DHAKA — As Bangladesh authorities prepare to declare the country’s largest freshwater wetland a Ramsar site, its two other designated wetlands of international importance, including the Sundarbans, continue to come under increasing threat.
The Ramsar Convention calls for the protection and sustainable use of wetlands, and designates internationally important ones as Ramsar sites. Bangladesh signed up to the convention in 1992, and that same year the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, was designated a Ramsar site. Tanguar Haor, an inland freshwater wetland, followed in 2000.
- Bangladesh has proposed designating a third Ramsar site in the country, but the current state of its two other important wetland ecosystems suggests such a designation won’t be of much protection.
- The Sundarbans, the world’s biggest mangrove forest, and Tanguar Haor, a freshwater swamp forest, have been severely degraded by deforestation, hunting of wildlife and fish, overexploitation of natural resources, and water pollution.
- Hakaluki Haor, the largest marsh wetland ecosystem in South Asia, which the government wants designated a Ramsar site, is already facing similar threats.
- “The problem is, the government does nothing after the recognition. They completely fail to take necessary measures, in the interest of vested quarters in the government,” says environmental lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan.
In December last year, Bangladeshi authorities nominated Hakaluki Haor, the largest marsh wetland ecosystem in South Asia, for Ramsar designation. And while experts have welcomed the move, they warn it won’t do anything to protect the wetland, going by the current state of the Sundarbans and Tanguar Haor.
“The problem is, the government does nothing after the recognition,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA). “They completely fail to take necessary measures, in the interest of vested quarters in the government.”
Nevertheless, she said, Hakaluki Haor deserves to be a Ramsar site because of its unique ecosystem.
“Still, we support the government move, because irregularities and mismanagement get international attention when the site is designated,” she added.
The Sundarbans, at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal, are under increasing pressure from climate change and human activity, according to a 2020 fact sheet published by the U.N Environment Programme and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Rising sea levels and temperatures, frequent cyclones, heavy flooding, and the disappearance of small islands are among the key threats to the Sundarbans, which are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Sundarbans’ average elevation of less than 1 meter (3 feet) above sea level makes the region highly susceptible to flooding as sea levels rise. “Any swelling of ocean water is going to dramatically affect the area,” the fact sheet says.
Experts also warn that the disappearance of islands within the Sundarbans due to coastal erosion caused by frequent and persistent flooding seriously threatens the survival of the eclectic mix of biodiversity in the region. For example, a 28-centimeter (11-inch) rise in the sea level above the 2000 baseline would result in a 96% decline in tiger habitat in Bangladesh.
“These threats are increasingly worrying as the rise in sea level is currently 3.2 mm per year,” or about an eighth of an inch, according to the fact sheet.
The hurricane-like cyclones that are frequent in this region, fueled by elevated temperatures and sea levels, also pose a threat to both human existence and wildlife habitat, particularly in the Sundarbans’ lower-elevation zones. Tigers, again, are affected by the storms, which have decreased the availability of their prey, the fact sheet says. Waterbirds, both resident and migratory, also stand to lose large swaths of their habitat with the loss of the intertidal mudflats.
Human-driven disturbances are compounding these threats, spanning illegal logging, wildlife trafficking, harmful fishing practices, to industrialization and urbanization.
In December last year, the government inaugurated one of the two units of the controversial 1,320-megawatt Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bagerhat district, near the mangrove forest. Scientists and conservationists have long warned that the Rampal project would create a risk of serious social and environmental damage, including potentially displacing impoverished communities.
But threats like illegal logging, hunting and deer poaching have stopped in the forest, according to Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain, the divisional forest officer for the Sundarbans west region. “The forest biodiversity has also been enriched with conservative measures by the government,” he added.
Hossain said some fishers still use poison when fishing, but that the forestry department is working to create awareness in this regard.
Scientists and conservationists have long warned that the Rampal project would create a risk of serious social and environmental damage to the Sundarbans. Image by কুপি বাতি via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
In the country’s north lies Tanguar Haor, a vast topographical depression that fills with rainwater runoff and provides a wetland home for more than 140 fish species and a migratory population of some 60,000 waterbirds. It also holds the last remnant of a swamp forest and is designated an ecologically critical area in Bangladesh.
Spanning 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of land, the wetland lies in the floodplain of the Surma River, one of the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra, at the base of the Meghalaya Hills. Here, as in the Sundarbans to the south, the plant and animal diversity is under serious threat due to natural resource depletion, habitat degradation, soil erosion, water pollution, forest degradation, and wildlife poaching.
A 2012 publication by the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, says the swamp forests that were once common in this unique wetland have become rare today because of various human activities, including clearing and cutting. The biodiversity of the reed beds has also been greatly reduced due to continued overexploitation for fuelwood and conversion of land to cropland. This destruction has had a negative impact on fisheries resources, given that the swamp forests and reed beds provide shelter and food for fish.
“Certain aquatic species that used to be common in the area have now become very rare or are fast disappearing,” the IUCN study says, adding that the process threatens the integrity of the haor ecosystem. Scientists have already observed a reduction in fish catches, wildlife diversity and the waterbird population in recent years.
Water pollution from oil contamination caused by thousands of fishing and tourist boats, and local coal collectors, poses a further threat to the area’s biodiversity. Then there’s the killing of waterbirds for food.
“Tanguar Haor has become a popular tourist site in recent years,” said local boatman Akhter Hossain. “Many tourists, with the help of local people, feast on waterfowl.”
He added “the management of the wetland is very poor. Fishermen use harmful gillnets, poachers roam freely, and tourists pollute the site with plastic.”
Mohammed Amran Hossain, the regional director of the Department of Environment, said that while some people were still involved in illegal hunting of birds, wildlife and fish, the situation had improved recently.
“We cannot make it zero, but can bring such harmful activities under control. Cooperation from all is imperative to do so,” he said.
Hakaluki Haor already under pressure
Amid these persistent threats to Bangladesh’s two Ramsar sites, the Department of Environment plans to add a third.
“In December, we proposed the Hakaluki Haor be designated as a Ramsar site, and it is under process now,” said Syeda Masuma Khanom, the department’s director for natural resource management.
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But even here, the same threats are very much present. Research shows that migratory birds and other wildlife in Hakaluki Haor are losing habitat as the swamp forests disappear from the wetland. Agricultural activities have expanded rapidly in the area in recent decades, adversely impacting the wetland ecosystem.
Scientists say the biodiversity and biological production of Hakaluki Haor have declined in recent decades. Siltation, overexploitation of natural resources, improper use of agrochemicals, and other natural and human disruptions have driven these depletions, degrading habitat for wildlife and resulting in scarcity of food, fuel, fodder and livelihoods for local communities.
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