• Water holes in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts region were drying up.
  • A group of residents investigated the problem and found that water sources stayed intact where there was good forest cover.
  • They identified the community members involved in forest destruction and offered them funds to start their own vegetable gardens, orchards and cattle sheds.
  • They also set up a plan to plant native trees in deforested areas and have now solved the water crisis.

Anupam Chakma, 60, has lived in the hilly village of Kamalchhori in Bangladesh all his life. When his grandfather and his contemporaries arrived in the region many decades ago, they found water holes that didn’t run dry, even during the dry season, and settled nearby. Kamalchhori, like all the villages and settlements in the country’s southeastern hilly districts, were established close to sources of fresh water.

Also known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), this region, home to 11 Indigenous communities, such as the Chakma, Marma, Tanchangya and Tripura, makes up about one-tenth of Bangladesh’s land area. A geographically hilly landscape with extensive forest coverage, the CHT is known for its rich biodiversity.

However, deforestation due to population growth and unchecked agriculture and logging has reduced the forest cover in places, which, in turn, has gradually affected the water levels. Over the past two decades, the water holes have become drier every year between November and May.

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An aerial view of the Chittagong Hill Tracts
A geographically hilly landscape with extensive forest coverage, the Chittagong Hill Tracts is known for its rich biodiversity.
Image: Abu Siddique/Mongabay

The water crisis has forced many families to leave the villages in search of places with water available during the dry season. It was the same story in Kamalchhori, where villagers had long exploited their communally managed forest, known as the village common forest, for timber, bamboo, fuelwood and housing material.

Anupam and some of the other villagers stayed back, though, to delve into the cause of the problem — and come up with solutions. They noted that the water sources stayed intact where there was good forest cover, and were drying up where the land had been cleared. They also recognized that their excessive reliance on the forest had caused the freshwater crisis.

The village’s forest, they realized, had to be restored.

A water hole in Kamalchhori
Kamalchhori like other villages in the area, was faced with a water crisis.
Image: Abu Siddique/Mongabay

Protecting the commons

Alarmed by the unchecked exploitation of the once-rich forests, a consequence of population growth, the locals put together an initiative to conserve the very natural resources that protect them.

To start with, they formed a committee through the initiative, and identified the community members involved in the destruction of the forest, offering them funds to start their own vegetable gardens, orchards and cattle sheds. They also selected 11 individuals to live with their families around the periphery of the forest and serve as guards against plunderers.

Chanchalmoy Chakma, 40, is one of these designated guards responsible for monitoring Kamalchhori’s 316 hectares (780 acres) of village common forest.

In exchange for keeping a certain stretch of the forest free of poachers and plunderers, Chanchalmoy was given about 1 hectare (2.5 acres) within the forest for subsistence use. “The community has sent us here to prevent interference from outsiders as well as unscrupulous people who want to poach the resources,” Chanchalmoy said.

Kamalchhori’s patch of forest, like other village common forests in the CHT, is not part of the 1.38 million hectares (3.4 million acres) of hill forests that are managed by the Bangladesh Forest Department.

A woman collects freshwater in Kamalchhori.
The common forest protection committee has initiatives in place to help protect the local forest
Image: Abu Siddique/Mongabay

Funding alternatives

Apart from encouraging people to provide for themselves and hiring families to watch the forests, the common forest protection committee also set up a management plan to plant native trees in deforested areas. They strengthened their monitoring and protection measures with the help of a revolving loan fund.

Community members can take out loans from this fund according to their needs, which can include alternative livelihood options such as establishing fruit orchards, cattle rearing, and starting small businesses. The fund was initially set up from modest monthly contributions from the community, and in 2009 received an injection of nearly $10,000, donated by the Arannayk Foundation, an environmental forest conservation organization. Borrowers don’t pay interest, but there’s a minimal service fee that allows the fund to grow; as of the end of 2021, the fund stood at $25,000.

“Introducing the fund mechanism and alternative livelihoods, the state of our village common forest has changed magically as the dependency on the forest has reduced drastically,” said Anupam, who is the secretary of the Kamalchhori Community Cooperation.

“We are protecting the village common forest to secure the source of water. This program helps conserve forest resources like fuelwood, wild vegetables and medicinal herbs.”

An aerial view of the Chittagong Hill Tracts
Kamalchhori’s patch of forest, is not managed by the Bangladesh Forest Department.
Image: Mongabay

Jhum, a form of slash-and-burn shifting cultivation, is prohibited in the protected common forest, as is hunting; bamboo harvesting is allowed every couple of years.

There are no reliable statistics regarding the number of village common forests in the CHT region, but it’s believed to be between 700 and 800, many of which may have been lost to encroachment, excess exploitation and land conversion.

In Kamalchhori, the new program has helped bring back water to the forest. Forest conservationist Farid Uddin Ahmed, a senior consultant with the Arannayk Foundation, said this is one of the classic examples of people protecting forests while also ensuring the freshwater supply for the community.

Chanchalmoy, the forest guard, said he remembers a time when the creeks and streams would dry up during the winter months. “That was because of low forest coverage. But now the situation has changed dramatically,” he said with a smile.