Drying Teesta River the scourge of Bangladesh people

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When Fazal Hossain, a 60-year-old farmer from Lalmonirhat District in Bangladesh's north, looks at the drying Teesta River today, memories of this once mighty river seem to be a fairy tale from a distant past.

As a young man, he and millions of inhabitants in the five northern districts of Bangladesh in the Teesta Basin used to depend directly and indirectly on the river for a living.

But those days are gone now. Since India built a barrage in the river on their side of the border in 1977, Teesta began to slowly dry up. By the turn of the century, it was merely a narrow, waist- deep stream even during the wet season.

This also meant that the millions who till boro paddies -- mainstay of Bangladesh's cereal production -- in the basin areas and caught fish and drove boats in these waters have lost their means of livelihood that they have enjoyed generation after generation.

When Teesta had enough water, almost all the farmers along its banks had irrigation-intensive boro paddies. But now, they are shifting towards cultivating less thirsty maize and tobacco.

The river remains dry throughout the fish-breeding season forcing fishermen to shift to farming but the problem is that they don't have experience in this kind of work coupled by the lack of arable land.

The same goes with the boatmen. Because of the lack of water in the river, most of the routes on the banks of the Teesta have vanished and the boatmen, like the fishermen, were forced to go into farming.

"Few years ago, I used to earn Tk200-Tk250 a day ferrying passengers but those days are gone. As the flow of water in the river is decreasing, it has become impossible to survive in this profession,"said Aksar Ali, a boatmen from Daila village of Nilphamari.

Ali and the other boatmen are trying to survive by doing odd jobs like day laborer or rickshaw pullers.

As the flow of water falls drastically, plying of all types of water vessels has already been suspended in many of the routes.

Around 60,000 people living in the 85 shoal villages in the five upazilas of Lalmonirhat have been struggling to connect to the mainland. At least 300 boatmen who operated on 42 routes have become jobless.

The barrage in Gojoldoba of West Bengal have been used by the Indian authorities to ensure enough water to irrigate vast stretches of crop fields on that side of the river which meant that the farmers on the Bangladesh side are deprived of the water that they need.

According to the Indo-Bangla Joint River Commssion (JRC), on a particular day earlier this year, the flow of water in Teesta was just 232 cubic feet per second (cusec), the lowest ever.

"There was a water scarcity during the boro season -- January, February,March and mid-April -- and farmers had the most difficult time this year," said JRC member Mir Sajjad Hossain.

Lives and livelihoods of around nine million people from Nilphamari, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur and Dinajpur districts in Bangladesh are directly and indirectly dependent on Teesta water and boro farming.

"As boro production requires huge water and February and March are sensitive months for boro irrigation, this year the water flow in Teesta was very poor and farmers had to pay huge amount just to be assured of their water needs," said Rafiul Bari, irrigation extension officer of Dalia in Nilphamari.

The drying of the Teesta River has impacted much on some 1,200 ancestral fishermen living in the river basin.

Like many others, the family of Jahirul Islam, a fisherman living on the banks of the Teesta for years, migrated to Lalmonirhat from Mymensingh district.

"For fish breeding, the river must have enough water from November to December. But water comes into the river in May-June when the breeding season is already over. How can fish survive in such little water?" Islam asked.

Many fishermen like Islam have also expressed grave concerns with the rate at which fish varieties such as Boreli, Mohashol, Bagar, Piyali and Darengi have been disappearing fast from the river.

Even four years ago, the Teesta River had abundant fish population for more than six months a year. But now, fish are available only during the monsoon season.

According to ecology and biodiversity researcher Pavel Partha, the irregular and diminishing flow of water to the Teesta River has severely impacted not only on the river's fish diversity, but also on the lives of the people who have been dependent on the river for sustenance from time immemorial.

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