Tanguar Haor, one of the most beautiful wetland ecosystems of the country, is losing its natural resources and biodiversity due to extreme tourist pressure, unplanned development projects and lack of government supervision.
The number of trees, birds and fishes has declined significantly in the last few years in the 12,057-hectare haor located in Tahirpur and Madhyanagar upazilas of Sunamganj.
A big factor in the destruction has been poverty, leading to over-dependence on haor resources.
The crisis started 25 years ago when the Tekerghat limestone mine – the only source of employment – adjacent to the haor, was closed in 1996 due to continuous losses. Thousands became unemployed and started depending on the haor as the only source of livelihood.
Karunasindhu Chowdhury Babul, chairman of Tahirpur Upazila Parishad, said, "There is no employment for the people of haor. Businessmen from other areas are tapping opportunities based on the emerging tourism sector of the area. But the locals are not getting anything as they lack capital."
From 2006 to 2018, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) implemented a Community Based Sustainable Management of Tanguar Haor in three phases. The project was completed in July 2019.
During the project implementation at a cost of about $2.5 million (about Tk22 crore), another project was undertaken in December 2017 at a cost of Tk3.47 crore.
According to a report of IUCN, around 87,000 people in 88 villages are no longer directly dependent on Tanguar Haor after the implementation of the project.
However, many complained that these projects failed to develop the life of the haor people.
Ahmed Kabir, general secretary of the Central Committee for Cooperation, said, "The projects were not successful. The condition of the haor is worse than before. The condition of the people has not changed. But it was true that the purpose of the project was good."
The Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) also mentioned that the objectives of the project were not achieved.
According to the report, the literacy rate among the people in the area is low and the medical and sanitation systems are poor. Poor people are more prone to fishing in the haor and the security measures taken to protect the haor are inadequate.
Although IUCN claims to have co-management committees in 74 villages, in reality, most of the committees do not exist. During the project, it was reported that 1,57,000 trees were planted in the haor, but in reality, no such trees were found.
Wahiduzzaman Sarkar, project manager of IUCN, said, "The project we have worked on to protect the haor has been successful. People have had alternative employment. We have planted a lot of Hijal and Karach trees in the haor and 60% of them are alright now."
He said the trees were under water when IMED prepared the report, and as a result, they could not see those.
According to locals, the number of trees in the haor is constantly decreasing due to deforestation.
Golam Kibria of Dumal village of Tahirpur said, "Deforestation has been going on in Tanguar Haor for the last two decades. People are cutting off Hijal and Karach trees, which are mainly used as fuel and during fish farming."
Vijay Sen Roy, general secretary of the central committee of Save the Haor Movement, said, "There has been no development in the haor for many days. This haor has been destroyed in the name of various projects. Recently we have lodged a written complaint to the prime minister regarding the issue."
Overcrowding of tourists
Tanguar Haor is one of the most attractive tourist spots in the country due to its vast expanse of water, trees, birds, and the Khasia-Jainta hills.
After the inauguration of the Abduz Zahur Bridge over the Surma River in 2015, communication in Tahirpur upazila improved and the number of tourists started increasing.
The environment and biodiversity of the haor have been suffering severely due to uncontrolled tourism in recent years.
Tourists rent boats to visit the environmentally sensitive area of Tanguar Haor while playing loud music. They also litter plastic in the water.
Humayun Kabir, general secretary of Tahirpur Trawler Association, said, "Tourists throw plastics in the water despite our ban. On average, a group of 15 people dumps at least 1kg of plastic waste in the haor. At least, one tonne of plastic waste is dumped in the haor water per day during the peak season."
According to locals, at least 500 engine boats enter the haor every day during the monsoon. Apart from Sunamganj, boats also come to haor from different areas, including Netrokona and Mymensingh. However, the local administration does not have any statistics on the number of boats plying the haor.
Md Jahangir Hossain, deputy commissioner of Sunamganj, told The Business Standard, "Tanguar Haor is losing its biodiversity due to the pressure of additional tourists. We have decided to stop the movement of motor boats in the protected areas of haor from next tourist season."
Sharif Jamil, general secretary of Bangladesh ParibeshAndolan, said, "Tanguar Haor cannot be protected only with some official projects. We need integrated initiatives for this."
Flood water from Meghalaya hills
Apart from the tourists, the flood water coming from the hills of Meghalaya causes a lot of damage to the Tanguar Haor as it brings sand, stone, coal, limestone etc during the monsoon.
According to the locals, the Nayachara canal that brings water to the haor has already been filled by the sand and stone brought by the hilly flood water. The Panchasholbeel of the haor has also been filled.
Andrew Salmer, member of the Bangladesh Environment Movement, said, "New areas are being filled with hilly sand-stones every year. If we do not take immediate action, the whole area of the Tanguar Haor will gradually be filled."
Birds, fishes are declining
The navigability of the Jadukata, Maharam and Patlai rivers have declined in recent years. As a result, water from the haor cannot be drained during the winter season, which is hampering the boro rice cultivation. The number of migratory birds in winter has also decreased by a quarter due to the change in the ecosystem.
Inam-ul-Haq, founding president of Bangladesh Bird Club, said, "The birds cannot find enough food here. The haor's aquatic plants are being lost. Fish production has also decreased several times."
He further said, "I had seen lakhs of birds in MatiarHaor near Tanguar. Now there is not a single bird because aquatic forests have been destroyed."
Simanta Dipu, chief researcher of IUCN, said, "The water in the haor cannot be drained in due time. So, there comes a food crisis for birds in January. During this month only 50,000 birds can be found here. But in February, when the water is drained, the number of birds increases to around 1.5 lakh."
Around 1 lakh birds could be seen in the Poshurar Hoar 15 years ago. But now there is none, he added.
Sarwar Hossain, fisheries officer of Tahirpur, said the number of fishes has also declined along with the birds. "We do not have any separate data on fish production in Tanguar Haor, but it is clear that the number of fishes has decreased. There were 4-5 fish sanctuaries in the haor but now there is none. At present, 55 species of fish are under threat of extinction here including Magur, Baim, Tara Baim, Gulsha, Gutum, Tengra, Titna, Gajar, Goriya, Beti, Kakia etc."
Since 2001, the management of Tanguar Haor has been entrusted to the ministry of environment and forests.
However, the district administration of Sunamganj has been in charge of the haor since the joint project of the ministry and IUCN was completed in 2017.