Never before had Haors (wetlands) hit the headlines of the press so extensively as these have done this year. Thanks to adequate print and electronic media focus, the catastrophic flash floods that damaged Boro paddy fields, killed fishes due to mysterious reasons and pauperised hundreds of thousands of Haor population are now the hot topic of discussion. The prime minister took her precious time off her busy schedule to visit Sunamganj, one of the worst affected areas and interacted with the victims to share their agony and distress. She announced distribution of free agricultural inputs for the next cropping season to recoup the huge losses.
In fact, the Haor basin in the north-eastern part of the South Asian country is a wetland ecosystem considered to be of international ecological importance due to extensive waterfowl population that uses it as its habitat. Also known as a backswamp, Haors cover parts of Sunamganj, Moulvibazar and Habiganj districts and stretches as far as Kishoreganj and Netrokona districts. Located in the floodplain of three major rivers, Haors are being described in a number of Bengali terms. These include Baor, Haor, Jheel and Beel. The Basin consists of about 400 Baors and Beels and includes rivers, streams, irrigations canals, and vast areas of seasonally flooded cultivated plains. The Haor basin is estimated to stretch over an area of between 4,450 square kilometres and 2.5 million hectares.
The total area of Haor-type wetlands throughout Bangladesh exceeds 8.0 million hectares. The Basin is surrounded by the mountain ranges of India, with Meghalaya to the north, Tripura and Mizoram to the south, and Manipur and Assam to the east. So onrush of waters from the upstream hills is no accident. Fishing is the main income-generating activity for the local people.
According to an estimate, the flash floods in only two months this year have caused damage to crops worth over Tk 40 billion. The Haor Advocacy Platform, a non-government organisation, found that the onrush of waters from the upper stream has led to the loss of one million tonnes of rice, 2,000 tonnes of fish and 11,305 tonnes of livestock feed. However, the loss is likely to go up to Tk 100 billion. Six districts comprising large haor areas-Habiganj, Netrakona, Sunamganj, Brahmanbaria, Kishoreganj and Moulvibazar were badly hit by the flash floods. In Sunamganj, farmers cultivated Boro paddy on over 2,23,850 hectares of land this year. Already, 82 per cent of rice has been destroyed, according to the government accounts but farmers claim it's 90 per cent. Lastly, Shanir Haor, locally known as 'rice mine', too went under water, submerging Boro paddy on 22,000 acres of land. Flash floods submerged around 48,670 out of 184,320 hectares of land targeted for Boro cultivation in eight upazilas of Netrakona, said the deputy director of the Department of Agriculture Extension of the district.
Flash floods are an annual feature in Haor areas. But this year it came early. Moreover, many embankments built to withstand pressure of onrush of waters were breached as concerned engineers and contractors of the Water Development Board allegedly pocketed huge money allocated for their repair. Interestingly, they repair amid flood water so that money pilfered cannot be accounted for. That is why the government lost no time in suspending two engineers of Water Development Board over the allegation of corruption in building embankments for the sake of fair investigation. They are a superintendent engineer of Sylhet and an executive engineer of Sunamganj. The decision was made so that the officials involved in the alleged corruption will not be able to influence the investigation. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) on April 13 formed a committee to look into whether there were any irregularities and corruption in building embankments in the Haor zone. Incidentally, earlier, the executive engineer was withdrawn for his alleged involvement in corruption over repair work of an embankment.
Shykh Seraj, a leading agriculture activist, said the early flash floods are due to climate change which is having a bad impact on agricultural productivity, natural fish breeding, land use practice, lifestyles and livelihoods in the Haor areas. He quite rightly suggested that from next year, farmers in Haor areas should harvest their paddy from the beginning of March instead of the end of the month, since it has been seen how the flash floods starting from March 27 destroyed everything. The Haor farmers must get a short-term variety of rice so that they can take home their golden crops. Monga, a near-famine situation in a few northern districts, has been prevented with the help of a short-term rice variety that farmers harvest in only three months.
The Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hassan has sought Indian assistance in getting early warning in Haor areas. She asked why Bangladesh did not receive prior warning of the onrush of floodwaters from India. Given their warm relations, the Bangladesh and Indian governments should exchange information on potential floods, she said.