Biodiversity issue glossed over
None of the two agreements signed between Bangladesh and India on conservation of the Sundarbans and Royal Bengal Tigers addresses the issue of increasing salinity that continues to affect the biodiversity of the mangrove forest on Bangladesh side.
Salinity in Pashur, Sibsa and Raimongal rivers running through the Sundarbans has increased over the years, as flow of water in the Gorai river has decreased due to the Farakka barrage on the upstream.
However, the agreement on biodiversity says none of the two countries will do anything that may have an adverse impact on biodiversity and ecosystem -- one of the main obligations of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992.
Both Bangladesh and India are parties to the convention that obliges them to maintain natural water flow in river catchment areas to conserve regional ecology and biodiversity.
According to Article 3 of the convention, no country should take any step that may harm the biodiversity of another country.
Noted environmentalist Ainun Nishat said the flow of the Gorai river reduced drastically in 1975 resulting in a rise in salinity in the Sundarbans after the construction of the Farakka barrage in 1973.
Mentioning salinity as a major threat to biodiversity in the Sundarbans, Nishat, vice chancellor of Brac University, said this type of agreement cannot ignore the issue of salinity.
Asif Nazrul, an expert on water treaty, said, "The main issue regarding the Sundarbans should be adequate flow of water in rivers and canals. If India follows the convention, it should not disturb the natural flow of trans-boundary rivers."
But the convention's main spirit is absent in the agreement on conservation of the Sundarbans, a freshwater mangrove forest, he said.
The environment and forest ministry in its initial draft of the agreement on biodiversity mentioned the issue of ensuring flow of freshwater in the Sundarbans to protect its biodiversity, said a high-up of the ministry, preferring anonymity.
"But the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forest did not agree with the clause saying it is not in their jurisdiction," said the official.
"They said if the clause is kept, the Indian Ministry of Water Resources has to be engaged in the process. In that case, it will take a longer time to reach a consensus over the issue."
It is very crucial to conserve the biodiversity of the Sundarbans, as it is a transitional zone between freshwater from rivers and saline water of the Bay of Bengal, say experts.
The Sundarbans that stretches over an area of 10,000 square kilometres in the two countries is the habitat for more than 600 Royal Bengal Tigers. There have been reports that the tigers are being affected by rising salinity in water in the forest.
According to a report, nearly 20 million Sundari trees suffer from top dying -- a disease resulted from increased salinity in water.
Some experts say Royal Bengal Tigers suffer from various diseases for drinking saline water. It has also caused a change in their behaviour.
Prof Anwarul Islam, coordinator of the Sundarbans Tiger Project in Bangladesh, said it should be studied properly how increasing salinity has been affecting Tigers in the mangrove forest.
“There is no detailed study on impacts of salinity on tigers. We should conduct a detailed study on this,” he said.
But the issue was left out of the recent agreement “Conservation of the Royal Bengal Tiger of the Sundarbans” that talks of exchange of forest personnel between the two countries for training and education purposes.
Officials say the deal would create scope for joint projects on scientific research on tigers and the Sundarbans ecosystem.
They say the agreement on conservation of Royal Bengal Tigers could help check poachers and illegal wildlife trade in the Sundarbans.
Forest officials said the protocol would ensure engagement of paramilitary border guards of the two countries in the protection of tigers and wildlife.
Poachers have been on the prowl for tigers in the Sundarbans for increasing demand for tiger flesh and bone that are believed to have medicinal properties.
According to the tenets of Chinese medicine, not only the skin but almost all parts of a tiger have medicinal properties.
In July, three poachers were arrested with four deer heads and 60 kilograms of venison in Bagerhat. They confessed to trading tiger hides.
On February 17, forest officials arrested a poacher with four tiger skulls, 138 bones and hides of three tigers in Bagerhat.
In 2009, Rab seized a tiger hide and arrested three people in Khulna.
At least 29 tigers have been beaten to death by locals since 2000 while some were found dead in the Sundarbans, show records of the forest department.