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Wetland Resources Specialist Study, Northeast Regional Water Management Plan, Bangladesh Flood Action Plan 6 (IEE NERP FAP 6), 1995

Two versions of this report are available online:

1.     Final version scanned, 91Mb PDF.

2.      Draft final version, selected sections HTML, accessible through the links below.

Client:  Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Water Development Board, Flood Plan Coordination Organisation
Donor:  Canadian International Development Agency
Consultants:  SNC Lavalin International & Northwest Hydraulic Consultants Ltd., in association with Engineering and Planning Consultants Ltd., Bangladesh Engineering and Technological Services, Institute For Development Education and Action, and Nature Conservation Movement
Report written by:  Dr. Sara Bennett, Dr. Derek Scott, Ansarul Karim, Istiak Sobhan, Anisuzzaman Khan, and S.M.A. Rashid.


Table of contents

Acronyms and abbreviations

Glossary of terms

Ch.  1: Introduction
Ch.  2: Wetland study overview
Ch.  3: Interpretive description of the region's wetlands
Ch.  4: Policy and institutional context
Ch.  5: Driving forces and issues in wetland mgmt
Ch.  6: Analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to wetlands
Ch.  7: Wetland management objectives
Ch.  8: Key wetland management initiatives


Executive Summary


The Northeast Region of Bangladesh (Figure 1) contains numerous large semi-natural wetlands and small fragments of natural and human-modified upland forest. This document focuses on selected biodiversity elements of these landscapes. This information is part of the total information base generated for the NERP regional water resources planning exercise. Other NERP reports - in hydrology/hydrogeology, fisheries, river morphology and sedimentation, social anthropology, and so on - document other characteristics of the region. 

Scope of study and methodology

The information presented here is based on (1) wetland field studies conducted throughout the region during the period December 1991 to May 1993 a naturalist team including a wetland specialist, ornithologists, botanists, and wildlife biologists; (2) village-level participatory studies conducted in villages at three of the key wetland sites and near threatened habitat fragments from January to March 1994 by a team of social anthropology field workers; and (3) upland forest visits during early 1994 by the naturalist team.

Executive summary (continued)

The wetland field studies opened with a regional wetland appraisal and ornithology survey at the height of the waterfowl migration season, and included three aerial surveys. Based on these observations, a programme of ornithological, floral, and wildlife studies was designed and carried out at selected sites over the next year.

The village-level participatory studies were designed as a follow-on investigation, to learn from local people their perceptions of the history and current status of wetland resources, in particular remaining threatened habitat fragments; how these landscape elements were and are managed and utilized; what benefits they previously and currently provide(d); and what measures could be taken to secure their survival and continued local benefits.

The upland forest visits were undertaken to round out NERP's understanding of regional biodiversity, and to draw attention to the small but highly biodiverse fragments of tropical forest remaining in the region. Uplands account for but a small fraction of the study effort; results are presented in Annex E.

Historical perspective

In its original form, the haor basin of northeast Bangladesh would have consisted of a rich mosaic of permanent and seasonal lakes and ponds with abundant aquatic vegetation, surrounded by vast areas of swampy ground with tall reeds and seasonally flooded grasslands. Swamp forest, dominated by Barringtonia acutangula hijal, Pongamia pinnata koroch, and other flood-tolerant tree species, would have covered the river levees, and provided a secure refuge for terrestrial wildlife during the monsoon floods. On higher ground, this would have given way to scrub jungle and dense stands of bamboo.

Wildlife would have been abundant - Marsh Crocodile, Otter, Rhinoceros, Wild Buffalo, and Swamp Deer grazing in the marshes; Asian Elephant, Gaur, Sambar Deer, Hog Deer, and Wild Boar roaming the forests and grasslands; and Tigers and Leopards, and smaller cats and other types of predators hunting their preferred habitats.

Birds would have been everywhere - teeming flocks of migrant ducks and herons, egrets, storks, ibises, whistling-ducks, comb ducks, pygmy geese and many more species. During the breeding season, there would have been huge mixed colonies of cormorants, herons, and storks in the patches of forest, while the marshes would have rung with the bugling calls of Sarus Cranes.

