Ecosystems for Life project team visits Northern Bangladesh to understand water management issues

North Bangladesh is a land of renowned beauty. Lush green paddy fields and banana plantations adorn the pancake flat landscape, while corn basks along the highways in the midday sun. Famous for its mangoes, the area also has a rich archaeological history. Temples and mosques scatter the land, reminiscence of a time when kingdoms ruled the region.

Like most of Bangladesh, life in the north is centred alongside the many rivers that meander cross country. As the E4L team watched the magical sunset over the Mohananda River, it’s hard to envisage how these very rivers have over time caused so much loss and destruction. Bangladesh’s majestic river systems are a lifeline to so many, supporting food security and livelihoods. Team members from Bangladesh’s country office this week were able to see firsthand how important these rivers and the associate water infrastructure are to the people of Bangladesh.

Mohananda River Photo: IUCN

Bangladesh is the land of rivers, criss-crossed by over 300 rivers, 54 of these trans-boundary with India.  Surrounded on 3 sides by India, Bangladesh is a gigantic delta formed at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems. It drains a total catchment area of about 1.72 million square km through Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal. However out of this massive catchment area, only 7% lies in Bangladesh.

This week the Bangladesh Ecosystems for Life team undertook a field trip to northern Bangladesh focusing on trans-boundary Rivers and water management infrastructure in the region, notably the Teesta River.  Increased demand in water due to overpopulation, overexploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation has had a profound impact on the world’s freshwater resources. Trans-boundary water issues have historically been an important agenda item for both Bangladesh and India, the international dimension being a crucial factor affecting the management of local river systems. Effective and efficient water benefits sharing between the two countries is essential to ensure food security and for the livelihoods of millions of people. 

The trans-boundary water management issues between India and Bangladesh are an important element of IUCN’s Ecosystems for Life:  A Bangladesh-India initiative. The project focuses on five thematic areas: food security, water productivity and poverty; impacts of climate change; convergence of inland navigation and integrated water resources management goals; environmental security and biodiversity conservation.

The goal of the initiative is to promote a greater understanding of the trans-boundary ecosystems in the Bangladesh-India sub-region in order to contribute to an improved system for sustainable management of resources. The team travelled firstly to visit the Teesta Barrage and surrounding canals before scrutinizing the current flooding situation in Sirajganj.

Teesta Barrage

The Teesta River is the fourth major trans-boundary river in Bangladesh. Historically the Teesta has been an important river for both Bangladesh and India with the two governments currently working together to finalize an agreement over effective water management strategies. The command area of the Bangladesh Teesta Barrage Phase 1 is 154,250 ha, of which 111,406 ha net irrigable area. The project area spreads over seven districts in greater Rangpur, Dinajpur and Bogra.
Speaking to the team, Mr Jahir Uddin, Executive Engineer for the project, explained that the barrage is 615 m long, and the project currently comprises a 110 m canal head regulator, 650 km of irrigation canal networks, 250 km of drainage channels and 80 km of flood embankments.

The Teesta Barrage, the largest irrigation project in Bangladesh is an irrigation, flood control and drainage project which is helping to achieve food security and sustainable livelihoods in Bangladesh and India. By visiting the barrage at Dalia in the Lalmonirhat district the team were able to see firsthand how the barrage has assisted in increasing agriculture production, contributed to fisheries development through the canal systems, recreation and communication. The barrages have also assisted in cropping intensity and flood control as well as creating potential employment opportunities in the surrounding areas.  As part of the second phase of the project the Bangladesh Government is trying to increase the barrage project, which would irrigate an additional 386,000 hectares of land. This would allow for improved food security and livelihoods for more communities in both Bangladesh and India.

The construction of the Indian barrage at Gozaldoba, one hundred kilometres upstream from Dalia has been one of the sources of the ongoing debate regarding water management issues between Bangladesh and India. In Bangladesh India’s water diversion with the barrage is believed to be a contributing factor to a proportion of the Teesta in Bangladesh becoming parched during the dry season (December to April). This subsequently has led to increased agriculture costs for Bangladeshi farmers.

Resolution of the ongoing dispute is crucial to ensure the improved livelihoods of communities in both India and Bangladesh. The ongoing water management issues between the two countries are a critical aspect of the Ecosystems for Life project. Project Director, Mr. Frank van der Valk noted that a media analysis is currently being conducted between Bangladesh and India media experts as part of the project activities to synthesize and analyse issues related to trans-boundary water management between Bangladesh and India, with focus on the Teesta. The results of the analysis are hoped to promote a greater understanding between the countries of the trans-boundary ecosystems in the Bangladesh-India sub-region in order to contribute to an improved system for sustainable management of resources.

Flooding in the north
The team then studied the worsening flooding situation in the northern area of Sirajganj.  Several hundred villages were inundated, stranding tens of thousands of people in North Bangladesh. The Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre reported that the Jamuna at Bahadurabad was 83 cm above the danger mark at Sirajganj by 6 am Saturday 30 June. The flood affected communities are facing shortages in drinking water, fuel and fodder for their cattle. The Water Development Board fears that the hard-point at the Sirajganj town protection embankment is at the risk of breaking.

Since Saturday the Army has been deployed in Sirajganj town to protect the embankment following a request by the Water Development Board to save the hard point of the dam from collapsing. The army was called to save the 2.5 km town protection dam after a 60 m proportion of the hard point almost collapsed due to erosion caused by abnormal swelling of the Jamuna River.

The current flooding situation is particularly concerning as the monsoon season has only just commenced, stated Mr. van der Valk. This highlights the huge importance of effectively managing trans-boundary water issues he said. The Ecosystems for Life project is currently finalizing its Situation Analysis on Flood Management as a basis for its further actions on this topic.

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