comes into Bangladesh. A regional water sharing agreement on trans-boundery rivers is a prerequisite for any water management plan in Bangladesh.

The approach to water resources system management in Bangladesh has been based on structural interventions in flood control, drainage and irrigation (FCDI), culminated in National Water Policy and National Water Management Plan. Following are the different types of direct water sector interventions implemented in the country:

Rural FCD inland and coastal embankments and polders; regulators; small-scale FCD; river training, bank protection and river dredging. 

Urban FCD town protection schemes, embankments, regulators, pumps etc. 

Minor/small-scale irrigation public sector force mode tube-wells (both deep and shallow), rubber dams; and khal10 re-excavation. 

Major/large-scale irrigation pumps, irrigation canal network, drainage canal network, barrages, etc. 

Flood proofing homestead raising and construction of flood refuges. 

Flood warning systems flood/disaster forecasting and warning, preparedness and management. 

Water supply and sanitation piped water supply using both surface and groundwater in big cities, sanitation services in big cities etc and hand tube-wells for drinking water in rural areas. 

Dredging augmentation of river flows and for navigation purposes. 

Cyclone protection embankments, cyclone shelters etc. 

Hydropower generation embankments, dams, river training, power house etc. 

ADB Water Policy

ADB Water Policy was approved in October 2001. The Bank’s policy promotes the concept of water as a “socially vital economic good”. ADB’s water policy has the following principal elements:

a. Promote a national focus on water sector reform. The Policy seeks to change national water policies, water laws, and sector coordination arrangements; institutional capacities and information management, legal, institutional, and administrative frameworks; and develop a national action agenda for the water sector.

b. Foster the integrated management of water resources. Integrated management is based on conducting comprehensive water resource assessments, and concentrating inter-linked water investments in river basins.

c. Delivery of water services. Focus on water supply and sanitation (both rural and urban), irrigation and drainage, and other sub-sectors. ADB supports autonomous service providers, private sector participation, and public-private partnerships.

d. Conservation of water and increase system efficiencies. This is understood in term’s resource management charges to recover costs, and setting up regulation(s).

e. Promote regional cooperation and increase the mutually beneficial use of shared water resources within and between countries. The focus is on the exchange of information and experiences in water sector reform. To create hydrologic and socio-environmental databases on the management of trans-boundary water resources, and implement joint projects between riparian countries.

f. Facilitate the exchange of water sector information and experience. To promote stakeholder consultation and participation, increase access to basic water services, and enhance water investments in the DMCs11 through public-private-community-NGO partnerships. Rights of the poor marginal communities are not asserted, they are understood as consumers.

g. Governance. Promotes decentralization, building capacity, and strengthening monitoring, evaluation, and research, particularly in public sector institutions.

The Policy is linked to ADB strategy for poverty reduction. The policy also reflects ADB’s strategy for private sector development.

Bangladesh National Water Policy

The current policy was prepared in January 1999 under the auspices of The World Bank, it came into effect in 2002. The genealogy Bangladesh National Water Policy started with The Krug Mission Report of 1957.

The Krug Mission Report: The United Nations produced a study on flood control and water management in East Pakistan after the disastrous floods of 1954, 1955 and 1956 that drew world attention. The most significant recommendation of the report was to create a new government corporation with comprehensive responsibilities and authorities to deal with all water and power development problems. Its major outcomes were the initiation of the process of national level water sector planning and the eventual implementation of large-scale Flood Control Drainage (FCD) and Flood Control, Drainage & Irrigation (FCDI) projects including the protection of most coastal zones against tidal flooding. Construction of Kaptai Hydroelectric Power Project, funded by export credit assistance form USAID, was recommended in this report, which displaced more than one hundred thousand indigenous people.

The IBRD Study: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) mission reviewed the EPWAPDA 1964 Master Plan in 1966 and the report agreed with the general principles regarding the importance of flood control, drainage and irrigation (FCDI). The IBRD review of 1964 Master Plan played an important role in taking decision by many donor agencies to finance large, complex schemes. IBRD Report on Land and Water Resources, Bangladesh, 1972 emphasized, in line with the dominant “green revolution” paradigm of donors, the need for quick results from water development efforts to achieve food grain self-sufficiency. It attached high priority to small and medium sized, simple, low cost, labor intensive projects. Such schemes would involve low embankments and gravity drainage. It also proposed low lift pump irrigation and tube-well irrigation.

