Can spatial land-use planning help overcome environmental and development challenges in the CHT?

20 Nov 2022

This article first appeared on The Daily Sun on 18 November 2022 and is available here.

Boga Lake is a popular touristic destination
Boga Lake is a popular touristic destination in the Bandarban District (Photo:ICIMOD/Kabir Uddin)

The pristine, verdant slopes of the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) – the only extensive hilly area in Bangladesh – are rapidly changing. With the CHT hosting a growing number of tourists each year, development activities centred on tourism have been encroaching on biodiversity-rich landscapes, rural settlements, and fertile farmlands. The hill tracts are becoming urban centres of commerce, pulling in many migrants in the search for jobs and other opportunities. Naturally, this means land is increasingly becoming a scarce resource, and there are growing issues that accompany environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation.

The demands on the land put a strain on the resources and way of life in the hill tracts. Could spatial land-use planning ease these pressures and ensure that competing demands are met sustainably?


Between 2003 and 2022, the banks of the Boga Lake observed rapid urbanization to cater to the needs to tourism. The lake is a popular tourist destination in Bandarban district of Chattogram Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. (Image: Google Earth)

The lay of the land

Unfortunately, participatory technology-based spatial land-use planning has not been part of the CHT’s recent burgeoning growth trajectory. Spatial land-use planning is a collective effort to develop and approve land-based activities and is usually controlled by government authorities. It provides the basis for zoning laws and defines specific uses of land for orderly development while protecting our environment, strengthening living conditions and communal systems, conserving resources, promoting social cohesion, and balancing economic priorities.

The hill area are a highly fragile environment, very sensitive to the effects of climate change and human activities. The rapid conversion of land from one use to another and the expanding suburbanisation are likely to have far-reaching consequences and impacts on downhill areas. Settlements being built to house the growing population are dense and poorly planned, with poor sanitation infrastructure and road networks. Poorly planned hotels and housing construction activities – for example, around Boga Lake, Sajek Valley – pose a threat to food security (by reducing cropland availability) and can present environmental issues (by interrupting the flow of ecosystem services across the hills and beyond). Similarly, widescale land-use changes and development interventions are contributing to springs drying up and canals being disrupted, which means less water for farming and domestic use. Water quality is declining as well. Soil erosion and changes in natural tree cover adversely affect the hill region and impact vast downhill areas, with sedimentation problems in the harbour, loss of biodiversity, and declining traditional crop production. Moreover, the hill tracts experience frequent landslides, waterlogging, and flooding.

Without proper planning and interventions, freshwater supplies will likely dwindle in the coming days. The diversity of species, habitat types, and Indigenous communities will decline as commercial activities and priorities engulf the CHT. Croplands will shrink, and traditional livelihoods and identities will take a hit. If the current pattern and speed of land-use change continue without intervention, the future looks bleak for the CHT: Communities will likely move to other urban centres, and even the flow of tourists will likely decrease.

A well-planned future for the CHT

Spatial land-use planning can help allocate land to different uses and balance economic, social, and environmental demands ​​in the CHT. It would support decision-makers and land users in selecting the best combination of land use to meet multiple human needs while maintaining and improving ecosystem resilience, identifying the most likely risks and vulnerable communities, and addressing the needs and demands of different land uses.

In the CHT, spatial land-use planning can present an effective strategy for combating degradation and mitigating climate impacts. The first step in planning is to classify the land and identify which areas are agricultural, residential tourist sites, and floodplains. Then, priority land use can be determined through consensus-based decision-making. For example, decision-makers can determine how much of the tourist hotel zone should make way for road networks and drainage systems. Mountain skylines, dominated by unplan hotel structures and tourist attractions, need regulation as well.

Similarly, land-use plan protocols can focus on specific issues such as the loss of drainage function in hilly areas and increasing water scarcity. Protocols can be developed for springshed restoration, which also involves restoring vegetation cover in degraded catchments. While it is common to plant trees after building houses or road construction in Bangladesh, land-use planning can help us go a step further and decide which native species would be most suitable to help restore springshed function, prevent runoff, regulate humidity levels, and provide better habitats for birds (which would boost bird and nature tourism in the CHT). Such planning would also go beyond just plantation activities to focus on other supporting initiatives – say, for example, constructing small retention ponds to recharge groundwater levels and using water from these ponds during dry periods.

The land-use planning process for the CHT must be iterative and continuous, prioritising efficiency, equity, and sustainability. Such planning will also require the integration of geographic information systems and remote sensing. This will need to be supported by spatial-temporal geospatial data modelling on past, present, and future land use; alternative scenarios; risk assessments; and participatory approaches. A land-use spatial master plan – implemented by the Chattogram Hill Tracts Development Board in conjunction with local communities – can help can dictate a long-term strategic approach for the CHT to regulate the efficient use of resources with minimal impact on hill landscapes while improving economic and social conditions for communities living there, and generations to come. The CHT’s future is in our hands – if we can plan for it.


kabir uddin

Kabir Uddin