First, it was the pre-monsoon flash flood that trashed the standing crop in the haor areas of the north-eastern regions, known as the grain bowl of the country. Then it was the carcasses of fishes and other aquatic species in large numbers floating ashore, joined in no time by domesticated ducks -- their bodies upturned, inert and stiff-dead. A visible catastrophe no one ever thought of!
It is not conceivable what this disaster is likely to bring to the livelihood of millions living in the vicinities of the vast swaths of low-lying haor areas of the greater district of Sylhet. Newspaper reports initially mentioned, albeit quoting various sources, that the rotting crops inundated by flooding had caused the waters of the wetlands contaminated and caustic, and hence the deaths. To many, this did sound too simplistic to reason out, as flooding in the haor belt is not uncommon, but fish carcasses, that too in large numbers, all over the surface waters never figured as an accompanying misfortune. Added to this, the dead ducks made it rather perplexing for the locals as well as the livestock authorities to continue blaming contamination of water from rotting paddy.
This is havoc unleashed -- the dream of a good harvest gone, with it the livelihood of many dependent on fishing, and finally deaths of their main domestic pet -- ducks. It may be noted that in some of the most affected areas like the Hakaluki haor belt, duck farming is a major source of livelihood for the locals.
As for crop loss, primary estimates of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) say it could be around Tk 16 billion. Combined losses, according to the DAE, might exceed Tk 40 billion. An English daily quoting DAE sources reported that standing boro crop on 180,000 hectares had been fully destroyed. The report added that the crop damage would slash husked rice output by half a million tonnes. In Sylhet, Moulavibazar, Sunamganj, Habiganj, Netrokona, Kishoreganj and Brahmanbaria, standing boro crop on over 251,578 hectares have been submerged by flood waters since early this month, according to the DAE's report.
Coming back to water contamination, it looks like there is no clue for the authorities. It is common man's logic that the water became polluted, or as the authorities say, acidic. But what is it that suddenly caused something so devastating and unprecedented? There were pictures in newspapers of livestock and fishery people pouring limewater into the haor waters to mitigate the problem. One finds it utterly implausible that even if lime water is the 'cure', how pots or buckets of lime water could be imagined to mitigate the problem in the oceanic vastness of the haor waters? One may tend to see it as nothing more than an eyewash with no purposeful objective.
Only lately, we have been told that samples of water, dead fishes and ducks were collected for chemical and other relevant tests to identify the cause of the deaths. Nitish C Debnath, a consultant at the Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Emergency Centre for Transboundary Diseases, has been reported as saying that rotting of paddy under floodwater might be partly responsible for the water getting acidic, "but it needs studies to determine what exactly cost the lives of ducks and fishes". He also pointed out the critical need for policy initiatives to ensure better management of the country's ecosystem. "We just can't gain benefits out of the haor resources only; in return, we've to ensure its healthy maintenance and better management", he stressed.
As of now, no clear cause could be found out. Meantime, there has been uproar from some quarters alleging that uranium toxins mixed with water from open pit mines of radioactive chemicals in the bordering Indian state of Meghalaya could be responsible for the havoc. Across the border, there has been an outcry for sometime now over exposed pits of uranium to a river system causing deaths of fishes in large numbers. Reports say that India's Khasi community living close to the border near Sunamganj's Tanguar Haor, have been expressing their concern following a fish epidemic which they allegedly attribute to uranium toxins from numerous open drilling pits.
This did cause many in Bangladesh to get concerned about a possible link. Although this has not been established from preliminary testing of the samples of the Atomic Energy Commission, experts are of the view that if uranium toxins are dumped in the river system on the other part of the border, there is high chance of those flowing downstream, and in that case the threat is extremely ominous not only for aquatic species but for humans too.
One must not be carried away by allegations that need to be examined further. However, it is the feeling of the people, irrespective of whether they live in the haor belt or not, that the issue has to be dealt with all urgency and seriousness. Experts have opined that finding out the source of contamination -- acidity and the resultant lack of oxygen in the waters -- is not at all a difficult task, and should not take much time to inform the people about the actual cause of the disaster. The authorities concerned have to move fast - faster than they are used to. The rest depends on how the government goes about tackling the situation both in the short and long terms. In the short term, it is relief and rehabilitation; and in the long-term, it is the all-important issue of ecological management of the haor areas.
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