The Flood Action Plan (FAP): After the disastrous floods of 1987 and 1988, the attention of the government of Bangladesh, as well as its development “partners”, who found massive investment opportunity, was once again focussed to floods in the country, especially in its urban areas. The Flood Plan Co-ordination Organization (FPCO) was created in 1989, with The World Bank as the lead agency, and it undertook 26 studies under a common umbrella known as the Flood Action Plan (FAP). Noteworthy among the features of FAP were (a) the attention to urban FCD and structural flood proofing, though agriculture remained the main focus of regional plans; and (b) emphasis on social and environmental impact and effect on fisheries. The report titled “The Bangladesh Water and Flood Management Strategy (BWFMS), 1995” was a follow-up to FAP and became the working policy document for the water sector that presented a framework for the development and implementation of specific programmes in water sector. It recommended a 5-year programme involving (a) preparation of National Water Policy; (b) preparation of a national water management plan; (c) strengthening of water sector organizations responsible for planning, construction, operation and maintenance; and (d) implementation of a portfolio of high priority projects.

The broad aims and objectives of the current National Water Policy are:

a. To address issues related to the harnessing and development of all forms of water and ground water and management of these resources in an efficient and equitable manner.

b. To ensure the availability of water to all elements of society including the poor and the underprivileged, and to tale into account the particular needs of women and children.

c. To accelerate the development of sustainable public and private water delivery systems with appropriate legal and financial measures and incentives, including delineation of water rights and water pricing.

d. To bring institutional changes that will help decentralize the management of water resources and enhance the role of women in water management.

e. To develop a legal and regulatory environment that will help the process of decentralization, and environmental management, and will create investment climate for the private sector in water development and management.

f. To develop a state of knowledge and capability that will enable the country to design future water resources management plans by itself with economic efficiency, gender equity, social justice and
environmental awareness to facilitate achievement of the water management objectives through broad public participation.

It is acknowledged in the Policy that the existing legislation on water will be supplemented in key areas. It is the intention of the Government that the Policy will be given effect through a National Water Code, which will outline the specific provisions of the water policy required to facilitate implementation. The views of the Government are to enact this Code by revising and consolidating the laws governing ownership, development, appropriation, utilization, conservation and protection of water resources. Subsequently, a National Water Management Plan was developed with funding from The World Bank. There are some concerns. The Policy states that “Water will be considered an economic resource and priced to convey its scarcity value”. Similarly, on pricing of surface and ground water the policy states that “…rates are to reflect where possible, the cost of delivery”. The whole issue of pricing of water thus becomes crucial. The idea of “scarcity value” is also a complicated and dangerous one. At times “scarcity value” of water could greatly exceed the cost of delivery.

ADB Funded Project/s

ADB entered into the water resource management of Bangladesh, already paved by The World Bank policy interventions and projects as an investment heaven. ABD started investing in components of flood control and irrigation (FCDI) schemes already spelled out in master plans and National Water Management Plans. In recent times ADB funded six projects in the water sector of Bangladesh. There are also nine Project Preparatory Technical Assistance (PPTA). There are two other projects that also requires attention, a. Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project (formerly Support for Public-Private Partnership in Padma Bridge), and b. Chittagong Hill Tracts Rural Development. Although they are not explicitly enlisted as water or natural resources sector investment. The Padma bridge project will have significant impact on the Padma river course, as this project will involve river training, and, the second one, Chittagong Hill Tracts Rural Development, enlisted as a rural development project, includes water services delivery as one of its objective.

Khulna Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project (KJDRP): The ADB designed and funded the project with stated objective of reducing poverty by alleviating river drainage congestion. The project was spread over eight thana of Khulna and Jessore district in the Southwest coastal area covering 100,600 hectares. The project area was part of Coastal Embankment Project, which the USAID funded in mid 1960s. ADB earlier funded a similar project in the area, Khulna Coastal Embankment Rehabilitation Project21, implemented between 1986 and 1993. The KJDRP aimed to achieve its objectives by rehabilitating the river drainage infrastructure, by constructing a series of sluice gates and regulators on rivers to protect the beels (wetland) area under project from tidal and seasonal flood and supporting agricultural extension. Local communities have been saying all along that the idea of controlling the tidal flow of the rivers will not provide solution to any problem. Rather the heavy siltation, a natural characteristic of the rivers in the region, will make the sluices and regulators redundant. The local communities opposed the project from the very beginning and suggested alternative plan, Tidal River Management, known by its acronym TRM. The ADB ignored people’s demand and went ahead with its project based on engineering solution. In the end, local communities were proved right and the project didn’t bring promised result and created massive environmental problems. The project was officially completed in 2002.