Many millennia ago, humans would have begun visiting and later inhabiting the region, initially fully dependent on hunting animals and gathering plants. Later, domesticated herds and cultivated crops would have taken on increasing importance, introduced through local innovation, and by traders, travelers, and new settlers.

Today, although most of the permanent water bodies have survived, all the other major natural ecosystems have almost completely disappeared. Vast areas of the seasonally flooded plains have been converted to rice monoculture, while areas less suitable for rice are now heavily grazed by domestic livestock or cultivated for wheat and other crops. The swamp forests have been reduced to a few small patches, often no more than ten or twenty widely scattered and now very old trees, while all land above the level of the monsoon floods has been utilized for permanent settlement and homestead forests. The swamp forests, scrub jungle, bamboo thickets, and dense stands of reeds have almost entirely disappeared.

One result is that wave erosion increasingly affects many villages of the deeply flooded area, as the grasses, reeds, and swampforest trees growing around them are removed. Still today, however, many villagers of the region, especially the poorest, still rely on wetlands for biomass fuel, building material, fodder, and food, and the continuing loss of these potentially renewable resources is a source of hardship to them.

Similarly, the hillocks within the region and foothills areas along its borders were once covered with primary growth tropical forest, a habitat type that here as elsewhere is highly biodiverse. Now, most has been converted to tea plantation, scrub, or monoculture forest plantation. Only one small fragment of primary growth forest survives; a few others though significantly human-modified retain significant biodiversity.

Internationally significant wetland sites

The NERP wetland investigations found nine wetland sites in the region (Figure 2) that meet one or more Ramsar Convention criteria (Tables 2.1a and 2.1b) for international significance. Further study might well show that other regional wetland also qualify. In addition, many other sites would meet one or more of any reasonable set of criteria for national significance (which have not been formulated in Bangladesh as yet).

In order of general importance, the nine key wetland sites are:

  1. Tangua Haor, perhaps the most natural large wetland remaining in the region. Tangua is the core of the northern haor system, which held 40% of all waterfowl recorded during the February/March 1992 survey. Tangua Haor has also been identified as the single most important major fish production and dispersal centre ("mother fishery" - see Glossary) in the region.
  2. Pasua Beel, Gurmar Haor is surrounded by the finest stands of natural floodplain vegetation in the region, including a dense stand of Pongamia pinnata koroch, large areas of reeds Phragmites kharka nol, and patches of dense shrubbery. These appear to be the best remaining examples of Pongamia forest and tall reed swamp habitat in the region. The site provides secure roosting for huge numbers of cormorants, herons, and egrets (at least 4,600 in late April 1992), supports a number of bird species which are scarce elsewhere in the region, including concentrations of Pallas's Fish Eagle, a globally threatened species, and exhibits a much higher diversity of waterfowl and other wetland birds than any other site investigated, with surveys finding 56% of all regional waterfowl species at this site.
  3. Hakaluki Haor has been long known as a major wintering area for migratory waterfowl, especially ducks, and is a popular duck-hunting area for sportsmen from Dhaka. Important for wintering migratory shorebirds, and a mother fishery.
  4. Hail Haor has biodiversity value primarily with regard to its unique status in the region as the largest shallow permanent lake, which supports a very rich and diverse aquatic plant community and a wide variety of resident bird species, several of which are scarce elsewhere in the region.
  5. Kaliajuri Area, a relatively undisturbed area representative of the deeply flooded zone, has also been identified as a mother fishery. The area has some swamp forest patches, and in the dry season extensive areas of winter grasses, such as Hematheria protensa chailla which is rot resistant and widely gathered and used in the construction of homestead erosion protection works.
  6. Companiganj Area contains the best reed swamp habitat remaining in the region and also has some floodplain grassland, which may be habitat for one or more threatened passerine bird species. It has been identified as mother fishery. Otters and large concentrations of turtles have been observed.
  7. Bara Haor contains the best floodplain grassland habitat remaining in the region, and some reed swamp and swamp forest areas. Breeding cormorants and breeding herons have been observed. As at Companiganj Area, the floodplain grassland may be habitat for one or more threatened passerine bird species.
  8. Kawadighi Haor remains very important for a wide variety of waterfowl, despite changes occurring since Manu River Project construction in 1976-83. Shallow beels with large shallow fringes provide attractive habitat for large numbers of shorebirds; and some beels may be important as breeding sites for Whiskered Tern and Black-winged Stilts, species not previously seen breeding in Bangladesh. Prior to Manu River Project, it was a mother fishery. The scope for habitat rehabilitation, and for modified flood control project operation in support of this, are key issues at this site.
  9. Balai Haor was flagged on the basis of the presence of two threatened bird species, Lesser Adjutant and Pallas's Fish-Eagle; and of large concentrations of mostly resident ducks during periods of flash flooding (32,000 were present in late March 1992). The site is more heavily utilized by humans, habitats are more degraded, and conditions in general are less unique than at the first eight sites mentioned above. Further study will be necessary to determine if it would more properly be classified as a nationally significant site.

