A project of the General Economics Division of the Bangladesh Planning Commission funded by the Government of the Netherlands

  • Saving the country’s dying rivers!

    Saving the country’s dying rivers!

    Once it took nearly 40-45 minutes for ferries with buses and cars with hundreds of passengers to cross the mighty Gumti River at Daudkandi point. But later the time was shortened to five to seven minutes after the bridge was constructed.

    Now underneath the bridge vast tracts of shoals have turned the river into just a stream with human settlements here and there. The Gumti River is embracing a slow death due to lack of dredging and/or as a consequence of human encroachment in different forms.

    If all this continues for some more years, the Daudkandi bridge will have to be dismantled to build a road for busy vehicular movement. The vital Dhaka-Chittagong four-lane highway begins at the eastern side of the bridge.

    Then the Dhonagoda River, a tributary of the mighty Meghna, adjoining the Nayergaon Bazar under Matlab upazila in Chandpur district used to serve hundreds of thousands of farmers with irrigation water and provide fishes for markets there. A bridge was even built to cross the once turbulent river near Kauadi to connect Matlab with  Daudkandi. But now the bridge is set to be useless in a few more years’ time because the river has already been squeezed to a canal at the bridge point. Lack of dredging or operation of a brick kiln might have contributed to the plight of the river.

    These are two glaring instances of utter neglect either by the Water Resources Ministry or the Shipping Ministry. Nobody still knows which ministry is mandated to have a look at these two rivers or others in various parts of Bangladesh dying slowly but surely.

    Who’s to save the rivers? Certainly not the powerless common people. Ministries are there to do it. But which is the proper ministry?

    When the water resources minister sounded alarm bell as he frankly admitted last week that the country’s rivers are being grabbed and polluted brazenly, the newspaper readers did not have any forum to ask him what his ministry really does. “Rivers across the country are facing a threat …. Illegal grabbing and human induced pollution are contributing to rivers’ plight, which may create a catastrophic situation,” the minister told a discussion in the capital. The  Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) and the Forest Department jointly organised the discussion.

    The minister expressed his sheer helplessness over the abject failure of laws in protecting the country’s rivers from encroachment and all sorts of human-induced pollution. Being the water resources minister, he cannot in any way shirk his responsibility in drawing up plans to protect the country’s precious and scarce water resources.

    Coming on the heels of the minister’s remarks, a report in the FE said, 78 per cent works of a vital dredging project has remained incomplete for five long years. The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), which is to execute the project, now wants the tenure to be extended by one more year. Even the BIWTA is not sure whether 78 per cent remaining work could be completed during the extended period.

    According to the World Bank’s Bangladesh Integrated Transport Sector Study, the size of waterways in the country stands at 6,000 kilometres (kms) in the rainy season and 3,800 kms in summer which was 8,400 kms and 5,200 kms respectively some four decades back.

    Last year, the so-called National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) went into operation but none still knows what it is doing nor does it inform members of the public about the progress it has so far made. The NRCC was set up to save rivers from pollution and encroachment. The Commission is supposed to coordinate the activities of different ministries and departments and provide suggestions for protecting rivers as well as ensuring their multi-dimensional uses for socio-economic development of the country. The NRCC Act was passed in parliament in 2013.

    The shipping minister, who opened the office of NRCC at Bangladesh Shipping Corporation (BSC) tower in the capital, was on record saying : “Those who destroy and kill the rivers through pollution and encroachment are the ‘razakars’ (collaborators) of the present era”.

    Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had once asked the water resources ministry to take more effective steps for restoring the ‘slain’ rivers. She hoped that the water resources ministry would be more active for water resources management and protection of rivers.

    But the Prime Minister’s hopes have been dashed to the ground.

    As per a survey of the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB), there are three hundred and ten rivers in Bangladesh. Of these, 57 are border rivers and the condition of 175 is miserable. Eighty per cent of the rivers lack proper depth. The latest study of BIWTA reveals that 117 rivers are either dead or have lost navigability. Such rivers/canals include Brahamaputra, Padma, Mahananda, Gorai, Meghna, Titas, Gumti, Kushiara, Dhaleswari, Bhairab, Sitalakkya, Turag etc.

    Already 75 per cent of our river routes have lost navigability due to silting. Let there be a central body to coordinate different agencies already set up to save the dying rivers. And this national task needs to be accomplished on an emergency basis before it is too late.

    Written by Rahman Jahangir (arjayster@gmail.com), published by the Financial Express

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