Photo: Zakir Kibria/BanglaPraxis

The Relationship between ADB Water Policy and National Water Policy

ADB has no specific theme or sector for water in Bangladesh, lending are classified under the theme/sector of natural resources/agriculture and rural development (IWRM and FCDI) and social infrastructure (urban water supply and sanitation for secondary towns). Lending in water is channeled through National Water Policy and National Water Management Plan. Coordination with other donors is mainly through the Local Consultative Group (LCG), popularly known as the donor club. Currently, the LCG has 22 active sector/sub-sector working groups, which meet regularly to share with each other their operational strategies and programmes, and to exchange views on development and policy issues.

The National Water Policy and ADB Water Policy has many similarity. Both policies intend to introduce cost recovery and facilitate private sector participation. The scope of the Bangladesh National Water Policy to further supplement with laws, legislation and institutional change clearly allows ADB to intervene in reforming it. A number of recent ADB lending has stated objectives to further reform policy framework clearly illustrates that25. Almost all the current lending and PPTA spells out intention to further reform the policy framework of water resource management in Bangladesh.

Impacts of ADB Funded Water Project: Social and Environmental

To illustrate the environmental impact of ADB funded projects in the water sector of Bangladesh I will take the example of Khulna Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation project (KJDRP). Let me start with a quote from KJDRP project completion report (PCR), commenting on similar projects implemented in the past, the PCR said, “These earlier interventions saved about 400,000 ha of agricultural land from salt water intrusion caused by daily tide flows and drainage congestion during monsoon. However, these projects caused catastrophic drainage congestion due to silt in the river channels, outside polders and along the sluice gates”. Now, if ADB experiences had shown them that blocking the natural tidal flow causes congestion and siltation along sluice gates then why they again fund a similar project to relieve river drainage congestion? A recent visit by Bank Information Center (BIC) revealed that the project area has become an ecologically damaged zone. A number of rivers have died out because of deposit of sedimentation. Local fisher-folks dependent on open water capture fishery now have no work. Most of the regulators and sluices are not working properly because of sedimentation along the sluices. The manifestation of problems already predicted by local communities.

Photo: Zakir Kibria/BanglaPraxis

Following are some of examples of problems created as result of KJDRP

Beel Khuksia: In local language beel means wetlands. The Khuksia beel/wetland is situated on the bank of Hari River. An 8-vent sluice gate was constructed under the KJDRP project to drain the Khuksia beel. The catchment area of this beel is 16000 hectares spread over 51 villages. After the construction of the sluice gate, the tidal flow of Hari River couldn’t come into the Khuksia beel. As a result silt deposited on the riverbed and the river has been slited up. Once local people, defying law, breached the nearby Bharatbhaina beel and let the tidal flow open so that it can release the sediment and silt in the beel, the Hari River became 30 feet deep. But now the river is totally silted up. In times of heavy rain the water can not flush out through the river and water inundates the villages.

Beel Kedaria: Caving into local peoples demand KJDRP implemented the Tidal River Management (TRM) in 600 hectares if land in Beel Kedaria. The purpose was to raise the level of the land allowing the Hari River to release its silt inside the Kedaria wetland. A 21-vent sluice gate was constructed to facilitate the process. Local communities asserted that solution is not construction of the sluice gate. They demaned that the embankment should be breached in a location suggested by local community. The local community also suggested that sediment/silt will be deposited along the sluice gate. Their suggestions were not taken into account and the 21-vent sluice gate was constructed, and 6 km downstream from the point suggested by the local community. Now, the sluice gate is blocked and congested with deposited sediment/silt and water inside the Kedaria beel/wetland can not go out with the low tide. Gradually, sediment deposited on the bed of the Hari River. Now, in times of heavy rain or flood, Hari River can’t flush out the water and villages along it have become perennially waterlogged. Local communities have submitted memorandum government to authority, and demanding excavation of the Hari River.

