Vol. 5 Num 22 Fri. June 18, 2004  

Indigenous people in CHT face worst water crisis

Names of the many localities in three hill districts under Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have generally ended with the suffixes like Chhara, Chhari, Long, and Khyang, (for example, Satchhara, Betchhara, Bagaichhari, Bilaichhari, Shubalong, Kaslong, Rigrrikhhyang) etc. In tribal language, these suffixes stand for the meaning of spring and stream. So it is easily understandable that many of the localities under Banderban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari have been named after these springs and these names can provide an indication of the important role these springs play in the lives of the twelve ethnic groups of indigenous people living in the CHT for hundreds of years.

The indigenous people are not habituated to use modern water technologies, as they have not been introduced to them like the people of plain districts have been. So the indigenous people have to depend solely on the natural sources of water, particularly on the springs, for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing, let alone irrigation and cultivation. All of the villages, therefore, have been built adjacent to the springs. Even people have to shift their age old villages in case of the death of a spring near which the village was located. All of the rivers and tributaries in CHT are simply the confluence of hundreds of springs of this region. We all know about the importance of the river Karnuphuli, that keeps the Chittagong port functional, that is getting water from these springs. And same thing happen in case of the Sangu, Naf, Matamuhuri, etc.

It is a bad news for the indigenous people of the CHT that the springs of this region are drying out. It is assumed that a hundred years back, there were as many as 200,000 springs flowing over the CHT area. Presently, there are no statistics of how many springs are still flowing. But the local people can easily understand that many springs across the CHT are dying each year. The vital spring located at Ghagra, on the way to Chittagong and Rangamati is now simply a remnant of the forceful spring of 7-8 years back which had a good depth of water flowing all year round. A pretty good numbers of springs on the way of Rangamati and Mohalchhari have worn out in the recent years. The famous Nyoungmrong spring at Raikhali union under Rangamti district that has been providing water for irrigation and household work for hundreds of indigenous people round the year is waterless now. Even the Brimong spring which becomes the sole water source after the death of the Nyoungmrong spring is also on the wane. People are now thinking to abandon the hundred years old villages located on the bank of this spring. The Ghumni Ghat Chhara, Satari Chhara, Pengjamrong Chhara, Kolabong Chhara (Mura Chhari Union), Karia Frya Chhara, Manchhari Chhara under Miasachari Union are going to face the same fate causing severe water crisis for the indigenous people living there for many years.

It is a wonder that springs of CHT have not come forth from the melted ice or glaciers as it normally happens in many parts of the world. The springs of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have originated from the drops of water discharged through the tree roots accumulating in the cleft of the hills. However, the sweating of the hills and precipitation reinforces the process. Of course, this wonderful process of spring creation happens only on those hills where thick cover indigenous forests are existing. But the indigenous forests in CHT are depleting gradually due to the over growth of population and injudicious development initiatives of the governments and development agencies.

Let us have a brief discussion on the overgrowth of population and development initiatives of the government. In 1901, the total population of CHT was 124,762 and in 2000, this population size has become 1,325,041. In each decade, the average growth of national population was approximately 18 per cent while in CHT it was 47 per cent till 1997. The population has grown here abnormally because government during the 1979-1997 period patronised the "Bengalis" living in the plain land to be settled in the CHT. This migration of people from other parts of the countries caused an abnormal growth of population in this region. During the decades of the 80s and the 90s, the population increased at the rate of 48 per cent and 67 per cent respectively. This abnormal growth of population has upset the total demographical and ecological equilibrium in the CHT. Presently the proportion of indigenous to Bengali population has become 52:48, as opposed to 97.5: 2.5 in 1947.

Again, the then Pakistan Government in 1962 made an artificial water reservoir, now famous as Kaptai Lake, by building a dam on the Karnaphuli river to produce hydro-electricity. This lake has grabbed a total of 54,000 acres, i.e 40 per cent of cultivable land of the indigenous people. This decrease of cultivable land and increase of population has created a serious pressure on the forest. Traditionally the indigenous people practice the "slash and burn" system (widely known as jhum) for farming.

For a balance patterned "slash and burn" farming, a hill ideally needs 15-20 years of interval to recover the vegetation burned during the farming. In past, the land and man ratio was ideal and the expected interval in the jhum cycle was maintained. But presently, because of excessive population, this interval has reached to 2-3 years, which is extremely insufficient to allow the vegetation growing to recover the forests. This vicious cycle of jhum cultivation is one of the major reasons of depleting indigenous forests, a precondition for origination of the springs.

The Karnaphuli Paper Mill at Chandrogona, and some other pulp and paper mills across the country that are being fed by the millions of tones of trees and plants coming from CHT have a significant responsibility in deforestation of this area. Each year the Karnophuli Paper Mill alone eats up millions of tones of bamboos, an essential plant for the indigenous people in CHT. Government and some of the development agencies have created industrial forest planting exotic varieties like teak, acacia, and eucalyptus. These exotic verities are creating environmental hazard because these verities impede the natural forestation and eliminate the water table. Further, the depletion of indigenous forests is causing the temperature increase and correctively the precipitation decrease. Thus, the whole spectrums of environmental changes are resulting into the water crisis in CHT.

Bangladesh is claiming of earning a good progress in safe water provision to its 97 per cent of the total population. However, after identification of excessive arsenic (< 0.5 mg/l), safe water coverage has fallen to 70 per cent. This fall of water coverage has created ache in the heads of government, donors and NGOs, and all of the parties are working hand in hand to save the people from arsenic threat. In last three years alone DANIDA has carried out arsenic testing in 161,755 hand tube- wells in eight coastal districts and replaced the arsenic contaminated water sources with 20,100 hand tube-wells, 32 mini pipe water systems, 210 pond sand filters, and hundreds of rain water harvesting systems. Many such big agencies are active in other parts of Bangladesh. On the other hand, government has announced the Rangamati, Banderban and Khagrachhari as arsenic free districts.

From where will the arsenic come when there is no water? Perhaps for lacking of knowledge about the reality, government does not know how many peoples in the CHT are a deprived of safe water, and how bad the water crisis are prevailing there. A sample study, titled Counting the Hills, shows that the 2.9 per cent Mru, 14.3 per cent Tripura, 32 per cent Marma, and 26 per cent Chakma people have access to tube-well water considered as safe and reliable water source.

The rest of the people are collecting water from the unsafe surface sources like springs and stream, and in no sense is it safe for drinking. Every year, many people expire in the remote hill villages due to suffering from water borne diseases. Again, water consumption is extremely low here. It has been observed that the indigenous people have to pass a day with 5 liters of water only, against at least 50 liters of minimum requirement for bathing, cooking, drinking and washing. The far distance of water points are the only reason of this lower consumption of water and it has definitely some negative impacts on the health of the hill people.

This severity of water crisis has not been properly noticed by the governments and donor agencies. Due to the lack of knowledge to the CHT, and inaccessibility for hills and forests, the press media even could not focus the problems and consequently the under privileged hill people are passing their life through a severe water crisis.

Md. Firoj Alam is a Programme Officer of WaterAid Bangladesh, and Nyhola Mong is Area Coordinator of Green Hill.

Gravity Flow System (GFS), the most effective technology for hills, is being implemented by Water Aid Bangladesh