Ill-thought hydropower projects, sand mining and indiscriminate dumping of waste have brought three transboundary rivers between India and Bangladesh to the brink of death

Fisherman Gurudayal Haldar says rampant pollution in the Atreyee River has cause a drastic fall in catch (All photos by Gurvinder Singh)

Gurudayal Haldar, 62, has been a fisherman for the past five decades at Balurghat administrative block of Dakshin Dinajpur district in West Bengal. He is dependent on Atreyee River to feed the hungry mouths of his family. But the environmental degradation caused by rampant pollution coupled with sand mining has virtually sounded the death knell for the river that once served as the lifeline of the district.

“Our ancestors were also in the same business and the earnings from catching fish were quite handsome to run the family and also for savings. Even I used to catch around 70-75 kg of fish everyday and it gave us good returns till a few years ago. But there is hardly any fish in the river nowadays,” Haldar told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The dumping of waste from crematoriums, households and lack of administrative action has strangled the livelihood of fishermen who have depended on the river for generations. It is even difficult to earn INR 100 (USD 1.3) a day even after toiling for hours in the river that is dying.”

Several hundreds of fishermen in Dakshin Dinajpur have migrated to other parts of the country along with their families in search of newer livelihoods. Most of them are engaged as masons and other low-paying jobs to survive.

“We still remember the days when the water was fit for drinking, but now a simple bath causes an itching in the body. It shows the level of pollution in the river. It is painful to witness the silent and helpless death of the river,” said Jhantu Halder, a local resident who was visibly upset over the present state of affairs.

Atreyee is a river that finds a mention in the Mahabharata. Today is a transboundary river flowing between India and Bangladesh. It originates near Baikanthapur forest in Siliguri and covers a distance of 58 km through five blocks of Dakshin Dinajpur before entering Bangladesh through the Samjhia border in Balurghat.

Water flow has reduced in the Atreyee River even during the rainy season

Tuhin Subhra Mondal, an environmentalist who has been running a campaign since 2006 to save Atreyee, says that climate change has also affected the river. “Climate change has led to an increase in water temperature, impacting the breeding space and growth of flora and fauna in the river,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Several fish species like Mahasol, Bele and Bagha have become virtually extinct. We have written to various heads of the offices including the Prime Minister to look into the issue.”

Pranab Kumar Biswas, Founder of the Centre for Mitigation of Climate Change and Global Warming, a non-profit, points out that a proper study is required to gauge the affects of climate change, “We have recorded rise in the temperature since 1990s, which has impacted the aquatic life. Man-animal conflicts are also increasing. Cloudbursts were witnessed in the Teesta basin in June this year,” he said. “The rainfall has become erratic in the past few years and we are losing rainy days in the river basin. We need proper study to gauge the effect of climate change on rivers. We should start immediately to prevent further damage to the ecosystem that is becoming more fragile with each passing day.”

Schoolchildren campaigning for the revival of Atreyee River

If the condition of Atreyee is bad, Mahananda, another transboundary river flowing between India and Bangladesh, is perhaps worse. The river that originates from the Himalayas in Kurseong area of Darjeeling district and descends to the plains near Siliguri can be best described as the dumping ground of waste for city dwellers.

Thousands of encroachments on the riverbed have spelled doom for Mahananda River that once served as the lungs of Siliguri. The encroachers use the river for their cattle sheds and to defecate on its banks. The city generates around 400 tonnes of waste every day and most of it is dumped untreated into the river because of administrative laxity.

Encroachments and rubbish dumping have turned the Mahandanda River into a drain

“We call it Mahaganda (extremely dirty) instead of Mahananda, as the former sounds more apt going by its present condition. Most of the city waste including harmful chemicals gets dumped in the river. The encroachments on the river bed have left it dry. We have been running a campaign to save the river since 1994 but the lack of support from the people dampens our efforts,” Jyotsna Agarwal, secretary of Mahananda Bachao Committee, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The situation has reached such an extent that there is no water in the river even during the monsoon. Needless to say, several creatures that survived on it have disappeared silently without a trace.”

Old timers recall days when the river used to overflow with water. “I first came to Siliguri in 1946 and found that the river had ample water with no encroachments. The water was clean and people used to take bath on the bank,” said Jibon Dey, 82, who operates a small hotel in the city. “But it is heart wrenching to see that it has turned into a drain. People from all walks of live should come together to save the river.”

Sorry state of Teesta

Teesta, the largest river in North Bengal, is also facing the dual whammy of garbage and hydropower projects that has virtually tamed it. Over 20 hydropower projects have changed the morphology of the Teesta basin. They have turned the river into a series of artificial lakes.

The transboundary river originates in Sikkim state in India, flows through West Bengal and then into Bangladesh, covering a distance of 309 km before joining the Brahmaputra.

India has a barrage on the Teesta at Gojoldoba at Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, a little upstream of the point where it enters Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has a barrage at Doani in Lalmonirhat district before the Teesta joins the Brahmaputra.

Environmentalists say that hydropower projects have destroyed the aquatic life of Teesta River

According to a study by the West Bengal government, Teesta has just one-sixteenth of total water requirement in both the countries.

In recent years, water volume in the Teesta has gone below the 100 cumec level in peak summer in April and May. The West Bengal government has opposed a plan by the Government of India to share the water of the Teesta with Bangladesh.

People staying close to the river say that aquatic life is getting destroyed because of increasing human exploitation. They fear that any crack on the walls of the barrages might spell doom for them during a natural disaster.

“During monsoon, there used to be ample fish in the water for consumption. But there is hardly any fish left. The toxic chemicals in the cement used in the construction of hydropower projects have affected the aquatic life,” Rekha Meena, a resident of Kalimpong, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “We fear the rerun of an Uttarakhand like catastrophe if there is a cloudburst. A crack on the walls of the dams might also snuff out our lives.”

Experts echo her fears. They say that hydropower projects have been built by ignoring environment-related issues and that the region falls under seismic zone 4, which is vulnerable to earthquakes.

Many fishermen of the Atreyee, Mahananda and Teesta rivers have migrated to other states in search of new livelihoods

“The massive deforestation on both sides of the river coupled with barrages and dams have disturbed the ecosystem. The area falls under seismic zone IV and the damage could be massive during an earthquake. Cracks in the dams could cause havoc downstream,” Jatishwar Bharati, a geographer, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Several species in the river and wildlife have been destroyed. The projects were undertaken keeping all rules at bay which might prove hazardous in future.”

 

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