Submerged chars, illegal bulkheads, unmarked wreckage and untrained masters – all these have combined to make the 114-kilometre area of Chattogram-Chargazaria route a perilous navigation for lighter vessels.
More than one hundred lighter ships and bulkheads (cargo boats for carrying bulk sand only in river routes) have sunk in the last six years in a 114-kilometre area of the Chattogram-Chargazaria route while carrying goods from the outer anchorage of Chattogram Port.
Ship masters who travel through this route said that this channel has become very risky as about 25% of the sunken ships have not been recovered yet.
According to sources, most of the accidents on the route take place in the Bhasanchar area.
Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) data reveals, there have been eight shipwrecks so far in 2021. However, private lighter ship operators' organisation Water Transport Cell (WTC) said that 29 ships under their control sank from 2016 to 2020. About 25 ships were owned by various industrial groups and individuals, and 40 bulkheads also sank during this time.
Around 5,000 lighter ships operate across the country. Among those, 2,000 ships transport goods from Chattogram port to different parts of the country using the Chattogram-Chargazaria route.
The draught of the lighter ships carrying goods from the outer anchorage of Chattogram port varies from three to five metres. The depth of the Chattogram-Chargazaria channel is 3.96 metres. The minimum depth in this route is 2.90 metres in Boyarchar.
Mohammad Ibrahim, master of MV Shovon, has been operating ships for 14 years carrying goods from the outer anchorage of Chattogram port. He said, "Most of the lighter ships sank in the Bhasanchar area of Hatiya. It is hard to control ships because of the strong currents from both sides of the sea."
"The BIWTA also fails to mark the wreckage areas. As a result, many ships collide with the sunken wreckage," he added.
Change in course of the channel and submerged chars are also contributing to shipwrecks in the route.
According to BIWTA sources, ships used to take the Chattogram-Chargazaria route between Bhasanchar and Thengarchar. A new channel was created on the left side of the two chars after accumulated silt made the previous channel unnavigable. Dredging was done in the new channel in November and December last year.
However, despite dredging, silt accumulates there during low tide. Currently, the depth of the channel there is 3.5 metres. So, ships have to pass through this channel during high tide.
Violation of official navigation instructions is among the causes of shipwrecks.
Mohammad Selim, deputy director of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC), said, "According to the latest hydrographic survey in the Boyarchar area, the buoy marking the channel is currently located in the middle of it. Therefore, ships have been instructed to navigate carefully on both sides of the buoy."
He said, "Because of the shallow depth of the channel in the Bhasanchar area, ships are instructed to cross there after two hours of high tide. We have also installed enough marker buoys. But the ship masters do not follow the instructions."
"Besides, operation of lighter ships should be stopped if meteorological signal-3 is issued during inclement weather. But neither the ship owners nor the masters follow these instructions," he further said.
Md Abu Taher, master of MV Taj Uddin, said, "The distance of the route increased nine nautical miles six years ago when the course was redirected to the left side of the Bhasanchar-Thengarchar channel. It also takes an extra two hours to cross it."
"The new route also has serious dangers. There are many submerged chars on both sides of this route," he added.
Captain Md Gias Uddin Ahmed, principal officer of the Mercantile Marine Office (MMO), accused all the parties involved for frequent accidents in this route. He mentioned insufficient marking, violating instruction, not giving necessary circulars and incompetent ship masters as the main reasons behind the crisis.
Cutting corners by vessel owners is an ever-present risk to safe navigation, says Capt Gias. "Ships which are licensed to navigate the internal waterways are not fit for navigation at sea. Ships built for navigation in coastal areas have an obligation to maintain the rules of the Classification Society which is 60% more costly. That's why ship owners take licenses for inland waterways and ply their ships in the sea," he said. If this continues, Chattogram port and outer anchorage areas will be at risk.
Md Isha Mia, president of Bangladesh Lighterage Workers Union, said, "Sometimes, the masters are forced by the owners to sail during maritime signal-3. This is one of the main reasons for accidents."
Nurul Haque, secretary-general of the Bangladesh Cargo Vessel Owners Association, told The Business Standard, "A shipwreck causes a loss of Tk5 crore to Tk10 crore depending on the size and goods of the ship. There is no government initiative to rescue the sunken ships. Ship accidents can be reduced if dredging is done in the Sandeep channel."
He, however, admitted that some masters operated ships even during signal number 3 at sea. But he claims that the owners do not force them to do so. He also denied the allegation of running ships without fitness.
Meanwhile, a syndicate is involved in transporting goods from the outer anchorage of Chattogram port using bulkheads. These bulkheads move through different routes including the port-channel and Bhasanchar area. Sailors and ship owners allege that the unregulated movement of around 200 bulkheads has become a big threat to lighter ships. They claimed many ships are meeting with accidents because of these bulkheads.
On 30 April this year, a stone-laden bulkhead named MV Pinky sank in the outer anchorage of Chattogram port after a collision with a large merchant ship. Earlier on 2 March, another bulkhead sank in the Kalarpool area of the Karnafuli River.
Captain Faridul Alam, deputy conservator of Chattogram port said, "Bulkheads should only transport sand. However, a gang illegally carries goods from the outer anchorage of Chattogram port and uses various routes by the sea. The port authorities have taken action against these bulkheads and fined them. However, the activities of bulkhead owners have not stopped."