Despite three river ports existing within a 45-kilometer range of waterways, BIWTA wants to set up another river port at a cost of Tk2,500 crore at Gazaria upazila in Munshiganj.
Experts believe that constructing another river port by spending crores of taka is a waste of money as the total capacity of the existing nearby ports is not being utilised at present.
However, BIWTA thinks it would be better to have more ports if there is an opportunity.
BIWTA (Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority) has proposed to set up the port on 25 acres of land on the banks of the Meghna River, to the right of Daudkandi Bridge in Gazaria.
Under the plan, the multi-purpose river port will have access to roads and railways also.
Notably, Pangaon Container Terminal is just 45 kilometres away from the proposed new river port at Gazaria. Pangaon port, built on the banks of the Buriganga at Dhaka's Keraniganj at a cost of Tk154 crore, was commissioned in 2013.
Pangaon port, jointly constructed by BIWTA and the Chattogram Port Authority (CPA), is currently being operated by CPA.
Another river port, just 27 kilometres away from the proposed Gazaria port, has been approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. Construction of the Tk392 crore river port on the banks of the Sitalakhya River at Khanpur in Naragayganj Sadar upazila is awaiting commencement.
There is another container terminal beside the proposed Gazaria river port. The terminal, owned by Summit Group,has an annual container handling capacity of 120,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit).
The annual container handling capacity of Pangaon port is 116,000 TEU. According to port sources, at present, Pangaon port annually handles around 20,000-22,000 TEU containers. That means one-fifth of the capacity is being used.
BIWTA Director Kazi Wakil Nawaz (Ports and Transportation Department) said, "The initiative to build the new river port at Gazaria has been undertaken considering future demand."
He said, "It will be better, for the future, to build the port as we have the opportunity now."
BIWTA has already sent the initial project proposal to the Planning Commission through the Ministry of Shipping for policy approval.
In addition, a letter has been sent to the Economic Relations Department (ERD) to confirm foreign financing for the project.
However, Md Mamun-al-Rashid, a member of the Physical Infrastructure Department of the Planning Commission, said there was no scope to send any proposal to the ERD for financial sourcing without feasibility studies being done.
As per the project proposal, Gazaria port will strengthen the capacity of regional and sub-regional water trade of Bangladesh. It will facilitate bulk and container access from sea to inland water ports. The port will provide necessary infrastructure in future, considering the growing freight demand in the project area. In addition, the project will ensure smooth and safe movements of goods in the proposed river area.
It may be mentioned that the same arguments were made before the construction of Pangaon port.
However, Dr Shamsul Haque, a transport expert and professor of BUET's civil engineering department, said, "The proposal to build a new port without finding out the reasons behind the failure of the existing nearby ports is not acceptable at all."
The professor said, "Pangaon port failed to fulfil its purpose. Now, it doesn't matter what arguments are being made to justify building another river port at the same place. We have to see what the outcome of the previous project is."
"If a project fails to fulfil its purpose, it should be understood that its feasibility study was not correct. In that case, revising a previous decision is a worldwide practice. And if the new initiative is taken by the same organisation, it has to explain why the previous project failed," he continued.
He advised the Planning Commission to look into the reasons behind the failure of the previous project.
The Planning Commission's Md Mamun-al-Rashid said, "The Planning Commission will evaluate whether building a new river port in Gazaria is actually justified. If it is found that existing ports are enough to meet present demand, no new port will be needed. The commission will take the final decision after evaluating the proposal."
In this regard, CPA Member Zafar Alam said, "If businessmen do not use the facility built by spending crores of taka, there will be no outcome from such projects. To encourage traders to use Pangaon port, tariffs have been reduced to 70%, but that too failed to increase the number of users."
"In this context, it is necessary to conduct a survey before deciding to build a new Tk2,500cr river port at the same place," he suggested.
Dwelling on why the total capacity of Pangaon port was not being used, BUET Professor Shamsul Haque said, "It has to be ensured for traders that transportation cost by water is lower than by road. Every port must have access to rail connection. Otherwise, a trader has to spend resources on road transport again. Railways should be set up in industrial areas, which will be directly connected to the ports. Otherwise, use of inland waterways will not be enhanced."
Traders have meanwhile said that it will not be profitable to transport goods through small lighter vessels. That is why they are transporting containers by road instead of using the waterways. Because of this reason, Pangaon terminal is not being fully utilised.
Besides, as the traders argue, if containers are transported by large ships from Chattogram port to Pangaon port, transportation cost will be less. But large ships cannot anchor at Pangaon port due to lack of navigability.
Expressing his views, Aminul Haque, managing director of Seacom group, said, "Already there are several ports in the vicinity of the proposed new port area, including privately owned terminals. Earlier, ships of 4.5 metre draught used to come to these ports from Chattogram and Mongla. Now ships with a draught of more than 4.2 metres cannot come anymore. To attract businessmen to Pangaon port, we have to ensure navigability of ships with 5 metre draught by dredging the river. Transportation costs for traders will then be reduced, and they will be interested in using the waterway."
"So first we have to build waterways through dredging and after that we might consider building the new port," he added.