‘The river is our home’: Bangladeshi boatmen mourn their receding waters
Holding his downturned palm level with his waist, Musana Robi Das indicates how tall he was when he started working on Bangladesh’s rivers.
As a child he helped his father ferry villagers across local waterways. Now a tall and spindly 50-year-old, he has had to abandon that life as a boatman. The waters now sit so low that his services are unnecessary. So the past decade has instead been spent repairing shoes inside a dimly lit wooden booth in the village market.
Bangladesh has 700 rivers integral to the country’s culture, but many of them are dying. Driven by changing weather patterns and the country’s relentless push towards development, the crisis has become so critical that in July 2019 the supreme court declared all the country’s rivers to be “living entities”, with anyone damaging them subject to punishment.
But for many of the communities whose lives depend on the waterways, the change of law has come too late.
“I used to love just rowing the boat, being on the river. Nowadays I have very little work,” says Robi Das. “The river was so much higher before. Now you see there are fields by the bank, but they used to all be part of the river.”
Only a month since the end of Bangladesh’s rainy season, the river sits at less than half the level it did when it was a healthy tributary of the Surma, part of an extensive river system that stretches from India, breaking off and joining other rivers on the path southwards to the Bay of Bengal.
Robi Das is part of a small Hindu community in Bangladesh’s northern Sylhet district, in the town of Biswanath near the border with India, which has always been connected to the river.
“The river is our home. We are always going down to it, we do everything there,” said his neighbour, fisherman Lilon Chandra Das, 47. “Our lives were more comfortable before, we could live from the river. Today I have a net with me in my boat but I don’t have much confidence that I will catch anything. In the past it was guaranteed.”
Both people and goods were traditionally transported along Bangladesh’s extensive river network. Floating markets still exist in parts of the country, and communities like the Choonati (named after the paste chewed with betel nut, made from grinding the shells of snails found on the river bed) found specialised work on the water.
“They are the biggest losers. First of all, fishermen. Hundreds of fishing communities have been destroyed. Then the boatmen,” said Sheikh Rokon, founder of the Riverine People network of environmental activists.
He said the death of Bangladesh’s rivers has been caused by encroachment, erosion, pollution and sand mining.
All of these problems stem, he claimed, from decreased water flows that, while due in part to internal land barriers, are largely a result of restrictions on the flow by Bangladesh’s neighbours, especially India.
The two countries share several major rivers, but Bangladeshi communities complain that they suffer from India’s dams depriving them of water during dry spells and inundating them in the rainy season.
In October 2019, Bangladesh’s state news agency reported that 78,000 people were affected by flooding in the country’s north-west soon after India opened the floodgates of its Farakka barrage, 20km from the border.
Reviving the rivers
Since independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has forged a path towards development that has focused on rapidly building its economy.
The changes have been visible. Instead of rivers, transportation is concentrated on roads that even in rural areas are now congested. Dhaka, once a small capital, is now one of the most populous cities in the world, growing by an estimated half a million people every year.
Dhaka’s water bodies have shrunk by two-thirds over the past 20 years, according to a recent study by the Bangladesh Institute of Planners, and hundreds of factories and tanneries pollute the city’s Buriganga river, according to activists.
Bangladesh’s progress has seen the country neglect its rivers in pursuit of resources, according to Rokon.
“We have 38 rivers which are severely polluted and encroached. We have more than 80 rivers that are [suffering] under the sand-mining situation,” he said. “The modern monster is sand-mining. It is cruelly killing our rivers.”
Sylhet has suffered because the sand and stone collected from its river beds, washed down from the hills in India, are used in roads and construction. The often illegal and excessive collection has diverted the flow of rivers, according to the government’s forestry department.
As one of the activists who campaigned for Bangladesh to recognise the legal rights of rivers, Rokon welcomed the supreme court’s July ruling, but he is also sceptical that action will be taken.
Aside from the challenge of taking on businesses that profit from mining the rivers or building around them, Rokon says there needs to be a cultural change in Bangladesh, where the traditional link to rivers has been forgotten.
“People became detached culturally from the rivers. We have to revive the utility of the rivers,” he said.
In Biswanath, the local administration has been exploring ways to reroute their dying river with the hope of increasing its flow for fishermen like Chandra Das, and to revive a tradition of transporting people and goods along the waterways, which could prove quicker and cheaper than Bangladesh’s clogged roads.
Robi Das is less optimistic about the changes, however. The death of local rivers has already forced him to search for a new livelihood and he expects his children will do the same.
“I have moved on now, even if they revive the rivers there won’t be much chance of us returning to it. My children study and they will try to use that for their lives,” he said.
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