Padma bridge wildlife sanctuary: 2 years on, still confined to words
Two years have passed since the declaration of the Padma Bridge Wildlife Sanctuary, but the forest department is yet to take any steps to conserve the biodiversity of the Padma.
The move was a bid to reduce the impact on the biodiversity due to the construction of the bridge.
A new problem emerged about a year ago when sand mining began at various points of the river in Shariatpur and Madaripur as part of the river training work of the Padma Bridge project. The Padma Bridge Authority has permitted the dredging.
Extraction of sand is posing a threat to the aquatic life of the river, which may force schools of hilsa to migrate elsewhere. It has also exposed the river banks to erosion in Munshiganj and Shariatpur.
The environment, forest and climate change ministry in 2020 declared the river's 11,772 hectares area, including shoals and wetlands, as Padma Bridge Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary covers 118 square miles in Munshiganj, Shariatpur, Madaripur and Faridpur.
Dewan Md Abdul Kader, executive engineer of the Padma Bridge Authority, said the river training work would end in June next year. "Dredging is going on to facilitate navigation of cranes and barges around the pillars of the bridge," he told The Daily Star.
Forest department officials said they held several meetings within their office and also with the bridge authority on conservation of the biodiversity after the publication of the gazette. However, no measures have been taken in this regard in the last two years.
The department says it could not look after the sanctuary as the bridge authority was still carrying out river training work.
Professor Lokman Hossen, team leader of the Biodiversity Conservation Programme for Padma Bridge, said erosion of the river caused by the sand extraction has devoured two unions. "Both the banks of the Padma are exposed to erosion because of the unbridled sand extraction."
Hilsa has stopped migrating to the Padma, he said, adding that dolphins, locally known as Shusuk, are hardly seen in the river.
"Parts of Painpara, Teotia, Char Janajat and Korailer Char have already gone into the Padma. This is harming the biodiversity of the river," he told The Daily Star.
Visiting the river last month, this newspaper found more than 30 dredgers extracting sand within around 100 metres of the bridge in Mawa of Munshiganj, which is in the core zone of the sanctuary.
Sand mining in part of Sariatpur's Janjira upazila remained suspended following intervention by the local administration on the ground that it did not grant permission. Locals also held rallies demanding the authorities concerned take actions to stop the dredging of the river bed.
Md Salauddin Bepara, former chairman of Kunderchar Union Parishad in Janjira, told The Daily Star that around 400 homes and about 100 acres of arable land went into the river. "Sand traders in connivance with some officials from the administration and police have been causing this suffering to the people," he said.
Shafiqul Islam, director of Padma Bridge Project, told this newspaper that they permitted 31 dredgers to mine sand as a part of the river training work.
Asked if any study was conducted to assess the harm the dredging could cause to the biodiversity, he did not give a direct answer and advised The Daily Star to talk to an expert.
Imran Ahmed, conservator of forest (wildlife and nature conservation) of the forest department, said though the government issued a gazette declaring it as sanctuary, the bridge authority was yet to hand over the area to them.
"We are in touch with the bridge authority. Once the river training work is done, they will hand over the area to us," he said.
The Munshiganj office of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) in a letter sent to its higher authorities in August said that the dredging was violating the Sand Quarries and Earth Management Act-2010. The law stipulates that the slope of the river bed should be preserved during sand mining and it has to be ensured that river bed uniform level is not harmed.
The extraction should be done following the swing method to maintain the uniform level of the river bed, read the letter.
It also added that the amount of sand to be extracted was not mentioned by the bridge authority, which gives the dredgers the scope for unbridled sand mining. This could change the river's morphological character.
Asked about the BIWTA's objections, an official of the Padma Bridge Authority refused to make any comment.