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|Volume 12 |Issue 01| January 04, 2013 ||
The Kingdom of Water
Aminul Islam Soyel
Haor, a local word for wetland ecosystem, is basically a low-lying region that goes under water during the monsoon, leaving out some habitable area. Vast areas of cultivable land emerge when water recedes in the dry season. The large portions of the low-lying areas of different sizes, ranging from one square kilometre to 200 square kilometres, are collectively called haor.
In Bangladesh, the haor basin is widely sprawled across Sunamganj, Habiganj, Moulvibazar and Sylhet, also taking up a number of upazilas in Kishoreganj, Netrokona and Brahmanbaria. With a population of approximately five million, the haor zone covers 15,000 square kilometres including 35 upazilas of Kishoreganj, Netrakona, Sunamganj, Sylhet, Habiganj, Moulvibazar and Brahmanbaria.
Each homestead in a haor area is usually made up of only one hut with an outer cowshed propped up by bamboos. These are clustered together so that one raised area can accommodate the maximum space for a number of habitants. Barrages, made of water plants fencing, are put up along the banks as a protection against high waves during monsoon. The huts are safeguarded by the sustained labour of successive generations. Seen from a long distance on a cold morning, these villages almost appear as a mirage.
Haor is the major sweet water fish–producing area of the country, playing a huge role in maintaining the ecological balance. High-level bio-ingredients in the soil, plenty of sunlight and a high level of dissolved oxygen in the turbulent water produce abundant plankton, contributing to the growth of the fishes faster than anywhere else in the country. However the fish production has alarmingly reduced nowadays due to the unrestrained use of chemical fertiliser and insecticides threatening to poison the water.
Extreme humidity characterises the climate with the monsoon rainfall in May, owing to the accessional motion of the monsoon current caused by the neighbouring hills. The zone goes under water for about seven months – from June to December– creating a semblance of the sea dotted with island-like-villages. And in the winter the water starts rolling downstream drying up the area for the rest of the year – from January to May, when the vast vacant land sees the erection of a huge number of temporary huts built by the farmers.
With much effort, they turn the zone into a vast crop field, resulting in the spring boro paddy. The farmers stay there for about six months till the crop is ready to be harvested. The heroic yet rustic and authentic haor people do this by employing traditional tools. They plough the land with axes and bulls, water the crop-fields with the 'dona' (a manually-operated device), reap the vast land with sickle and husk the enormous volumes of crops using hand or paddle machines. Fishing too is done in a traditional way – with hand-made nets and paddle boats. The so-called 'high-tech' innovations are never at their disposal.
The local farmers and fishermen start working before dawn breaks. Before going 'all out dark sleep' only a few hours after sunset, they burn a little kerosene lamp to have their night meal and prepare for the next day.
Bangladesh is almost self-sufficient in food grains despite chronic shrinkage of farmlands because the haors play a huge role in achieving food autarky. In the past, a part of the haor in Kishoreganj district produced bales of quality jute. Recently, maize, a new crop, has been introduced and the cultivable land is expanding fast. Besides a small quantity of vegetables for local consumption, among the varieties that have been in cultivation since time immemorial are field nut, sweet potato, mustard and chillies.
The hardworking haor people have a notable contribution in the cultural realm of Bangladesh. In the early days, folk music and Jatra (folk theatre) played a major part in their lives. In the monsoon, having nothing to cultivate, they used to immerse themselves in recreational activities such as music performed in groups, followed by formal performances after the harvest. Sometimes the musical soirees continued throughout the night. 'Kobir Larai', involving two bards confronting each other with instant poetic innovations, was a popular mode of dialogic tradition.
After visiting the area about 40 times in the past five years, only three of these creative denizens were seen and that too after a long search. With a drastic change in scenario, the haor people now have mortgaged their taste to television channels, an alternative source of recreation.
People across the haor in Mymensingh, Sylhet or Brahmanbaria share an almost similar culture. The cultural commonality of the great haor zone is also reflected in their language, though the local tongue of Mymensingh, Sylhet and Brahmanbaria towns are almost abstracted from one another. The haor has a robust economic structure built over time. It had a glorious history of cottage industry in the middle ages. Bajitpur was famous for Muslin, Corgaon and Bajitpur were famed for enamel and earthenware. The signs of its rich economic milieu have been revealed following an archaeological investigation in recent years.
Another attraction of the haor zone is the migratory birds, numerous varieties of which flock the area in uncountable numbers from different parts of the world, especially Siberia. Over 200 species of migratory birds come to 'Tanguar Haor' alone, which has been declared as the 'Ramsar Area' under Ramsar Convention.
Constant strong breeze is a hallmark of the haor, suitable for producing unlimited air turbine-generated electricity. Besides, an enormous quantity of paddy straw waste ensures natural fuel for the people around the year. On the ecological front, the degeneration continues as farmers apply excessive chemical fertiliser in the paddy fields. The region could be benefited from establishing a straw-based organic fertiliser plant, producing bio-gas as a by-product.
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