Setting up river-based freight between Dhaka and Chattogram will help maintain the uptrend in ready-made garment (RMG) exports, minimising pressure on the highway, which will lose load capacity significantly over the next 10 years, say experts.
More than half the country's exports and imports circulate around the apparel sector. And 90% of the apparel freight is being transported on the Dhaka-Chattogram national highway, they told a workshop titled "RMG Supply Chain Resilience in Bangladesh" at the NEC Conference Centre in Dhaka, Wednesday.
Four consultants of the National Resilience Programme (NRP) project presented the keynote paper at the event, organised by the Planning Commission's Programming Division. The keynote paper highlighted that the weight limit of the country's highways will be exceeded in the next ten years if the current load on the road continues.
Apart from this, if the highway were closed for a few days due to natural calamities, the ready-made garment industry would completely collapse.
They advocated for increasing the use of waterways as an alternative to the Dhaka-Chattogram road freight.
Backing the suggestion, they argued that each tonne of goods transported by road costs Tk4.5 while the cost is Tk2.74 by rail and Tk0.99 by waterways. As such, the cost of transporting the same amount of goods by road is four-and-a-half times higher than that of waterways.
However, the keynote paper also mentioned the current sorry state of railways and waterways as alternatives to roads. It said the government's Seventh Five-Year Plan aimed to build 856 kilometres of railways as well as 1,110 kilometres of dual gauge double line rail tracks – plus replace 725 kilometres of existing railways in the next five years – from 2015.
Contrary to the massive target, just 330 kilometres of railways have been constructed and 248.50 kilometres of railways have been converted to dual gauge since 2009. And, 1,335 kilometres of railways have been repaired in the last 10 years.
According to the keynote, the condition of the country's waterways is more concerning than that of roads and rails. The implementation of various waterway development plans has been in the slow lane.
It said that although there is a 5,968-kilometre river route in the country, only 683 kilometres of it have the required navigability for freight transport. Only 11% of rivers have the required 3.6-meters-or-above draft.
None of the seven projects taken up for inland waterway development under the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) Master Plan for 2009-2029 have been completed.
The equipment purchase for the Chattogram Port Authority's New Mooring Container Terminal and construction of the Patenga Container Terminal are also hanging in the air.
Work on only three out of nine projects proposed by the Chattogram Port Authority between 2009 and 2029 has started.
According to the keynote paper, if the current export trend in the country's apparel sector continues, revenue from this sector will reach $66 billion by 2030. At the same time, the transportation of cargo containing apparel goods will more than double to 32.67 lakh Twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).
So, if an alternative means of transportation is not sought, the speed of vehicles on the Dhaka-Chattogram highway will reduce to 10 kilometres per hour.
In this situation, consultants suggested sending at least 60% of ready-made garment goods by river to keep the speed of vehicles on the highway at 80 kilometres per hour.
They said it is possible to transport 7,000 tonnes of goods in four lighterage vessels. It would take 175 rail wagons with a capacity of 40 tonnes, or 260 trucks with a capacity of 25 tonnes, to transport the same amount of goods.
As the chief guest of the programme, Planning Minister MA Mannan suggested focusing on resilience in every sector to substantiate the wholesome solution as a nation.
He agreed on the point of focusing on the resilience of workers connected with the RMG sector to ensure the resilience of the whole sector.
The minister stressed the need for promoting social dialogue, with the engagement of stakeholders, to overcome the challenging issues – including supply chain resilience.
In the meantime, State Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Enamur Rahman advocated for holding an inter-ministerial meeting to enhance coordination for resolving the ready-made garment sector's existing problems.
CPD Research Director Khandaker Golam Moazzem said it is impossible to protect the export trade by only diversifying the transport system. It also is necessary to protect the factories from natural disasters.
In this situation, he suggested setting up factories in planned areas.
The economist further said, "Despite construction of some infrastructure, the use of waterways is not increasing. A large portion of Pangaon Inland Container Terminal's capacity is not being used. Identifying the reasons behind this, we have to take initiatives accordingly."
He also said keeping these problems unresolved, even if new infrastructure is built, traders will not use it.
BGMEA President Rubana Haq said workers in the ready-made garment industry, as well as workers in the sector, are at risk.
On many occasions, it is not possible to relocate the factories, considering the convenience of workers.
Van Nguyen, deputy resident representative, UNDP Bangladesh; Lisa Andersson, first secretary of the Embassy of Sweden; Khandker Ahsan Hossain, chief of programming division; and Dr Nurun Nahar, project director of NRP-Programming Division, spoke, among others, at the event.
Planning Division Senior Secretary Md Ashadul Islam presided over the event.