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Liquid assets: restoring the wetlands of Bangladesh

Over 70 million people depend on the wetlands of Bangladesh (Paul Thompson)
Over 70 million people depend on the wetlands of Bangladesh
Paul Thompson

As a signatory to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Bangladesh has made an international commitment to protect its wetlands for future generations. But implementation has been lacking: wetlands have silted up, been drained for agriculture and industry, converted to fish ponds and blocked by embankments and roads. As a result, fishermen across the country's floodplains have seen their catches decline. Wetlands in Bangladesh are highly productive environments, supporting around 70 million rural households, including the very poorest. A study of Hail Haor, a large, overexploited wetland in Moulvibazar District, northeast Bangladesh, revealed that the annual value of wetland products in 2000 was about US$650 per hectare, almost double the net return from a single crop of dry season rice. The annual return from the haor was estimated to be just under US$8 million, providing mainly fish and aquatic plants - essential sources of food and income for the poor.

Thinking local

To help restore productivity in three large wetlands, the Bangladesh government and USAID have been supporting a project since 1998, working with local people to develop a community-based approach to wetland restoration and management. Known as the MACH project (Management of Aquatic Ecosystems through Community Husbandry)*, the project takes its name from the Bengali word mach, meaning 'fish'. As a result of the project, community-based Resource Management Organisations (RMO) were formed with a broad representation of local people to restore and sustain production in defined areas of wetland. With support from local government, these RMOs coordinate management of the whole wetland ecosystem through Upazila (sub-district) Fisheries Committees.

Conservation and restoration

In Hail Haor, local communities identified an area of approximately 100 ha called Baikka Beel, that could be protected without disadvantaging poor people, who could continue to fish and collect aquatic plants elsewhere in the haor. Endorsed by the local government, the Ministry of Land then designated the area as a permanent sanctuary in July 2003, giving up an annual lease income of about US$1,500. The sanctuary is protected by Baragangina RMO, one of eight such organisations formed to manage different parts of the haor, which follows a management plan prepared through consultation with local people and approved by the Upazila Fisheries Committee. Two of their actions have been to excavate deeper areas as fish refuges and to re-plant native swamp forest trees. Since 2004, fishing in Baikka Beel has been banned by the community. The sanctuary, with similar smaller ones designated by the other RMOs, together with habitat restoration and closed seasons, have increased fish catches across the 13,000 ha of Hail Hoar by over 80 per cent and increased local fish consumption by 45 per cent. The community has also ceased to hunt and collect aquatic plants in the sanctuary. As a result, within two years mid-winter water bird censuses revealed an increase from under 1,000 birds of 15 species to over 7,000 birds of 35 or more species, and these populations have been sustained. Recognising the attraction of these winter birds, MACH helped to construct and equip an observation tower for eco-tourists, the first of its kind in Bangladesh. Increasing numbers of visitors now pay the community organisation modest fees to watch large flocks of migrant ducks such as Lesser Whistling-duck and Northern Pintail, and globally threatened species including Pallas's Fish Eagle.

A sustaininable future?

Fish catches have been declining in some areas of threatened wetlands (Paul Thompson)
Fish catches have been declining in some areas of threatened wetlands
Paul Thompson

Declaring areas to be protected is relatively easy, but often protection is only on paper, and over-exploitation and degradation continue unabated. For example, as development of the textile industry has increased close to the capital Dhaka, 50 billion tonnes of effluent is discharged each year into restored wetlands, killing fish and threatening human health. However, when MACH research revealed that the industries adopting better dyeing practices would both save money and reduce pollution, the Department of Environment signed an agreement with the local co-management body to enforce standards in the factories. Successful restoration in the wetlands has been a result of cooperation - between the poor and better off, between local leaders, councillors and officials. A change in attitudes has also been complemented by local community organisations acting to overcome local problems, by supporting livelihood diversification for local poor people and by formal collaboration between communities and government. All can now take pride in their joint achievements. But there is still much to be done and Bangladesh has little time to act to ensure that tomorrow's generations can enjoy the benefits and beauty of its wetlands. Or, it will be too late.

MACH was implemented by Winrock International, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, Center for Natural Resources Studies, and Caritas Bangladesh, working closely with the Department of Fisheries.

Written by: Paul Thompson, Middlesex University, formerly Senior Natural Resources Advisor, MACH project

Date published: November 2008


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