Highway through haor, a feat unwelcome for wetland ecosystem

For a road that opened to the public during a pandemic, the Itna-Mithamoin-Astagram highway has already made a huge impression on people, in more ways than one. For fishes and other aquatic life it’s a barrier that has restricted their movement.As lockdown measures gradually ease, travel bloggers and thrill-seekers, or just ordinary people who like nothing better than to let their hair down and drive out of town, have been making a beeline due north of the capital, and on towards Kishoreganj.
All of them seem to return with one message to deliver above all else: they have seen ‘the most beautiful road in Bangladesh!’
The scenario will however start changing as people will prefer building of hoesteads or even business establishments beside the highway through earthfilling and thus undermining the serenity and the ecological services of the haor that enriched all forms life through the ages.
Almost half of Kishoreganj district, including four of its 6 upazilas – Itna, Mithamoin, Ashtogram, and Nikli – is designated as a completely haor area: unique wetland ecosystems that during the monsoon resemble vast inland seas. And physical planning should take note of this.
Instead of disturbing the wetland ecosystem, development activities should be pursued by ensuring the integrty of the haors.
Though much-romanticised and recognised for the stunningly beautiful vistas they offer as well as the tremendous biodiversity they contain, the haor and its inhabitants have never seen the levels of development witnessed in other parts of the country reach their locality.
Infrastructure in particular has always been a problem. Yet recognising that infrastructure cannot be bypassed as a necessity for meaningful growth and development in any region, the government is now engaged in a serious push for development in the country’s haor areas.
The Itna-Mithamoin-Austagram highway, that connects these 3 upazilas of Kishoreganj by going straight through the haor, can be seen as part of that push, although work on the Tk 514-crore project (the almost 30-km highway is just one component, see below) was inaugurated in 2016 by President Abdul Hamid – the district’s most famous son.
The ‘haor road’, as it is also called, paves the way for direct road connectivity between the haor region and other parts of the country including Dhaka, Sylhet and Chittagong. In providing connectivity with surrounding areas and beyond even during the monsoon months, the newly built road has come as a sheer lifeline for the three upazilas.
UNB talked to administration officials, visitors to the area, as well as locals of course, of the three upazilas to better understand what a game-changer it is for the inhabitants of the haor.
Assistant Commissioner (Land) of Mithamoin Upazila Ali Noor is convinced that Haor Road has already transformed people’s lives.
“The road can be used by the people of the three upazilas all year round. That alone has also boosted livelihoods directly, as a new profession arrived in the region of autorickshaw drivers!” he said, referring to the proliferation of autorickshaws serving mainly tourists that has followed the highway’s opening.
Noor also pointed out that it will be easier to transport goods to and from the three upazilas. As a result, farmers in the haor who often find themselves cut off from the rest of the country’s supply network just when their crop has been picked, will no longer find themselves stuck with their harvest.
The AC (Land) also claimed confidently that tourists can now flock to the haor region all year round, thanks to the engineering feat pulled off in its construction, applying the concept of the ‘submersible’ or ‘amphibian’ road.
It makes for a truly unique experience, and what probably has everyone who visits catching the breath: as the highway makes its way like an arrow through the vastness of the haor, you realize the road is almost level with the waters lapping at it from both sides.
Drone shots give the impression of staring out at a giant infinity pool. Almost everyone reported they had never seen anything like it before – although a similar road has been built through the Chalan Beel in Sylhet.
A traveller, Rashib Ahmed, said visiting the area following construction of the road has been a totally different experience.
“The road offers scenic views of the haor as far as the eye can see on both sides, which is captivating. Travellers have been flocking here already to see the road,” he said.
A shopkeeper in Austram Upazila, Arman Ali, confirmed a hike in tourist numbers following the opening of the Haor Road was already apparent.
“We are happy for the construction of the road which is a blessing for us. Once these haor areas were almost disconnected from the country. Now people are desperate to travel to these areas,” Arman said.
While tourism is bound to generate extra incomes for the locals serving the industry directly or as ancillaries (e.g. boatmen said they are struggling to keep up with the number of tourists already), it does bring with it the danger of overexploitation of the natural bounties. The haor as an ecosystem may be even more vulnerable.
Locals are aware and would like to see strict adherence to sustainable tourism practices in order to maintain the area’s stunningly unique natural beauty, even as it emerges as a lucrative tourist spot.
President Abdul Hamid inaugurated the construction work of the Itna-Mithamoin-Astagram highway project aiming to bring about socioeconomic changes in the haor area in 2016.
Apart from the highway, the Tk 514-crore infrastructure project envisages the construction of Chilni, Dhaki and Bhatshala bridges.
The Roads and Highways Department implemented the project that includes the 29-km main highway, 7 box-culverts, and 7 RCC bridges, plus the three big bridges.
According to Rashedul Alam, the executive engineer of the project, another component ‘Austagram-Nawga’ will connect with Chatalpar of Brahmanbaria district through a bridge, while Austagram-Kastul-Bhantshala roads will connect Itna and Mithamoin upazilas.
“This is not a mere highway. It is also envisioned as the centre-point of development, and the key to transforming the lives of the deprived people of the haor,” Alam added.
Not very long ago people involved in the construction of bridges claimed that these structures are less costly than roads that require the acquisition of land, earth filling and finally construction of the pavement. Roads in floodplain areas again require frequent costly maintenance than bridges.- UNB
Economic and environmental sustainability studies would help identify the appropriate options for meeting the development needs of the people living in wetland areas without harming their environment and ecosystems that serve not only those areas but also the rest of the country. RCC bridges or pontoon bridges might prove better to develop those areas without dividing haors into parts with roads that would again encourage more earth filling.
It should be noted that indiscriminate construction of roads in the rest of the country has caused irreparable damages to the aquatic life and ecosystem which can be restored only through costly restoration activities. The planners should think many times before moving to create structures on virgin ecosystems like the haors. – News Desk with UNB