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Wetland Specialist Study, Northeast Regional Water Management Plan, Bangladesh Flood Action Plan 6



1.  Increasing rural-urban and rural-government links ('monetization').

As links between rural and urban areas, and between rural areas and government agencies increase, the balance of power between local people and powerful individuals within and outside the local community is changing. The development of improved transportation and communications infrastructure is increasing outside entrepreneurs' access to rural resources. New sources of income, information, and influence are increasing local elites' power within their communities. And within local communities as a whole, from the top of the power structure on down, shifts from traditional cultural to modern consumer 'money-economy' values are gradually taking place.

As a result, powerful individuals are increasingly taking management control of wetland resources away from traditional community management groups, and denying traditional resource users their customary access rights. As managers and users change, so management objectives and practices change, from longer-term sustained community benefits to short-term one-time cash profits.

Examples of this are the changes in swamp forest management and in restriction to wetland access.

Rural-urban links can also have positive effects. In particular, they provide opportunities for alliances between local resource user groups and urban-based conservation activists and resource scientists. These have been limited so far, however.

2.  Continued dependence on local resources for biomass and other necessities.

For most of the region's residents, local resources are the only source of biomass for fuel, building materials, and to a certain extent fodder; soil nutrients (fertilizer/compost); medicines; and other necessities. As a result, there is continued strong local demand for wetland products, and market values for them exist and remain relatively high. This heavy demand pressure coupled with weak resource management, sets the stage for localized over-exploitation (yields decreasing even as exploitation effort is increasing).

3.  Rural impoverishment.

Wetland resource gathering is attractive to those for whom it provides better economic returns than the alternative activities open to them. Of all households, 50% are functionally landless, rural unemployment and underemployment is very high, and rural population is increasing faster than rural employment creation. As other economic options disappear, increasing numbers of rural residents will likely engage in wetland resource gathering.

The increased harvesting pressure already has or will push systems beyond sustainable levels; the result is declining total production. The large numbers of resource gatherers involved and their lack of alternative survival strategies implies that improved resource management -- even for improvements that maintain current yields -- will not be easy, and will depend on working in partnership with the resource gatherers themselves.

Rural impoverishment can also occur as the result of specific 'development' activities: oustees from sites adjacent to wetlands can also contribute to wetland exploitation. For example, BFIDC's planned conversion of ~400 ha yr-1 of upland forest to tea and rubber plantations will displace biomass gatherers and settlers, who may then become dependent on resources from nearby Hail and Hakaluki Haors.

4.  Expansion of new technologies ('modernization').

Many of the new technologies that have been introduced to the region are accompanied by adverse impacts on the wetland values. Examples:

  • High yielding variety (HYV) technology packages (HYV seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides) can boost encroachment rates and consume and pollute water.
  • Diesel pumps are used to pump out marginal wetland areas for conversion to agricultural use.
  • Improved fishing implements such as boat mechanization and ice plants can boost fishing effort and increase overall fishing efficiency.
  • Mechanized boats contribute to water pollution and increase the scope and efficiency of transport access to wetland areas.
Not every technological change affects wetlands adversely, however, and some changes can have definite benefits:
  • Rural electrification and LPG extension can lessen pressure on species used as biomass fuel.
  • Technology-induced increases in employment and income in other sectors can lessen overall pressure on wetland resources.
5.  Widening markets and increasing local, urban, and international demand for certain wetland products.

Demand for wetland products is increasing broadly, with increasing local rural population, increasing urban population and wealth nationally, and increasing penetration and intensity of international demand. This demand can be species-specific or more general (for fuel, for example). Over the last century or so, worldwide, many species have been wiped out or brought to the brink of extinction as the result of intense species-specific demand. This type of demand -- often reflecting a new fashion (locally or internationally) in food, clothing, or medicine, or the entry of new entrepreneurs into a trading circuit -- can intensify rapidly and is hard to predict. Examples of species of the Northeast Region known to be vulnerable are:

  • Turtles. Demand as table food.
  • Frogs. International demand as table food.
  • Snakes. Hong Kong, Singapore demand for skins
  • Lizards. Japanese demand for skins to be used for shoes, bags, and so on.
6.  Traditional cultural emphasis on rice and rice cultivation.

Management decisions are influenced by factors other than economic return. In Bengali society, there is an extremely strong preference for rice. Rice connotes pleasure and plenty: rice cultivators have considerably higher status than those dependent on other wetland resources (such as fish, wild plants, waterfowl), and many feel that a meal lacking rice cannot nourish or satisfy hunger.

This leads to wetland management practices such as induced silting up of wetlands to create areas suitable for rice cultivation and pumping out marginal areas to facilitate early planting - even when rice cultivation may not be the most economically attractive use of these areas.