Beel Panjira, Pathra and Burulia: These three beel/wetlands are situated adjacent to each other. They are on the upper Bhadra River basin. Under the KJDRP, two sluice gates were constructed to drain these beels (sluice gate number 2409 and 2410, having three and four vents respectively). The catchment area is about 1400 hectares, covering 21 villages. According to the local people, the downstream portion of the upper Bhadra River has silted up as its flow is regulated by the sluice gates and can not release its silt inside the beels.

These are a few examples of the problems created by the KJDRP project. Local communities continue to suffer from the ill effects of the KJDRP project.

Peoples Participation:

To illustrate levels of community participation I will again draw examples form Khulna Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project (KJDRP).

The local community had earlier experiences of Coastal Embankment Project (CEP) of the sixties and the ADB’s Khulna Coastal Embankment Rehabilitation. They knew from their experience and indigenous wisdom that KJDRP would create massive sedimentation along the regulators and obstruct the silt and sedimentation entering the polders resulting in loss of soil nutrient inside the polders and rise of riverbeds due to sedimentation. Local people started to mobilize and submitted petition to local government authorities. In this context, a petition was submitted to the ADB jointly by Uttaran28, CEN, ADAB, Pani Committee and a number of other NGOs29. The local community and NGOs suggested that natural tidal river flow should be allowed to enter the wetland to keep the natural sedimentation process. They also demanded an independent environmental and social impact assessment of the project. An ADB visiting team discussed the issues with government water authorities and local NGOs and assigned an EIA31. Initially, the EIA was not being done in a participatory manner, and authorities tried to impose the already spelled out objectives of the project, but peoples campaign forced the team to investigate further, the EIA conducted by CEGIS incorporated and endorsed tidal river management (TRM) as a viable option. The report recommended 6 options and tidal river management was 6th option. While options based on constructing engineering structures would cost $ 62 million, the TRM option would cost only $ 0.7 million. The report also termed TRM as socially acceptable. In response to increasing community mobilization the project authorities incorporated the idea of TRM in the project.

But it was not implemented in a proper way. Site selection was not done according to people’s suggestions and demand, and instead of cutting the embankments, as demanded by local communities, water was ventilated through sluice gates. Making successful implementation of TRM redundant.


I think that there is a need for NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) to mount a sustained campaign on ADB investment in the water resource management projects, engagement with ADB on Water Policy should be part of that process. I also think that we should not limit our focus only on water privatization and dams, and we should talk beyond implementation of ADB

Water Policy and discuss overall water policy. Following are some of my demands and recommendation for further change:

• Any exercise in reviewing the implementation of the water will be futile, nothing short of full review of the water policy is acceptable.

• There should be an independent review of ADB funded water resources management projects much in line with World Commission on Dams (WCD) methodology with broader civil society participation.

• The on-going water policy implementation review is an attempt to weaken safeguard standard to allow ADB to finance large infrastructure projects and a public relations exercise to legitimize it.

• The case studies prepared by ADB to understand the implementation of the ADB Water Policy only looks into the projects in sanitation, not on other water projects funded by ADB.

• While funding integrated water resources management (IWRM) projects ADB should take into consideration of regional sharing of water issues and refrain from funding projects in one country that may adverse impact on co-riparian and downstream country. Although ADB Water Policy spells out the issues regional sharing but ADB funded projects on international river basin do not have in-built mechanisms to comply to regional and international policy framework in relation to international river basins.

• All ADB funded projects in the integrated water resources management (IWRM) and flood control and irrigation (FCDI) that encompass international river basins should make explicit provisions to comply to international conventions and norms in this regard and existing bilateral treaties and other arrangements.

• ADB water policy should be committed to WCD recommendations and other international conventions like UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourse, Conventions and Biological Diversity (CBD) and other international conventions and norms.

• AND water policy should commit to incorporating indigenous knowledge on water management. Communities have thousand years of proven knowledge and skills to manage water, and ADB
should refrain from bringing in international consultants who are not familiar with local tradition, and

• ADB water policy should declare water as fundamental human rights.

• ADB water policy should not follow GATS as it enforces privatization water management facilities.

• ADB should not include agricultural out in its rate of return for the integrated water resources
management (IWRM) and flood control and irrigation (FCDI) project. It increases advantage margin and economic viability of flood control projects artificially. Any AADB funded project in flood control should be justifiable in terms of its in bringing in benefits by control of flood.

• Full or partial cost recovery in irrigation project is not acceptable in irrigation projects. It is privatization of water and goes against principle of water as basic human rights. Irrigation should remain in public sector.

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