Haor disaster: trace the root-cause
On the backdrop of an uproar across the Bangladesh-India border over India’s exposing open pits of uranium to Ranikor River basin causing deaths of fish in Meghalaya and subsequent deaths of ducks, fish and other aquatic species as well as livestock in Bangladesh’s northeastern haor belt impelled the government to assign the 10-member expert team of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) to ascertain the presence of radioactive materials in the wetlands. The team led by Dilip Kumar Saha clinched their investigation and resolved the case that the radioactive materials found in the Haor water were ‘not in alarming level’. Without testing other aspects of contamination and echoing local inexpert farmers and villagers, the expert team jumped to the denouement that paddy plants that were submerged in water for a long time along with pesticides and urea created ammonia gas which in fact killed fish and other aquatic species. While BAEC ties the file-ribbon for this case, their conclusion, could be just a fresh start for a comprehensive investigation and longitudinal research to trace the real cause for the death of the vast number of aquatic species and livestock.
The Fisheries Department estimates that half a million metric tonnes of Boro crops, around 1,276 tonnes of fish worth roughly Tk 410 million and other aquatic species as well as 4000 ducks along with other livestock died in different haors in Bangladesh adjacent India’s Ranikor basin when unusually early flash flood struck the haor belt late last month. The question of radioactive tests was raised when three weeks after the flash flood, concerned authorities could not provide any scientific explanation while a few others relevant issues posed a big question mark for such a colossal death of lives. Bangladesh experiences flash floods almost every year and losing crops is nothing strange to local farmers; but the death of a huge number of fish, frogs, fowls, snails and livestock as an aftermath of such floods in Sylhet region is quite a new phenomenon.
The hullabaloo about the exposing open pits of uranium and their possible effects on the wetlands started across the border, in India which crossed the border and made the Bangladeshi locals alarmed for the dangerous effects of uranium on the surprising epidemic death of fish and other animals. There is no proof yet, but if uranium is found, Bangladesh’s wetland and the river system connected to it will suffer a heavy blow, affecting aquatic species and humans alike. India’s predominantly Khasi communities living in Ranikor River basins,just across the Indo-Bangla border near Sunamganj’s Tanguar Haor, raised alarm after the deaths of their river as well as fish population due to what they suspect ‘uranium toxins’ from an estimated 1500 drilling pits kept exposed in close vicinities. The late March onrush of upstream hill waters and excessive rains that submerged a vast tract of back swamp in Sunamganj and a few other northeastern haor zones came along the West Khasi Hills’ river basins of Ranikor in Meghalaya. Recently, locals in the West Khasi Hills observed change of color from blue to green in the Ranikor River water, about 3 km from the Jadukata River near the border area in Tahirpur of Sunamganj. Khasi students have been protesting and demanding that the authorities fill up the uranium drilling pits as they have strong suspicion that toxins from the open pits were causing deaths of fish in their river. They also said thousands of fish were found floating in Ranikor River. The river is now almost dead without any fish and aquatic lives in it. ‘We highly suspect that the sudden death of fish and now the abnormal change in the colour of the River is due to uranium drilling,’ Khasi leader Marconi Thongni told the newsman. He claimed hundreds of pits were abandoned after carrying out uranium drilling activities in the thick forest at Porkut area in West Khasi Hills.
Presence of uranium radioactivity in haor water in Bangladesh is not proved yet, but this is also true that no large scale investigation has been carried out. The hasty experiment of BAEC did not find the radioactivity level ‘alarming’ which lulled the public outcry for the time being, but it did not solve the problem as the locals and the experts termed the death of fish and other species as a strange phenomenon. Meanwhile, the lifting of the ban on catching and selling fish of those affected haors leaves the risk of the spread of contamination. The government should stop the catching of fish in those haors immediately and form parliamentary judicial body for an extensive probe to trace the root-cause of the epidemic loss.
*The author is a freelancer. He can be reached at email@example.com