Wetland habitat types and regional status

Nine wetland vegetation types or habitats were identified. From lower to higher elevation these are submerged (about 20 macrophyte species), free-floating (20), rooted floating (15), sedges/meadows (35), floodplain grassland (transitional), reed swamp (7), freshwater swamp forest (6), crop field vegetation (20), and homestead vegetation (38).

Freshwater swampforest, reed swamp, and floodplain grassland survive only as fragments, many of which are highly degraded, and in the near-term are threatened with extirpation from the region. Nearly all occurrences of these three threatened habitats occur within the nine key wetland sites identified above.

Wetland/wetland-dependent species presence and status

Waterfowl and wetland-dependent birds

Ornithology studies were undertaken to determine the current status and abundance of waterfowl and wetland-dependent birds in the region. The studies show that despite massive habitat losses, the region remains an internationally important wintering area of migratory waterfowl, principally ducks and shorebirds; supports large numbers of some resident species; and is also of undoubted importance for spring and possibly autumn passage migrants, for at least two shorebird species. In late January 1993, a total of 386,000 individuals were counted at 15 monitored sites; the counts are thought to represent at least 50% and possibly 75% of the total number of waterfowl present in the region at the time of the count.

A total of 125 waterfowl species are known or thought to have occurred in the region. Of these, 53 are or were resident breeding species or breeding summer visitors; their current status is one species globally extinct; nine species extinct in the region; six species no longer breeding but present as visitors; and many other species populations greatly reduced. Another 42 species were regular winter visitors or passage migrants; their current status is two species extinct in the region; six species almost extinct in the region; and many other species populations greatly reduced, especially wintering ducks and geese. The remaining 30 species were probably never more than rare winter visitors or passage migrants.

During the wetland ornithology field program, 161 waterfowl and wetland-dependent bird species were observed, including 89 of the 125 historic waterfowl species; 30 wetland-dependent species largely or wholly dependent on wetland ecosystems, of which eleven are birds of prey; and 42 other species, of which eleven are birds of prey. Of the 36 waterfowl species not observed, 17 are extinct or nearly so in the region; eight are scarce visitors to the region; six are extremely secretive and easily overlooked (mostly rails and crakes); three species are mainly associated with rivers with extensive sand banks, which occur in the region only along the Old Brahmaputra (aerial survey only), and two species that are easily observed and relatively common, for which the lack of observations is surprising. Of particular interest is the observation during the field studies of 36 nesting pairs of Pallas's Fish Eagle Halietus leucorhyphus; this population has international significance as the largest actively breeding population seen in recent years throughout the species' range.

Wetland-dependent mammal, amphibian, and reptile species

For wetland-dependent mammal, amphibian, and reptile species, 89 species in 37 families are thought to have occurred in the region. A full 35% of these species are either extinct, threatened, or commercially threatened. Almost all of the threatened species fall into one of three broad groups: large ruminants; the larger predators; and commercially valuable species - mainly turtles, but also lizards, otters, Indian Pangolin, Hispid Hare, Freshwater Dolphin, Bull Frog, and Rock Python.

