When development gives little and takes all
It is estimated that the Chittagong Hill Tracts, comprising the three districts of Rangamati, Khagrachari, and Bandarban, constitute one-tenth of Bangladesh's total land area. The natural beauty, and the linguistic and cultural diversity of this region have always attracted tourists at home and from abroad. For hundreds of years, many water bodies, including Chengi, Meini, Kajlong, Karnaphuli, Reingkhyong, Sangu, and Matamuhuri have flown through the thousands of hills to meet the Bay of Bengal by the lowlands of Chattogram.
At one time, the CHT was known for being the only evergreen forest in the country. But the hilly forest is no longer what it used to be. The topography and demographic characteristics of the hilly areas have changed drastically over the last few decades. The biggest concern is the frequency with which natural disasters are occurring in the three hilly districts of the country. Over the past few years, heavy rains in monsoons and extreme heat in summers seem to have become common in the region. Moreover, floods and landslides have also become a regular occurrence.
Flooding was once a foreign phenomenon in the hilly areas. But recently, the devastating floods in Bandarban have resulted in the suffering of thousands of people, the destruction of roads and communication systems, and extensive damage to infrastructure. All this is forcing us to think afresh about the state of natural balance in this region.
Most of the Sadar upazilas, including Bandarban city, were flooded due to the heavy rainfall between August 2 and 8. Locals say that such a terrible flood situation is unprecedented. According to a Prothom Alo report, 6,569 houses and 132 educational institutions suffered damages. The whole Bandarban district remained without power for quite a few days. The Sangu and Matamuhuri rivers also flowed over the danger level for several days. Bandarban's roads and infrastructure have been severely damaged by the heavy rains and flooding. Reportedly, about one-third of the roads constructed under the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) have become impassable. During this time, the operations of hospitals, fire services, and various public and private emergency service providers were practically at a standstill. About 28,000 books of the District Government Public Library in Bandarban have been lost. For the following week or so, the whole of Bandarban was virtually cut off from other districts of the country. Even now, road networking between Bandarban-Ruma, Bandarban-Thanchi, and Thanchi-Alikadam has not returned to normal. It is safe to say that it will take some time for the situation in the area to improve.
The authorities remain oblivious to how incompatible the cultivation of rubber and tobacco and the operation of numerous brick kilns in the hill areas are with the environment. On top of this, there is word that a five-star hotel will be put up in the region to expand tourism. This is despite the fact that locals' experience with existing tourist centres in different areas of the mountains, including Sajek, has not been very pleasant. Additionally, many hill dwellers have been displaced due to the tourism and development activities. The rate of environmental pollution in the region has gone up and the geological balance has been disturbed.
Besides Bandarban, many areas in Rangamati and Khagrachari also experienced flooding like never before. Many upazilas, such as Dighinala and Baghaichari, are reported to have suffered crores of taka worth of damages.
As some may remember, in 2017, hundreds of people lost their lives in a massive landslide in Rangamati district. Now that the recent flood situation in the hill districts is receding, we must think again about the overall balance of the hilly areas. Although many experts have cited landslides (due to the unusually heavy rainfall) as the main cause behind the disastrous flooding in the hill districts, locals claim that there are several other factors, including unplanned development, contributing to such anomalous conditions.
Over the past few decades, the entirety of our mountainous region has undergone massive deforestation in the name of road construction and infrastructure development. Trees were felled indiscriminately. The burden of development has been forced onto the region's pristine natural environment, with no regard for the basic needs and opinions of inhabitants. Various media reports often state how the forests in the hill areas are being destroyed one after another. In keeping a balance in the flow of the rivers passing through these hills, rocks play a crucial role. But despite repeated objections from local victims and environmental activists, stones and rocks have been quarried relentlessly from hill ranges, dams, canals, and rivers in different upazilas of Bandarban over the past few years. Needless to say, these streams are the only source of useable water for the hill dwellers. Due to this loss of drinking water sources, reports frequently emerge of diarrhoea outbreaks and children dying due to lack of treatment from remote areas such as Alikadam, Thanchi, and Naikhongchhari.
The authorities remain oblivious to how incompatible the cultivation of rubber and tobacco and the operation of numerous brick kilns in the hill areas are with the environment. On top of that, there is word that a five-star hotel will be put up in the region to expand tourism. This is despite the fact that locals' experience with existing tourist centres in different areas of the mountains, including Sajek, has not been very pleasant. Additionally, many hill dwellers have been displaced due to the tourism and development activities. The rate of environmental pollution in the region has gone up and the geological balance has been disturbed.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts hold a lot of potential for tourism in Bangladesh. If the natural resources and biodiversity of the region are properly looked after, it can help enhance the overall development of the country. But sustainable development cannot be achieved by destroying life and nature, as the reports of frequent natural disasters in the hill districts have showed us time and again. This downtrodden state of nature only reminds us that, before destroying the natural environment, we need to be aware of the consequences of such actions. The entire world is facing new challenges every day in dealing with the adverse impacts of global warming and climate change. If we still fail to realise the impact our actions have on the environment, we could be faced with even more devastating disasters in the future.
Sulav Chakma is former president of Bangladesh Indigenous Students Action Forum.