The past, present, and future of Bangladesh, and its peoples livelihoods, are intimately connected to its relationship with water and wetlands. More than 90% of the country’s total area consists of alluvial plains, crisscrossed by a complex network of rivers and their tributaries. These include three of the world’s great river systems, namely the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna Rivers. One of the main features of Bangladesh hydro-geomorphology is the channelling of nearly all the outflow of the Ganges-Brahmaputra basins to the Bay of Bengal.
Wetlands in Bangladesh are represented by both inland freshwater and tidal salt-water wetlands. Flood plains, beels (low-lying depressions in the flood plain), haors and baors (oxbow lakes) represent the inland freshwater wetlands. The haors have been described as [are] bowl-shaped natural depressions between the natural levees of the river subject to monsoonal flooding every year.
While the haor itself is a seasonal water body formed during the monsoon, the beels are low-lying depressions of the haor system retaining water even during the dry months of the season. Thus, the haor system is a complex of both lacustrine wetlands (with open water) and palustrine wetlands (marshy – with vegetation), depending on the hydraulic behaviour in different seasons.
The ecology of the haor system is principally driven by seasonal hydraulics. During the monsoon, the entire haor system of one area becomes a single body of open water linked to the river system. When floodwater recedes, the beels become isolated and remain as standing water bodies till the next rainy season. They differ from a true lake system in that the main source of waters in tropical lakes is rainwater, while a haor system depends on both precipitation and floodwater as sources of water.
Tidal salt-water wetlands constitute about 25 per cent of the land area of the country and are represented by mangroves, salt marsh, lagoons, deltaic islands, sand dunes and beaches, barrier islands, sea grass and coral habitats. These coastal wetlands support a very rich diversity of plants and animals, many of which are not found elsewhere in the country. These natural habitats are linked together by a complex web of direct and indirect interactions; disruption of any one has an effect on the others.
These habitats are dynamic and are susceptible to changes due to coastal processes. They lack resilience and have a low threshold to irreversible damage. The physical and ecological characteristics of these habitats make them especially vulnerable to degradation. Once degradation exceeds the limit set by the low threshold, rehabilitation becomes prohibitively expensive or impossible.
A majority of Bangladesh’s 120 million people are critically dependent on the country’s wetland systems as vital natural resources to sustain them, primarily through agriculture and fishing. While serving as the central pillar of Bangladesh’s resource base and thus providing an essential support for its goal of achieving sustainable human development, the country’s wetland ecosystems also offer critical habitats for globally significant biological diversity.
Significance of Bangladesh Biodiversity
Bio-geographically, Bangladesh lies at the junction of the Indian and Malayan sub-regions of the Indo-Malayan Realm. It also sits at the crossroads of two major international shorebird migration flyways, i.e. the western edge of the East Asian - Australasian flyway, and the eastern edge of the Central Asian – Indian flyway. The country’s biodiversity reflects this crossroads character.
The countries of South and Southeast Asia are considered by IUCN as regions of high species diversity. A large number of native flora—including 3,000-4,000 species of woody flora—has been recorded from Bangladesh. The country lies at the meeting point (ecotonal region) of several floristic provinces, including the Manipur-Khasia, Bengal and North Burman provinces within the Indo-Malayan realm.
The North-eastern hills of Bangladesh belong to Manipur–Khasia Provinces, while the South-eastern region belongs to North Burman provinces. These floristic provinces contain a large number of families, endemic species and so-called ‘primitive’ species. Hooker (1906) described Bengal’s rain forests as the richest in the whole of the Indian subcontinent.
Bangladesh supports 660 species of birds within an area of 144,000 km2 (less than England and Wales together), which represents about 50% of the total number of bird species recorded from the entire Indian sub-continent. The Assam plains in eastern Bangladesh have been identified as an Endemic Bird Area (EBA) by Bird Life International with the status of “urgent conservation priority.”
Bangladesh’s rich aquatic biodiversity also includes 260 species of finfish belonging to 55 families (placing Bangladesh third in the world in terms of fish species per land area). It is widely accepted that Bangladesh’s aquatic diversity has not yet been adequately described, and scientists believe that future research will uncover previously unknown species. Khan 1998 recorded 6 new species of fishes from around the St. Martin’s island. He also recorded a new species frog from Teknaf peninsula (Khan 1997).
By all calculations, the known levels of endemism in the Ganges/Brahmaputra basin are very high: 25% of the aquatic species found in this basin are found nowhere else in the world. Due to the geographical position of the three major rivers in Bangladesh, and given the dispersal behaviour of aquatic biodiversity, Bangladesh wetlands become crucial for the conservation of globally important biodiversity in the entire basin.
The marine resources of the Bay of Bengal are part of the world’s richest malacological region. These resources include clams, oysters, scallops, snails, slugs, chiton, squids, octopuses and some others. The ichthyofauna of the Bay of Bengal includes about 475 recorded species of fish, 53 of which are cartilaginous and 422 species are bony fishes. Chowdhury and Sanaullah (1991) described 19 species of shrimps and prawns found in the marine waters of Bangladesh. At least seven species of edible oyster can be found in the coastal waters of Bangladesh.