Eleven species (12% of the regional species total) are regionally extinct: Leopard, Tiger, the three rhinoceros species (Sumatran Rhinoceros, Javan Rhinoceros, and Great Indian Rhinoceros), Pygmy Hog, Wild Boar, Gaur, Wild Buffalo, Swamp Deer, and Marsh Crocodile. Eight of these species are classified by IUCN as (globally) Endangered, and two as Vulnerable (Gaur, Marsh Crocodile). Wild Boar survives in domesticated form.

Nine surviving species are classified by IUCN as threatened. Two are classified as Endangered (Hispid Hare, Asian Elephant), two as Vulnerable (Rock Python, Freshwater Dolphin), four as Indeterminate - known to be either Endangered, Vulnerable, or Rare (Bengal Fox, Spotted Pond Turtle, Sylhet Roof Turtle, Yellow Common Lizard), and one as K meaning status uncertain (Smooth Indian Otter). All of these species except for Bengal Fox and Sylhet Roof Turtle are also listed under CITES Appendix I or II.

A further eleven species are listed under CITES Appendix I or II: Indian Pangolin, Common Otter, Small Indian Civet, Jungle Cat, Fishing Cat, Common Roof Turtle, Ganges Soft Shell, Peacock Soft Shell, Flapshelled Spotted Turtle, Bengal Grey Lizard, Bull Frog. Finally, two species Malayan Box Turtle, Bengal Eyed Turtle) are expected to be given Commercially Threatened classification in the next edition of the IUCN Red Book.

Wetland plant species

The wild macrophytes of the region's lowlands consist of at least 216 species, including nine exotics. Though three of the nine habitat types are threatened (see above), all but three individual macrophyte are thought to be viable in disturbed settings (permanent water bodies, crop fields, homestead gardens and forests). Three macrophyte species are thought to be threatened. Rosa involucrata gunja kata, a wild rose, was formerly abundant in the reed swamps but is now rare throughout its range in South Asia. Eurayle ferox makhna and Nelumbo nucifera padma, both rooted floating plants, are now found only in Hail Haor.

Wetland values and resource utilization

Many wetland plants and animals are used locally and/or traded to urban centres and internationally. These uses include fodder, fuel, and fertilizer derived from wetland plants; tree branches used for fish aggregation; wild animal and plant foods; luxury items such as tortoise shell; and many others. In addition, wetlands provide important in situ services; the most important of these include likely erosion protection of village homesteads in the deeply flooded area; fish habitat and food; and flood storage.

Policy context

Through a variety of national and international policy instruments, the Government has clearly committed itself to environmentally sound management in general and of biodiversity assets, and to efforts to achieve and maintain environmental quality acceptable to extractive users and to sustainable ecosystem functioning. The relevant national policy documents are the Memorandum for the Bangladesh Aid Group 1992-3, Fourth Five Year Plan 1990-5, National Environment Policy, National Environment Management Action Plan (NEMAP), and Forestry Master Plan. Relevant international agreements signed by the Government are Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Rio Convention on Biological Diversity, and the World Heritage Convention.


Numerous government agencies have responsibilities related to wetlands: Forest Department (wildlife conservation and protected areas management, wetland ownership); Ministry of Land (wetland ownership); Department of Environment (water quality monitoring and pollution control); Department of Fisheries (fisheries management); National Herbarium and National Botanic Gardens (wild floral research and conservation); Ministry of Irrigation and Bangladesh Water Development Board (irrigation, drainage, and flood control); and Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation (owner of reed lands and large-scale biomass consumer, through Sylhet Pulp and Paper Mill).

Both national and international non-governmental organizations have been active in Bangladesh in addressing wetland issues. These include International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Waterfowl and Wetland Research Bureau (IWRB), Asian Wetland Bureau (AWB), Nature Conservation Movement (NACOM), and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS).

Other relevant institutional structures include the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and (proposed) committees to link NGOs in the region; Government and NGOs; and national and international NGOs.