7.  Increasing concern for environment and wetlands.

Both nationally and internationally, interest in environmental matters, including concern for wetland values, is increasing dramatically. There are many signs of this, among them the signing of the Ramsar Convention and other international agreements by Bangladesh, the increasing numbers of environmental NGOs, donor country environmental reports and guidelines, and so on. Overall, interest in and institutional resources for wetland management improvements is much higher than even a few years ago, and will likely continue to increase.

8.  National political changes.

The change to a democratically-elected government in 1990 has opened up public discourse and policy in a variety of areas, among them environmental management. This affords an opportunity to re-examine entrenched policies and attitudes towards wetlands, and established wetland management practices. The democratic government also has a less ambivalent stance with regard to public participation, a key element of any realistic improvement to wetland management systems.

9.  GOB ownership of wetland areas, bureaucratic inertia, and the practice of 'compromise'.

By definition, the Government owns all areas submerged to greater than a designated depth. Tenure over wetlands and other government-owned lands is vested in an agency (Ministry of Land) with a revenue collection mandate and no interest or expertise in resource management. MOL generally leases out its holdings -- be they fisheries, quarries, grazing lands, swamp forests.

The system is essentially a remnant of the British colonial period, held in place not by current economic or policy interests of the central government but by bureaucratic inertia and the practice of 'compromise' (A.S. Huque, 1989) wherein a bureaucrat and a prospective lessee agree on a lease fee well below the market price.

The lease fees appear under the heading 'Land Revenue Tax' in the government budget. Land Revenue Tax is a negligible proportion of government revenues. In 1986-7, gross Land Revenue tax was Tk 649 million or 1.7% of Tk 37,253 million total gross revenues. Even of this small amount, well over 80% is retained at the district level for collection costs, reducing the proportion of total gross revenue to 0.24%.

The beneficiaries of the current leasing system are the money lenders and lessees who derive hugh profits from land leases; those paid to collect the tax; and specific government agencies holding accounts to which the tax is credited. These vested interests are so powerful and so weakly opposed that the system looks likely to stay in place indefinitely, despite the many ways in which it opposes stated national interests:

Tax theorists generally view rents and taxes as stimulative of resource depletion and degradation. This runs counter to stated Government policy to promote sustainable resource management.

Rents and taxes on wetlands transfer wealth from rural areas to the centre, and from poor resource gatherers to members of the elite; again, Government policy is to focus development efforts on (to direct government resources towards) rural areas and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, which would include most families dependent on fishing and other wetland resources.

The land revenue system subsidizes concentration of control over resources in the hands of a few individuals (lessees and their government counterparts) also counter to Government policy prohibiting large landholdings and encouraging control of resources by bona fide users.

10.  Regional infrastructure development.

Regional infrastructure development can clearly have major impacts on wetlands. Roads and highways can alter drainage patterns and stimulate economic activity. Water resources development for agriculture -- flood control, drainage, irrigation -- can change inundation timing and levels, alter low flows, and affect water quality, to name but a few potential direct impacts.

11.  Development in upstream areas.

Development in upstream areas -- changes in agriculture, land use, water resources use, and so on -- can affect wetlands by changing water quantity and quality. An important example is the proposed dam at Tipaimukh.

12.  Climate change.

Climate change as a driving force for the wetlands of the Northeast Region pales beside the pressures of human exploitation, at least in the near term. Over longer periods, a century and more, climate change will likely be an important factor. Current models of anthropogenic climate change are not yet accurate enough to provide useful information on the scales of interest (current models do not agree on whether or how much the monsoon circulation will intensify, for example).

5.2   ISSUES

1.  Improved wetland management is highly congruent with the national development strategy, despite the perception that 'conservation' is an 'anti-development luxury'.

Table 5.1 illustrates the congruence between national strategy and the wetland management improvements.

Key wetland values (benefits) include:

  • of direct benefit to local residents ...
    1. primary production of economically valuable wetland plant and animal products (including openwater fishery)
    2. employment related to wetland products, both in primary activities such as gathering and secondary activities such as manufacturing)
    3. hydrologic services such flood peak reduction through diversion and storage
    4. ecosystem services such as water purification, contributions to soil quality
    5. erosion control by lowland trees and other plants
  • of indirect benefit to local residents; of national and international interest ...
    1. biodiversity, broadly defined (see Glossary); in particular, preservation of threatened species
    2. representative ecosystems and habitats (reed land, mature swamp forest community)
    3. integrity of flyway for internationally-migrating waterfowl
  • - of direct benefit to the rural poor ...
    1. progressive equity distribution of wetland benefits mentioned above (benefits go overwhelmingly to the poorest). This characteristic has been nullified in the area of openwater fishery, by the fishery leasing/land revenue system.
The last wetland value listed is key. Government policy targets the hard-core poor. Wetlands, which provide vital benefits to this group, should be explicitly incorporated as an element of strategy to reach this target, for rural poor with access to wetland areas.

