The Surma River – from Kazir Bazar in Sylhet city to Srirampur of Dakkhin Surma upazila of the district – has been reduced to a narrow stream. A 10-kilometre-long area of the river has silted up and both sides of the narrow stream are now covered with grass.
Children now play on the riverbed – which looks like abandoned land. Not only this portion, but also other sections of the river in Sylhet are in the same condition. Thrity-five shoals have emerged along 32 kilometres of the river – from Amolshid of Jakiganj upazila to Lobhachhara of Kanaighat upazila.
As the riverbed silts up, the Surma dies during the dry season. During monsoon, it overflows and both its banks erode.
Though a plan was made to dredge the river in 1997, it has not been implemented as yet. This is because a 25-30-kilometre area of this river is adjacent to the Indian borders of Jakiganj and Kanaighat, according to officials at Bangladesh Water
Development Board, Sylhet. The plan requires India's nod, they added.
The Barak River of India enters Bangladesh at Amolshid in Jakiganj and splits into the Surma and Kushiyara. Around 110 kilometres of the 230-kilometre-long Surma flows through Sylhet. The river reaches Sunamganj district via Kanaighat, Golapganj and Sylhet Sadar upazila.
Over the last two decades, many shoals have emerged on around 40-45 percent of the area of these 110 kilometres. In other parts, the riverbed has dried up. Ramiz Uddin, 70, of Kushighat area in Dakkhin Surma upazila said, "We used to see ships on this river, now we do not even see boats on it. However, during the rainy season, the river overflows into adjacent areas."
During a recent visit, our correspondent found that the dried-up portion of the river in the city's Kazir Bazar area has been turned into a garbage dump and the local residents pile up their waste there.
During heavy downpours in the hills of north-east India, the onrush of water from the hills carries sand and mud to the rivers in Sylhet. The sand and mud have silted up the rivers in the region over the years.
Surma River Waterkeeper Abdul Karim Kim, member of the Waterkeeper Alliance – a worldwide network of environmental organizations – said, "The rivers in this region did not overflow in the past. When heavy rainfall occurred or the onrush of water from the upstream came down, the excess water flowed through small rivers and canals. However, since the rivers – especially the Surma – have filled up with silt, the excess water cannot drain quickly. This results in prolonged flooding in the region during the rainy season. Meanwhile, a vast area of the river dries up during the dry season."
The amount of sand and silt – carried by the trans-border rivers and the onrush of water from the hills in India – has increased at an alarming rate over the recent years, he said. Indiscriminate felling of trees and hill cutting in north-east India are responsible for that, he added.
If the Surma River is not dredged immediately, the people of this region will face more hard times in the future, Kim said.
Abdul Hai Al Hadi, chief executive of Save The Heritage and Environment, thinks river-controlling structures are one of the major reasons for the Surma's death.
He demanded the Surma River be dredged as soon as possible.
Muhammad Shahiduzzaman Sarker, executive engineer of the district's water development board, said, "In 1997, the initiative to dredge the Surma at its entry point in Bangladesh was made. However, as India did not give its consent, the initiative was not implemented."
However, the Water Development Board's Dhaka office sent a proposal to dredge the shoal areas on the Surma in Sylhet Sadar and Biswanath upazila to the Ministry of Water Resources in 2018. The proposal received the ministry's primary approval. The ministry has instructed the board to conduct a survey on it.