Vol. 5 Num 9 Sat. June 05, 2004  

World Environment Day
Water -- the driver of nature

Life originated from water and with given time there would be nothing that would not grow in beauty if surrounded by water. Oceans cover three forth of our planet's surface and it seems humanity has taken these huge blue masses for granted. From the beginning of time water has supported all forms of life and it is believed more than 90 percent of the planet's living biomass is found in the oceans.

This year's world environment day theme is: Wanted! Seas and Oceans: Dead or Alive? At the first glimpse it would undoubtedly leave anyone with questions and concerns. Forty percent of the world's population lives within 60 km of a coast and 80 percent of all pollution in seas and oceans come from land-based activities. What are we actually doing to our oceans? Is all this pollution, contamination, over exploitation, and misuse worthwhile?

Water has been the life blood of Bangladesh's existence. The Ganges River Basin is the most populous river basin in the world. Within its 750,000 km2 live 400 million people (Ali, 1991). The Ganges River begins in the central Himalayas and flows 2,500 km to the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh, being the downstream and deltaic portion of a huge watershed, is naturally vulnerable to the water quality and quantity that flows into it from upstream. Bangladesh drains roughly 1.76 million km2 of catchment areas of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers, of which only 7 percent lies in the country.

In spite of having more than 200 large and small river tributaries and networks Bangladesh faces critical water issues every year. The northern zone of the country is prone to drought whereas the southern region in particular the southeastern coastline is at risk to cyclones during the monsoon season. Storm surges can cause dramatic increases in the water level of up to four meters above tide and seasonal levels. The southwest coastline is protected to some extent by the dampening effects of the Sundarbans, although surges do progress up the main rivers.

Bangladesh is greatly vulnerable to climate change. Being a deltaic country, it is flat and nearly 50 percent of the landmass has an elevation less than 10 meters above sea level. Several studies were undertaken on the vulnerability of Bangladesh to climate change, particularly to the sea level rise. In the IPCC report of 1995 it was estimated that one-meter sea level rise could displace nearly 17 million people in Bangladesh. Several other significant impacts of climate change will be drainage congestion problems due to higher seawater levels, siltation of estuary branches, higher river bed levels and reduced sedimentation in flood protected areas, reduced fresh water availability and extreme weather conditions.

The fresh water and the marine environment are under threat on a parallel basis in Bangladesh. As one is being polluted and contaminated the other is largely over exploited.

Our major rivers have become the dumping grounds for all sorts of tannery, chemical industry, hospital, and domestic wastes. The Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) and Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) levels have far exceeded the normal levels as set by the World Health Organisation. Bangladesh also suffers from another bad luck. Since 1971, western donors have funded the construction of thousands of wells, especially in rural areas. In the early 1990s, however, many were found to be contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic. It is estimated as many as 50 million may have been affected by arsenic poisoning (Guardian, 2002).

The Bay of Bengal coastline is greatly degraded as pollution in the area is reaching dangerous points. The Chittagong port lacks the laws and logistical back-up to stop the dumping of harmful waste by many of the average 1,600 local and foreign vessels that use the port every year. Coastal and marine pollution is not the only problem, over exploitation of the fish resources, marine mammals, and ocean-going birds exist as well. The entire mangrove ecosystem (Sundarbans), diverse species of sea turtles, coral beds, and benthic communities are under threat.

Bangladesh has now reached a state where the quantity and quality of water resources is imposing limits on present use of the resource and on economic development. The institutions that are responsible for the management activities have inadequate capacity to meet water use needs and enable sustainable development. In response to the problem, and to meet the challenge of the future, UN agencies and various other organisations including the Government of Bangladesh have joined forces to promote reviews of water resources policies and implement projects to safeguard our valuable fresh water, marine, and coastal resources.

Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Fisheries, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), IUCN, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), World Bank, ICZM, and many other organisations have long been working on water issues in Bangladesh. A range of projects implemented by these institutions focus on coastal land use zoning, formulation of the action for adaptation to climate change, coastal and wetland biodiversity management plan, marine ecology preservation and protection, sea turtle conservation and management strategies etc. These projects aim to enhance both human development and sustainability of the aquatic, marine and coastal ecological environment.

Little do we understand what we do today will have a great impact on tomorrow's generation. At this point combating this problem should be our chief priority; participation of individuals at all levels of our society is essential. One factor that is largely overlooked in Bangladesh when it comes to the water resources management issues is women. Their productivity is underestimated, which consequently undervalues the laboursaving benefits of water projects. Women's participation and their utilisation of water facilities must take into account the value of their time and the opportunity costs of participation. Much of women's labour is not reflected in national income accounts because it is largely uncompensated home-based labour.

We have severe water concerns but most of us ignore this matter. Our water resources might seem abundant but it is scarce. Water is the driver of nature and there is an utmost need to protect the existing aquatic and marine ecosystems as they safeguard spectacular plant and animal species of our region. The need to protect and conserve our oceans and seas is one of the prime concerns among the hundred other environmental problems existing at present. A challenging future prevails for us yet our dreams and visions to live for a better tomorrow can be the guiding light for a safe and sustainable environment.

Zubaida Akhtar Choudhury works with UNDP, Dhaka

Wanted! Seas and Oceans: Dead or Alive?