Thirst stalks deforested hill districts
Abu Bakar Siddique

  • Twenty-year-old Singpai Mro of Headman Para, a forest village in Bandarban district’s Chimbuk Belt, draws water from a creek a kilometre away from the village as her two-year-old daughter Katsing clings to her mother’s sarong. When this creek dries up next month, she will have to walk three times the distance to collect water for her family 
    Photo- Abu Bakar Siddique

Mornings are a busy time for the women of Headman Para in the Chimbuk Belt of Bandarban hill district. Among the many chores that must be attended to, the most crucial one for 20-year-old Singpai Mro begins at 10am.

At 10 each morning, she sets off on the first of several treks of the day to collect water for her household. A nearby creek located a kilometre away is the nearest source of water during this season.

With her two-year-old daughter Katsing in tow, Singpai slings a woven basket across her back like a rucksack which she will soon fill with bottles of water collected from the creek.

Every woman in Chimbuk Headman Para makes the trek to the creek twice or thrice everyday to bathe and collect water. Many set off for the creek much earlier in the morning.

After returning home they cook before heading out to the slash and burn agricultural fields known as jhum for the rest of the day. After finishing their work in the fields, they return to the creek again to wash up and collect water for household use.

Singpai begins her trek a little later in the morning, having recently given birth. Rumaiya, her infant son, is 5 months old.

She is stoic about the distance she must travel for a basic necessity like water.

Smiling thinly, she says that in three or four weeks she will have to walk an even longer distance because this creek will dry up by then.

Paring Mro, the 32-year-old headman of the community of 65 families, tells the Dhaka Tribune: “From June to November, we use the nearer creek as our water source. The rest of the year, from December to May, we are forced to use the farther creek, three times distant, because this creek will be completely dry.”

Still searching

The distance from Bandarban Sadar to Chimbuk Hill is roughly 24 kilometres. About halfway between them lies Bethani Para, a village established 5 or 6 years ago.

Twenty families belonging to the Bom community split off from Sarong Para village 3 kilometres away, because it suffers from an acute water shortage, and established the new village adjacent to a large creek.

Siam Nem Bom, 56, her husband Laljoulian Bom and their three daughters moved to the new village site with the other families in search of water.

But since last year, the creek has begun to dry up during the dry season. So she is back to trekking in search of water every day.

Cause and effect

Villages in the hill districts are traditionally sited near creeks. But creeks have become unreliable water sources in recent times because they dry up after the monsoon.

The sole cause of the seasonal water scarcity in the hill districts is rapid deforestation, according to forest expert and Aranyak Foundation Executive Director Farid Uddin Ahmed.

According to the Bangladesh Forest Department, hill forests cover around 1,377,000 hectares or 9.33% of the country’s total land area. All of the hill forest cover is located in the Chittagong Hill Tracts which is comprised of three districts Khagrachhori, Rangamati and Bandarban.

Forest experts say overexploitation to meet the demand of rapidly the growing population in the hill districts is decimating the forests, as inhabitants cut down trees and use the land for agriculture.

Moreover, the illegal timber business and increasing tobacco cultivation, which requires massive amounts of wood to cure
the tobacco, fuel deforestation, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyer’s Association, said.

Changing patterns of rainfall due to global warming also contributes to deforestation, as exemplified by recent incidents of wildfire caused by a lack of rainfall and prolonged heat waves, she added.

Planting hope

The government as well as several non-governmental organisations have taken initiatives to check rapid deforestation in the region.

Introducing mango and lychee plantations in the hill districts is one major initiative.

Aranyak Foundation, a tropical forest conservation platform, has been promoting mango, lychee and coffee plantations in the hilly areas.

“We are primarily trying to make local people aware of the importance of having enough forest cover in the region as that is the only source of water,” said Farid Uddin, the foundation’s executive director.

Our aim is to promote fruit orchards in hill areas where there is no longer any forest, in order to ensure forest cover, he said. “These trees are long lasting and will provide the hill communities with lucrative cash crops.” 

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