Zerin Ahmed photo

by Petro Kotze and Nalori Chakma

Connecting to riverine communities gave direction to her career 

Globally, young activists have increasingly taken a stand calling for social change. Zerin Ahmed is one of those inspiring young leaders. The 25-year-old activist and educator is based in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where she promotes environmental education and human rights in light of the sustainable development goals. Through various communication tools, she also tries to bring the stories of the most vulnerable, especially of ethnic communities along rivers impacted by hydropower development, to light.

Zerin has been volunteering since she was a teenager, but when she attended a river camp organized by the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project in 2019, it opened her eyes to the real impact of large hydropower development, and the suffering it is causing vulnerable riverine communities and the importance of free-flowing rivers in South Asia. Since then, Zerin has focused her work to follow the rivers, organizing and facilitating skills-based training for youth, advocating environmental protection and human rights and empowerment. 

Her entry into the world of advocacy has not been straightforward. Zerin studied at the University of Dhaka’s Department of English, and majored in literature, not your usual route to development work but, she says literature was her way to connect to people, societies, and culture. 

Many roads can lead you to pursue your passion  

“Literature allowed me to look at the past, present, and future of all kinds of socio-political, economic, and other aspects of livelihoods,” she says. She found that people used literature to express themselves and make their voices heard. “It’s a medium of activism,” she says. To date, her work has also primarily been in communication, with a strong focus on making connections. 

While at university she also wanted to incorporate her strong interest in the development sector, especially the development of marginalized communities. Zerin was raised in Dhaka, but her family comes from a small, rural village that only recently got access to electricity through solar power. “Having people so close to me, living without access to many facilities that I have, I always felt sensitised with that,” she says. Then, in Dhaka too, the inequalities are very vivid – next to the same stream can be both high-rise buildings and a slum, she says. “It’s very visual, and it bothers me. I feel bad that we often live on ignoring that.” 

She looked to volunteer work, and started with the Bangladesh Youth Environmental Initiative (BYEI) and during this time, she was nominated to attend the TROSA River Camp. The event opened Zerin’s eyes to a whole new spectrum of development work. She learned about the impact of large hydropower dams, and the suffering that is taking place among riverine communities as a result. During field visits to affected river sites, she was able to connect to indigenous communities, and was deeply affected by their stories. “One woman told me how a flood, neck-high, came through her house, and how she had to live on a patch of earth next to a store with her baby for some time,” she recalls.

Their approach to life, she says, really touched her heart. “I was amazed by their optimism regardless of their suffering, and how welcoming they were towards people that reached out to them.” She describes it as an amazing experience and still stays in touch with the people that she met there because she feels that she can help by telling their stories.

“By talking to you about myself, I’m trying to bring up their voices to you, so more people get to know what they are going through.” Her hope is that the narrative will grow so big that more initiatives are taken and one day, policies change to their benefit. 

The gift of volunteering 

After graduating Zerin entered the job market, at first, developing training material for school children and groups but she knew she needed specialized experience to be able to work on river-related issues. 

After a year or so, and following a tough selection process, she moved to TROSA as a full-time volunteer. “This was a very special period of my life,” she says. The project allowed her to partake in discussions and seminars with politicians, policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders, as well as the communities on the ground level. The experience not only taught her a lot about how advocacy was done, but also gave her the opportunity to highlight the plight of communities, and especially women, from the lower Teesta. 

“The communities in the Teesta basin in Bangladesh are struggling every year due to human-caused disasters, and this year’s hits have been really hard, some referring to it being the roughest in their lifetime,” she says. Zerin recalls the story of Sraboni Rani, a 14-year-old girl living in one of the affected areas in Rangpur, who remembers the green villages from earlier in her childhood that used to be on the horizon, but now are all underwater. The people keep losing their homes, lands, and most importantly, lives when dam gates in the upper Teesta are opened, without any support from the government, she says. 

The Teesta River has been seriously affected by a series of large hydropower development, and communities have lost much of their cultural heritage, their homes, and the natural splendor of their environment.  Najma Begum, another sufferer of the floods that Zerin has met, almost always has her home underwater, she says, but she is still very positive about life and dreams of a better future for her children. “I wonder when we can confidently say that it is possible.”

Zerin is not willing to let go of her work on rivers and, one day, she would like her work to influence the system in such a way that people’s lives change for the better. She says she still has a long way to go, but over the years, she has noticed that her work has influenced those in her direct surroundings already. Now, her friends and relatives are more aware of many of the issues that are going on, talking to her about them and asking questions.

She says it is important that the youth get involved in development work. “When you achieve something through these human connections, and change happens in your surroundings, it feels very rewarding,” she says. However, she warns that there are downsides too. 

For one, “things do not work as you want,” she says. When she started volunteering, she thought she could change many things that seemed troubling in this world, but quickly realized this was not easy. For example, The Bangladeshi Supreme Court recently awarded all rivers in the country the legal right to live, which means that those who damage a river can be charged by the government-appointed National River Conservation Commission.  

Yet, for Zerin, the key lies in the implementation of the new law. “There were already existing laws for conservation in place that have repeatedly failed to be implemented.” In the end, she says, it is the people without financial or political backup that suffer the most, while capitalists and industrialists like illegal miners are really responsible for the death of a river. 

“If you want policies and laws to change and to demand that goodness takes place, it will not happen in a day or even in years,” she says. “Instead, you have to keep working, and working.” Still, for Zerin, the positive mindset that things will change eventually is what keeps her going. 

Ultimately, the reality is hard, she says, and much of the work we do in NGOs must be repeated over and over before any change happens. A big lesson for her, Zerin says, was that things are very different in reality. “But that doesn’t mean that we give up, right? You have to keep going.”

International Rivers’ South Asia program is part of the regional Transboundary Rivers of South Asia program. Supported by the Government of Sweden, TROSA is a collaboration with Oxfam, IUCN, ICIMOD and many local organizations that works on some of the more complex rivers in South and Southeast Asia: the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems, including their tributaries such as the Teesta, and Asia’s last  last free flowing river, the Salween. The program aims to contribute to poverty reduction and marginalization among vulnerable river basin communities through increased access to and control over riverine water resources on which their livelihoods depend.