Dredging usually refers to increasing the depth of the river channel by removing silt that builds up on the bottom over time. But, what if the silt collected from the river falls back into the same water body, resulting in the squandering of public funds?
This was the scenario of a six-year-long project undertaken for dredging the Jamuna River.
As part of the dredging works, the extracted silt was dumped on the river banks and agricultural lands along the banks. During the monsoon that followed, rain water brought the silt back into the river, filling it up with the same sediment.
The unplanned project ended in 2016, following which, three unions of Chowhali upazila in Sirajganj district went into the river.
To prevent silt from falling back into the river, another unplanned project was immediately undertaken, allocating a sum that amounted to almost half of the original dredging project.
In a recently released report, the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) of the planning ministry found proof of irregularities after analysing five different river dredging projects – both completed and ongoing – worth about Tk5,000 crore.
According to the IMED, the projects were implemented without conducting much-needed surveys. It has been asking the authorities concerned to dump the silt in a proper manner, but the calls have mostly gone unheeded.
Based on the irregularities found in these five projects, the IMED suspects misuse of funds and irregularities in 97 other ongoing projects worth Tk47,000 crore.
The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), the Water Development Board and other organisations are implementing those projects to build water management systems, ensuring navigability, protecting river banks, and dredging riverbeds.
The IMED has found irregularities and mismanagement of funds in handling a project meant to excavate and dredge silt 136km along the junctions of the Jamuna and Brahmaputra rivers to the Buriganga River.
The rivers filled up with silt just a year after completion of the dredging work in 2010. Under the same project, 40km of the river was again dredged in 2015, which filled up again the following year.
Therefore, the duration of the Tk944 crore project was extended for six and a half more years, increasing its total cost to Tk1,125 crores.
Noted water expert Prof Dr Ainun Nishat said that after dredging, the river jumps back to its original state temporarily. "But the siltation process is continuous and the river gets filled up again," he explained.
So instead of misusing money on unplanned projects, he opined, authorities should take measures based on the individual behaviour of each river.
Speaking to The Business Standard, AKM Saiful Islam, professor of the Institute of Water and Flood Management at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, said that silt deposited on the riverbeds move out to the sea during monsoon.
"Usually, rivers do not die through accumulation of silt, unless there are activities such as river grabbing and other impediments," he said.
Therefore, he underscored the need for maintenance dredging to ensure navigability of rivers. At the same time, he opined that planned initiatives should be taken to protect the river banks.
Capital dredging helps increase the depth of rivers but the riverbeds get strewn with silt again the next monsoon, resulting in wastage of public money spent on such projects, he said.
Professor Saiful opined that the authorities should conduct surveys every year, especially at the source of rivers and other risky areas, to protect river banks.
If the preconditions are maintained, dredging will actually work then, he added.
The IMED also found evidence that silt extracted from the rivers was dumped on the river banks, in a Tk956 crore project for developing the river route from Mongla port to Pakshi via the Chandpur-Maoa-Goalanda route.
Under the project aimed to dredge the river for carrying heavy equipment for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant through waterways, the same places were dredged multiple times.
To ensure navigability of the 460km river under the project – which is to continue until 2025 – the IMED recommended that silt extracted from the rivers should be dumped away from river banks by using proper fencing technique.
Additionally, in the capital dredging project on 53 routes of inland waterways, 27 percent silt was dumped on the agricultural lands whereas 29 percent was dumped on the river banks.
Therefore, dredging about 2,500km of the river by spending around Tk2,000 crore did not bring any positive outcome. The rivers returned to their earlier stage the very next year, hampering water transportation.
According to the IMED report, river erosion hit Doarabazar upazila of Sunamganj district due to a fault in the design of the Bhairob-Chatok river route dredging project.
In another recent project undertaken to dredge the 92km Madaripur-Charmuguria-Tekerhat-Gopalganj river route, 23 percent of the silt has already returned.
The IMED, in 2011, recommended surveys on detailed maps, size of rivers and canals, depth and nature of rivers, adequacy of both surface and underground water, river banks and so on, before beginning any dredging project.
Asked if the recommendations are being followed, IMED Secretary Abul Mansur Mohammad Faizullah said IMED has the authority to recommend if it identifies faults in project implementation.
"But, it is the sole responsibility of the concerned ministries to punish the people involved in irregularities," he said, adding that the IMED cannot do anything in this regard.
According to a survey of BIWTA, during 1962-67, waterways during monsoon spanned 84,000km, and 52,000km during the dry season.
But at present, the total length of waterways has decreased to 6,000km during the rainy season and 3,800km during the dry season.