Chalan Beel: Vital for Biodiversity

Spreading across eight upazilas of three districts of Bangladesh, Chalan Beel is a series of wetlands connected by channels of water in the lower Atrai basin. During the rainy season, these wetlands become a single body of water with dense aquatic vegetation supporting diverse wildlife. The banks of Chalan Beel are covered in a variety of fauna, which is inhabited by at least twenty-seven species of mammals, and thirty-four species of reptiles, with amphibians including seven species of frogs and toads. Reptiles include turtles, tortoises, lizards and a number of snake species.

International research has revealed that wetlands around the world serve a critical role in maintaining biodiversity, contributing to the overall health of the planet. Unfortunately, lack of knowledge regarding the role of wetlands has led to humans encroaching on these areas in one way or another. The major problem facing Chalan Beel is the silt carried by the more than forty rivers that empty into it. While it is estimated that Chalan Beel initially covered an area of more than 1000 square kilometers, a survey in 1909 noted that it had been reduced to 368 square kilometers, and a more recent survey noted that it had shrunk to a mere 26 square kilometers.

Developments around the rivers that empty into Chalan Beel, such as the construction of the East Bengal Railway in the early 1900s and numerous dams, roads and railways since then, have caused the rivers to redirect and gather silt along the way. Although the silt provides fertile soil for agriculture, taking over wetlands for agriculture and habitation has taken away the livelihood of those who fished for a living, and has impacted negatively on the environment in a number of ways.

Flora found along the banks of the beel includes a perennial grass known as kans or kash, which grows to a height of three meters and quickly takes over silted land, compounding the problem of Chalan Beel being reduced in size. Date palms, dhol kolmi and simul are also found in and around Chalan Beel. The fruit from the date palm is used to make jelly, while the sap is boiled to make a sugary product called “jaggery”. With increased knowledge as to the important role beels play in the environment, it is hoped that Chalan Beel, and other wetland areas in Bangladesh, will be preserved for future generations.