Travelling to Bandarban District in the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) and interacting with diverse local communities in one of Bangladesh's remotest areas proved to be an eye-opening experience. The knowledge and insights gained by observing high-level UN personnel and the British High Commissioner discuss critical issues with these CHT communities and stakeholders proved to be invaluable in terms of my learning of the various development challenges and the slow decay from human action that needs to be arrested in order to save the fragile ecosystem which also serve as the lungs of Bangladesh.
Throughout the discussions with the people of CHT, Hill District Council and Circle Chief, one common issue came up repeatedly: a crisis of water.
It is quite evident that massive deforestation and the insufficient presence of water sources are to blame for this crisis in the hill tracts. Bandarban Hill District Council Chairperson Kya Shwe Hla, Bohmong Circle Chief Engineer U Chaw Prue, and environmental NGOs, all pointed at the same issues in the meetings during the visit. They all considered the water crisis as the most significant challenge for the people of CHT, as water is a major driving factor for people's lives and livelihoods. "Water crisis may create more conflicts in the region if not adequately addressed," said Kya Shwe Hla.
Chattogram Hill Tracts is a challenging hotspot for climate change and integrated ecosystem related interventions. It was pretty amazing to witness the practical work done by the UN and other development actors like USAID, FCDO, Danida, the Canadian Government and the European Union in partnership with the Government of Bangladesh.
However, water scarcity is a major impediment to agriculture and the improvement of people's lives and livelihoods. Local stakeholders expressed their appreciation for UNDP's programme Chittagong Hill Tracts Watershed Co-Management Activities (CHTWCA) through Village Common Forest and commended the activities under CHT Climate Resilient Project (CCRP). Again and again in practically every meeting we were reminded by all local stakeholders the need to continue the programme so that they are able to secure sustainable access to water.
The Climate Change issue has been uncounted, underrated, and unclear for a long time. Still, it has become a crucial matter to address in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, particularly in Bandarban due to its unique terrain that is frequently subjected to deforestation. It is important to ensure a fair chance at development for the left-behind communities in the area.
"Agriculture and development activities cannot continue without sufficient access to water. Stream and river water flow must be revived to reforestation," said Bohmong Circle Chief Engineer U Chaw Prue.
While visiting Chimbuk Bangan Para populated by Mro communities, we learned that the Mro people are aware of climate change-related issues, as they have been part of a Danida-supported project in the area. Their knowledge on how climate change is responsible for heavy winds and recurrent droughts that affects their livelihoods was thorough and impressive. Elderly members of the community spoke about how the climate situation was significantly better 10-15 years ago, adding that their agricultural efforts back then were not affected by the water crisis and strong winds.
I had accompanied the UN Resident Coordinator, Mia Seppo, and the British High Commissioner Robert Chatterton Dickson, in the mission. Warm welcome and hospitality apart everyone, women, men, old & young spoke freely about their lives, their aspirations and the challenges that they face every single day. Almost everyone spoke on how measures to retain water for use during the dry season for agriculture and household purposes, was absolutely essential for building climate resilient lives and livelihoods.
We also had the opportunity to meet farmers trained by the UNDP project team at Bethel Para, many of whom were participating in a special fair ‘Farmer Field Day’ to share their learnings and display their products/innovative approaches. The farmers were delighted to meet the mission delegates and deeply appreciated agriculture-related interventions by the development organisations. And here too, we heard repeated concerns on the progressively worsening issue of water scarcity.
We were fortunate to have a rich round of conversations with local organisations that are responding to various crises in the CHT and learned about their experience and insights.. Every single NGO representative appreciated UNDP interventions, particularly the initiative on community-led forest conservation. On our part and after having had several interactions with women & young girls we reminded the NGOs on the urgent need to step up measures to address gender equality in CHT communities.
Personally, it was a fulfilling mission that reminded me of the purpose of our work and reconnected me with the people we are working for. Witnessing the passion and love that high-level delegates of the mission hold for the people of Bangladesh gave me a further sense of purpose in our work. I am optimistic about seeing a better, more peaceful CHT with integrated ecosystem management and inclusive development.