Bangladesh experiences flash floods almost every year and farmers are no stranger to crop loss as a result. But the deaths of fish, frogs and fowls in their hundreds as an aftermath of such floods in Sylhet region are a new phenomenon altogether.
And an outcry across the border over India’s exposing open pits of uranium to a river system causing deaths of fish has made experts in Bangladesh concerned about a likely link.
There is no proof yet, but if uranium is indeed linked to it, Bangladesh’s wetland and the river system connected to it will suffer a heavy blow, affecting aquatic species and humans alike, experts have warned.
India’s predominantly Khasi communities living in Ranikor River basins, just across the Indo-Bangla border near Sunamganj’s Tanguar Haor, raised alarm after the deaths of their river as well as fish population due to what they suspect uranium toxins from numerous drilling pits kept open and exposed in close vicinities.
The late March onrush of upstream hill waters and excessive rains that submerged a vast tract of backswamp in Sunamganj and a few other northeastern haor zones came along the West Khasi Hills’ river basins of Ranikor in Meghalaya.
For the past one week, people living on the downstream in Sunamganj’s Tahirpur and also other haor areas further down in Moulvibazar found fish, frogs and even ducks floating dead.
This development raised serious concerns about a possible connection between uranium contamination of water and the loss of aquatic species in Hakaluki and Tanguar — two of Asia’s largest haors.
Recently, locals in the West Khasi Hills noticed change of colour in the Ranikor River water in Ranikor, about 3km from the Jadukata River near the border area in Tahirpur of Sunamganj.
Contacted, Dr Bilkis Ara Begum, chief of chemistry unit at Bangladesh Atomic Energy Centre in Dhaka, said they were aware of the drilling for uranium extraction in the Khasi Hills.
“It is very much possible that uranium-mixed water is coming down to our haors. If it happens, it would be disastrous for us,” said Bilkis.
The Centre has not yet collected water samples for testing.
The scientist noted that although uranium may not be directly responsible for the change of water colour, there may be some indirect causes.
It is not possible to determine the reasons without testing, she added.
A fishery department team that visited the haor regions yesterday found the water too toxic for aquatic species to live. But the team is yet to ascertain what made the water so toxic.
Livestock department officials also collected dead ducks from the haors yesterday and sent those to Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute (BLRI) for lab tests.
“I think the unusual deaths of fish and ducks in our haor are very much connected with the matter. If the uranium-mixed water comes down to the haor with the flash flood, it would cause a disaster for us,” said Abdul Karim Kim, Sylhet unit general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon.
Khasi students have been protesting and demanding that the authorities fill up the uranium drilling pits as they have strong suspicion that toxins from the open pits were causing deaths of fish in their river, Karim said, adding that the students contacted him to give updates of the situation.
The Meghalaya state government, however, insisted that uranium had nothing to do with the death of fish species.
“If uranium radiation was the cause of the deaths, all other aquatic life forms there would have also been affected and there would have been lesions on the fish,” Meghalaya’s Deputy Chief Minister Bindo M Lanong, who looks after the mining and geology department, said after thousands of dead fish had been found floating in Ranikor since April 13.
Sonai Mia, a farmer in Sunamganj who lost his crops in recent flash flood, told The Daily Star yesterday that not only fish but frogs and leeches were also dying in their haors.
The Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) has made it clear that rotting of paddies under floodwaters cannot be the cause of deaths of aquatic resources, as it never happened after previous flash floods.
Also, farmers there apply pesticides and fertilisers judiciously, DAE officials added.
Experts dispatched by the fisheries and livestock departments yesterday found Hakaluki water turned acidic and lacks oxygen. They are expected to visit Tanguar today.
It is alleged that after stocktaking drills in the West Khasi Hills many uranium pits were left open. This heavy silvery-white radioactive metallic chemical is used as a fuel in nuclear reactors and weapons.
Amid a massive public outcry, the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) was forced to withdraw from a pilot uranium extraction back in 1992, only to get mining clearance from the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests recently.
UCIL is up for setting up an open-cast uranium mine and processing plant there with production target of 375,000 tonnes of uranium ore a year and processing 1,500 tonnes a day, according to Indian media reports.
On February 17, Khasi Student Union (KSU) in Meghalaya held a press conference to bring to the authorities’ notice that suddenly the colour of the Ranikor River’s water started changing from blue to green in December. They also said thousands of fish were found floating in Ranikor River. The river is now almost dead without any fish and aquatic lives in it.
“We highly suspect that the sudden death of fish and now the abnormal change in the colour of the River is due to uranium drilling,” Khasi leader Marconi Thongni told the newsman.
He claimed hundreds of pits were abandoned after carrying out uranium drilling activities in the thick forest at Porkut area in West Khasi Hills.
“Therefore we demand the state government immediately issue necessary direction to the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) to fill up all these pits in order to prevent destruction of the environment,” Macroni Thogni was quoted in a report published in India media.
During heavy rainfall, the water from these pits finds their way into river, which is now feared to be harmful not only to aquatic lives but humans as well, he said.