Driving forces and issues

Over the coming years, a number of driving forces will tend to maintain or change the extent or character of wetlands: increasing rural-urban and rural-government links ('monetization'); continued dependence of local people on local resources for biomass and other necessities; rural impoverishment pushing local people into wetland resource gathering for own use and sale; expansion of new technologies ('modernization') in water management, agriculture, and other sectors; increasing and widening local, urban, and international markets and demand for wetland products; traditional cultural

Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats

The SWOT analysis of wetlands produced the following main points:

Current strengths

Current weaknesses

• Remaining wetlands have substantial value 
• Important representative habitats still exist
• The tenure situation is uncomplicated
• Government development strategies and desirable improvements to wetlands are highly compatible (see Table 4.1)
• Some wetland education already taking place, at various levels within and outside government
• Some alliances between national and international NGOs are already in place

• Lack of viable protected freshwater wetland areas
• Some remaining wetland systems, species, and habitats are at critical levels for continued survival
• Wetland values i.e. current and potential contributions of wetlands to national development objectives are not adequately recognized, at all levels within and outside Government
• Information about wetlands is inadequate
• Current institutional arrangements for wetland management are inappropriate
• Wetland benefits are well below potential sustainable levels; little value is added to wetland products
• Distribution of wetland benefits could be more equitable (progressive)

Future opportunities

Future threats

• Foster beneficial rural-urban links
• Transform and empower poor user groups to become resource managers
• Accelerate provision of alternative energy sources to rural areas, to displace demand for heavily exploited and threatened species and habitats
• Create employment in wetland primary production enhancement
• Develop enterprises based on value-added wetland products

• Unsustainable levels of exploitation leading to declining extent and numbers of habitats and species
• Water pollution, from increased human activity and reduced natural purification services as wetlands deteriorate
• Disturbance, including hunting, which reduces usable habitat for many species
• Felling of mature lowland trees without replacement
• Suppression of natural regeneration of swamp forest trees by grazing and fuel collection
• Drainage improvements, flood control works, induced siltation
• Appropriation of control over resources by powerful outside interests from traditional community/local managers

Biodiversity (wetland and upland) objectives and initiatives

The draft final version of the study (April 1993) presented the Wetland Subteam's initial attempt to articulate concrete objectives and initiatives that would feed into the regional planning exercise. In subsequent months, these objectives and initiatives continued to develop, through dialogue with other members of the NERP team and village people involved in the participatory studies.

Both Wetland Subteam and other NERP team members tended to feel that biodiversity objectives/initiatives would likely be peripheral to the main thrust of the regional plan. Surprisingly, however, during the formulation of the regional plan strategy and the portfolio of initiatives, a strong consensus emerged in support of biodiversity objectives and initiatives, based on an appreciation of their relevance to core development objectives.

The elements of the regional plan that address biodiversity objectives and initiatives are:

Strategic Thrust 5 - Biodiversity Enhancement and Sustainable Management

Strategic Thrust 6 - Improve Liveability of Rural Settlements

Strategic Thrust 8 - Institutional Strengthening and Development

Upland biodiversity (annex)

The upland studies were limited to a review of existing literature and statistics, plus short field trips.

Tropical forest in reasonably good condition occupies about 18,000 ha of uplands in the Northeast Region. This is mainly in Rema-Kalenga Wildlife Sanctuary (the only protected area gazetted in the region); in the Reserve Forest associated with it; and in the Juri Forest Range. Both areas are located in the hill areas on the eastern side of the region and contain some mixed evergreen/deciduous tropical forest. Juri Range also contains extensive stands of bamboo as pure patches and as undergrowth (about 13,000 ha are classified as bamboo lands).

In contrast, sal forest Shorea robusta, found at lower elevations along the northern boundary of the region on the western side, survives only in highly degraded form, and is considered to be threatened nationally.

The surviving tropical forests are remnants of much larger forest ecosystems replaced by agriculture (33% of upland area), economic forestry (27%), human settlement (17%), or simply degraded lands (13%).

The surviving tropical forests have value as:


Based on preliminary checklists, the region's uplands support over 200 species of birds, about 70 mammal species including nine species of primates, and about 800 woody plant species; with the addition of herbaceous and lower order species, the number of macrophytes could easily total twice this.

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