There is a need for wetland education for development policy-makers, planners, project teams, local communities, and other interested parties wetlands, to counter the perception that initiatives related to wetlands are by definition 'conservation-oriented' with the meaning 'anti-development'. Until wetlands are understood to be valuable and important, and lines of communication are open between interested parties, it will be difficult to address the rest of the issues discussed here.

A start has been made in this area with a MOEF, CIDA, and IUCN co-sponsored a national-level workshop on Conservation and Sustainable Management of Freshwater Wetlands in Bangladesh in December 1992.

2.  Wetland values need to be incorporated into development planning.

Wetland benefits need to be recognized and factored into development planning, to reduce environmental damage through appropriate mitigation, and to prevent falsely optimistic estimates of project returns by including losses of wetland value due to projects in project economic assessments. Both economic and other indicators (for example equity, quality of life) should be used as appropriate. The result should be the best use of each wetland site.

3.  Wetland benefits need to be stabilized, preserved, and enhanced.

Almost every wetland value listed represents an area where management improvements could induce additional benefits. The potential for management improvement in each area needs to be examined critically. Additional benefits, and the efforts required to achieve them, need to be assessed in the same way that other development alternatives are assessed, and prioritized alongside them on the basis of appropriate indicators.

Both traditional and creative approaches to improved wetland management should be examined: wildlife sanctuaries, semi-protected areas under local management, rotating preserves, zoning (for example, to limit water resource infrastructure development in certain areas), and so on.

4.  The responsibility for and rewards of day-to-day wetland resource management belong in the hands of local communities and user groups.

Improved wetland management to optimize wetland benefits, and sustainable manufacturing based on wetland products will be possible only if resource use (benefits) and management control (responsibility) rest, in the long term, with the same entity.

As noted above, one of the most attractive characteristics of wetland production is its progressive equity distribution (in the absence of distorting policies): the benefits go mostly to poor rural residents. A logical corollary is that resource management responsibility should be devolved to this group ('community-based management'). Private corporations, local and other government agencies, and similar entities will have other appropriate roles, but overall stewardship should rest with local communities/user groups.

5.  The information base for wetland management decision-makers needs to be improved.

Informed decision-making will require better information about wetlands: what they are, how they are changing, who exploits them, for what goods and services, and how much these goods and services are worth. The need for information runs from original research to routine monitoring; study programs should carefully focused to meet the needs of resource managers and users. Establishing alliances between Bangladeshi investigators and institutions and the international scientific community will be key.

6.  The value added to wetland products needs to be increased, especially for items with export potential.

Currently little value is added to the bulk of wetland products: plants and animals are gathered, undergo basic processing (drying, bundling), and are then sold. There is a need to develop regional industries (cottage or larger-scale) to produce more finished, higher-value wetland goods, such as water hyacinth paper and furniture.

Boosting the value added to wetland products would increase demand for and market value of wetland raw materials; increase wetland-based employment and wages; and increase the value of wetlands relative to other land uses, thereby providing additional incentive to manage wetlands more wisely.

7.  Critical wetland areas need to be protected.

Had one or more protected freshwater wetland areas been established (say in the 1870s at the time that the Sundarban Reserve Forest was established), many extinctions could have been avoided and a number of unique ecosystems preserved. This is still the case. The six key wetland sites documented in this study should receive immediate attention to establish viable protection and management.

8.  A relentless focus on strategic interventions will be key.

Pressures on the remaining wetlands are heavy and resources (both financial and institutional) to address wetland issues are severely limited. There is a need to narrow the focus to a few key interventions and follow through.

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Table 5.1: Government development strategies and desirable wetland management improvements | return to text |
GOB strategy Wetland management improvement
Decentralized participatory planning Improve understanding of and dialogue about wetlands among development policy-makers, project teams, and local community-based user groups. 

Shift from centralized to local community-based wetland management. 

Development of rural economy; involvement of and benefits for the poor Enhance wetland benefits. 

Increase wetland value-added, especially for items with export potential.

Shift from centralized to local community-based wetland management.

Appropriate transfer and adaptation of technology, targeted toward supporting employment in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors Transfer and adaptation of technology to: 
  • enhance wetland benefits, 
  • increase wetland value-added, 
  • mitigate adverse wetland impacts of other activities.
Promote competitive private enterprises, thrust on export-oriented business Seek maximum sustainable yields of wetland products, especially those with export potential.

Increase wetland value-added, especially for items with export value.

Integrate national conservation strategy to prevent degradation of the environment Stabilize, preserve, and enhance wetland values.

Improve the information base for wetland management decision-makers.


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