At the current population of Bangladesh, for every eight persons, there is an acre of water. Ponds and tanks comprise about 10% of total inland water area. These ponds and tanks have great ecological, economic, commercial and socio-economic importance and value in Bangladesh.
The ponds contain many components of biodiversity like flora and fauna. People still use ponds for washing themselves, their clothes and their animals: sometimes even for drinking. Ponds also are important reservoirs for rainwater in the dry season and contribute to the weather and ecosystems of the city. They help make the storm water and wastewater sewerage system workable.
Yet these ponds are disappearing every day. There were 4,283 ponds in 1961 in Rajshahi Municipality. According to (RDA), there are now only 313 ponds in the city. Reduction of ponds also led to less infiltration of groundwater and created water scarcity in the urban areas. People now find it difficult to take a bath.
More than 85% of lost ponds have been filled up privately by their owners. Only 15% have been filled up by state agencies. Owners fill them or sell them to land developers to accommodate illegal housing and other commercial buildings (They should have permits to fill the ponds but usually do not).
To avoid protests about filling the pond, they connect it with drains and septic tanks. Then everyone cheers when this dead, stinking, poisonous pond is filled up. The high price of, and demand for, land has made it attractive to get more land by filling in wetlands at low cost.
The Government of Bangladesh has enacted a number of laws and policies in different periods to govern the conservation of urban ponds. The Bangladesh Environment Policy 1992, Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995, Water Reservoir Conservation Act, 2000, The Local Government (City Corporation) Act, 2009, The Local Government (Pourashava) Act, 2009 etc. prescribes for ensuring sound utilisation of all water bodies including ponds and keeping them free from pollution. These legal frames restricted filling or changing the class of the water bodies. But for the sake of indispensable national interest, restrictions may be relaxed by taking clearance certificates from the Department of Environment (DoE).
In urban areas, particularly in Divisional cities, multiple authorities like City Corporation, District Administration, Department of Environment, and other development authorities, such as, RAJUK, RDA, CDA, etc have responsibility for the ponds of the city. There is little coordination among them; their respective jurisdictions are unclear; and each blames the other.
If they somehow find out (they do not look for it, but sometimes people complain) that someone is destroying a pond, they order that person to stop. Then, normally, if the person does not stop, despite their wide-ranging powers, they take no further action. They are subject to political, and sometimes criminal, interference in doing more. Most landowners know that they cannot destroy a pond without permission but most do not even bother to apply.
According to the Water Body Reservoir Conservation Act 2000, the authority can fine not more than Tk 50,000 or ask a court for 5 years jail. They can even order illegal pond-fillers to knock down illegal buildings and dig the pond again but they never do that.
In Rajshahi, the RDA, under its Act, can fine only Tk 500 if someone fills a pond. Police have power to arrest and prosecute illegal pond fillers, but never do. There are civil society organisations in the city but they lack widespread public support, so no one listens to them if they take up the cause of a pond.
The High Court of Bangladesh has ordered that, in every city, there should be a 'Committee of Water Body Conservation and Monitoring', headed by the Deputy Commissioner of the District. The main function of this committee is to conserve and monitor the marked and listed water bodies, so that these cannot be filled in or changed in classification without prior permission from the proper authority, under the Environment Conservation Act 1995.
But these committees exist only on paper, not in practice. There is a complaint section in these organisations where complaints of filling of ponds are received. Yet effective action is rarely taken on such complaints.
If we want to save our ponds which we should, we need effective governance. We need to apply our laws, rules and regulations. Local government should care about the ponds enough to go and look from time to time, to be sure they are all right. Whenever someone applies for a building permit, the approving officer should check the classification of land and go to see whether it is on a filled-up pond.
Awareness-building has been ineffective and needs much more attention. Since there is a lack of a public constituency for ponds, the state agencies and City Corporations need to create one. They should strengthen and listen to civil society organisations.
Destruction of ponds should be made a cognisable offence and not bailable, so that perpetrators can be arrested and detained until they undo their damage. Laws and penalties should be updated to make jurisdiction clear and penalties credible.
In urban areas, as land value starts increasing with growing urbanisation, the vacant land and water bodies including ponds are disappearing. As long as the ponds are under private ownership it is extremely difficult to conserve all the ponds.
So, the government should take necessary steps either to acquire or buy all the ponds of the city immediately from the pond owners. It is easy to conserve the ponds under government ownership.
Yes, we can save our ponds. However, it will take some courage and determination to change the laws and think about the ponds when other state or local government services are being rendered. The ponds are victims of a general governance crisis. So, the people should help them.
Dr. A. K. M. Mahmudul Haque is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Rajshahi.