CWBMP Site selection - ECAs
The CWBMP formulation project ‘PRIF’ selected the CWBMP target sites for their globally significant biodiversity, particularly their avifaunal, aquatic and plant biodiversity. The sites were selected from a short-list of ten, based on the degree to which the following criteria were met:
National priority areas for biodiversity conservation, as defined by, e.g., the UNCED national report, National Conservation Strategy, etc.;
Globally significant biodiversity, including endemic, threatened and endangered species, representative habitats and/or significant
within-species genetic diversity;
Opportunities for development of sustainable use programmes;
Threats and root causes realistically addressable through a GEF intervention;
Full support of local communities;
Representativeness of distinct wetland ecosystems, i.e., inshore marine and coastal ecosystems and shallow freshwater haors or lakes, and;
Representativeness of the challenges facing management of the sites, implying important opportunities for replication.
Thus, the CWBMP has two main activity areas. On the coast side, the Cox’s Bazar Project sites include Sonadia Island, St. Martin’s Island and Teknaf Peninsula and on the inland side, the large Hakaluki Haor.
The importance ascribed to these places is further reflected in their nomination as ‘ECAs’ – Ecologically Critical Areas (ECAs) under the 1995 Environmental Conservation Act (BECA ’95). BECA articulates and expands upon the environmental management and sustainable development goals of the 1992 Environmental Policy. In particular, it defines the environmental regulatory regime and DOE’s mandate with respect thereto. Among the measures instituted by this law is a provision for the Declaration of Ecologically Critical Areas (ECAs).
Declaration of Ecologically Critical Areas
(1) If the Government is satisfied that due to degradation of environment the ecosystem of any area has reached or is threatened to reach a critical state, the Government may by notification in the official Gazette declare such areas as Ecologically Critical Areas.
(2) The Government shall specify, through the notification provided in Sub-clause (1) or by separate notification, which of the operations or processes cannot be initiated or continued in the Ecologically Critical Area (Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995).
The ECAs should be seen as the CWBMP focal areas. While the project is designed to address and remove all threats to biodiversity within its focal areas, threats within the wider ‘buffer zone’ will be mitigated in order to provide additional protection for the ‘focal areas.’
The ECA notification identifies the following activities as prohibited:
Felling or extracting of trees and forest;
Hunting and poaching of wild animals;
Catching or collection of snail, coral, turtle and other wild animals;
Establishment of industries that may pollute soil, water, air and/or create noise pollution;
Any activity that is likely to threaten the habitat of flora and fauna
Any activity that is likely to destroy/ alter the natural characteristics of soil and water,
Any activity that is likely to cause harm to fish and other aquatic life
Biodiversity Significance of Project Sites
The biodiversity importance of the site component areas may be summarised briefly as follows:
Teknaf Peninsula is one of the longest sandy beach ecosystems (80 km) in the world. It represents a transitional ground for the fauna of the Indo-Himalayan and Indo-Malayan ecological sub-regions (notably within its ‘project area’). The peninsula provides breeding areas for four globally threatened species of marine turtles and, lying along international bird migration flyways, serves as a significant bird area, with over 81 species recorded. Finally, its inshore waters host globally threatened marine mammals.
St. Martin’s Island is one of the few areas in the world where coral-algal communities dominate rocky reefs. This unique set of environmental conditions, biotic and abiotic, has no parallel in Bangladesh and perhaps not worldwide. The island also supports significant breeding areas for globally threatened marine turtle species, as well as serving as a staging site for several globally threatened migratory waders. It also supports some mangrove species not even found in the Sundarbans.
Sonadia Island supports the last remaining remnant of mangrove forest in south-east Bangladesh, which once stretched along much of the coastline of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar provinces. Sonadia’s mangroves are distinct from the well-known Sundarbans in south-west Bangladesh, due to their development in a coastal lagoonal setting rather than in a delta. This has led to the domination of different mangrove species, which are able to tolerate higher levels of salinity than their Sundarbans cousins. In addition to this important mangrove area, the island supports large numbers of waterbirds, rich communities of molluscs, echinoderms and marine turtles.
Hakaluki Haor presents a very different type of ecosystem as well as a new set of management issues. It represents a complex wetland system with more than 80 interconnecting beels in a shallow basin formed between the Patharia and Madhab Hills to the east and the Bhatera Hills to the west. The major sources of water are the Juri, sonai Bardhal and Kushiyara rivers, which traverse the wetland and drain through a single outlet, the Kushiyara River. Most of the local inhabitants are in some way dependent on the wetland for their livelihood. Hakaluki Haor supports one of the largest inland fisheries in Bangladesh. It is one of the so-called ‘mother fishery areas’, i.e. areas where brood, young and juvenile fish aggregate and take refuge during the dry season when the rest of the haor area becomes dry. While the area was once known as a “fishmine”, its fish stocks are now increasingly threatened. Hakaluki Haor is on a global level a very important wetland for a wide variety of waterfowl, particularly Anatidae ducks. In the 1960s, the wintering population of ducks was estimated at between 40,000 and 60,000. Threatened species such as Pallas’ Fish Eagle also occurs at the wetland, which is furthermore an important area for reptiles such as freshwater turtles, and for amphibians.