The Karnaphuli river, the lifeline of the port city of Chattogram, is at risk of dying.
The city had once developed along the bank of the river. Now, the 667-metre-wide river has shrunk to 300 metres.
Accumulation of silt, erection of temporary pillars and platforms during the construction of the Shah Amanat Bridge, and disposal of human and industrial waste have caused the river to shrink.
Silt has deposited around the pillars of the bridge forming "chars" (low lying islands) that are slowly filling up the river.
Human waste, including plastic, polythene, etc produced by 60 lakh residents of the port city, and silt washed in from adjacent hills, have also created layers of sediment around the pillars.
Despite its immense importance, the land on both sides of the river is falling prey to influential "land grabbers". It has been quite a while since the river was dredged.
River protection activists, echoing former mayor ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury's proposal made at the onset of the construction of the Shah Amanat Bridge, said if a suspension bridge had been built instead of a regular bridge, the river would not have reached this alarming state.
Experts and port users think that if necessary measures are not taken immediately, the river will shrink even further and will become unnavigable.
They warned that this will seriously affect business in the country's premier port city, and might have a negative impact on the overall economy as well.
Prof Sikandar Khan, former secretary to the Bangladesh Economic Association and presently the vice-chancellor of East Delta University, pointed out that Chattogram port is the economic lifeline of the country while the Karnaphuli river is the lifeline of Chattogram port.
"Around 80 percent of the country's total export and import is done through this port," he said, adding that if the Karnaphuli dies, the city will lose its port status as Chattogram port is solely dependent on the Karnaphuli river.
"Earlier, goods used to be loaded and unloaded at the port round the clock, but now unloading is done during high tide only. This is because the water becomes too shallow for lighter vessels to move up the river during low tide," he explained.
The Chattogram Port Authority's (CPA) average net income is around Tk450 crore every year. However, there was a downtrend in their income in the last two consecutive fiscal years. In FY2016-17, the net income of the port was Tk502 crore, but the amount dropped to Tk463.67 crore in FY2017-18, and to Tk430.68 crore in FY2018-19.
Iftekhar Saimul Chowdhury, Awami League secretary for law affairs, had opposed the construction of the bridge from the very beginning.
He told The Business Standard that the river is dying because of the bridge, and that he would not be surprised if the river turned into a canal in a couple of years.
On a recent visit to the river, The Business Standard found that during the ebb, large ships and heavy cargo vessels were unable to move along the river.
Only small water vessels could carry passengers to inland upazilas, while lighters (small ships) could not be used at all.
When contacted, Mahbubul Alam, president of the Chattogram Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told The Business Standard that the economic cost of the death of the Karnaphuli will be enormous.
The river needs to be kept alive for the sake of keeping the economy vibrant, he observed.
Amin Ahmed, a resident of Char Patharghata, told The Business Standard that three-quarters of the river is now filled with sediment.
He added that, "The river will cease to exist in five to seven years if sediment continues to accumulate."
Abdus Sabur, who has been sailing motorised water vessels on the river for the last 30 years, said he no longer sees water under the bridge except around two pillars.
In 2016, a team from the Hydrography Department of Chattogram Port Authority inspected the bridge area, and could see water only around pillars 7 and 8. They observed that the other pillars of the bridge are surrounded by sediment.
Following the inspection by the team, the port authority sent a letter to the chief engineer of the Roads and Highways Department explaining the problem.
The letter, signed by Chief Hydrograph Commander MM Karim Chowdhury, urged the Roads and Highways Department to take measures to increase the navigability on the river, and remove the temporary pillars and platforms built during construction. The letter was sent three years ago, but nothing has been done about the problem as yet.
Port authority's Chief Hydrographer Mohammad Arifur Rahman said: "The temporary pillars cannot be moved as the roots of the pillars are almost impossible to detect. Besides, removing the pillars may change the design of the bridge, making it very risky in the end."
Bus and truck terminals and other structures are being set up on these silt-filled areas. Some influential grabbers have started the business of collecting and selling sand from the grabbed areas. This sand is kept in heaps on both sides of the river.
Even though the administration had once demolished the structures, new structures are being set up. Influential people are setting up a mosque to avoid eviction.
A bus driver, seeking anonymity, said that the local administration and leaders charge for parking buses and trucks in the terminals that have been erected on grabbed land beside the river.
He alleged that they charge Tk200-300 as parking fees from each bus or truck.
Sources at the Chattogram Canal and River Protection Committee say that during the monsoon, around 10 lakh tonnes of silt enters the Karnaphuli river from Chattogram and other hilly areas in the region.
The Karnaphuli flows through a very region, and its strong current carries the silt to the Bay of Bengal.
According to sources at Chattogram Wasa, in the absence of an adequate sewerage system, around three crore litres of household waste flows into the river every day. Several hundred tonnes of chemical waste from factories and industries along the river are also drained into the river.
Apart from the waste disposed of by the city corporation, tonnes of oil released from vessels also goes into the river.
A writ seeking measures to protect the river was filed at the High Court in 2010. Acting on the petition, a High Court bench directed the Chattogram deputy commissioner's office to report on the issue after an investigation.
The report said that there are 2,181 illegal structures on the grabbed land along the river. In February 2018, on the order of the court, the deputy commissioner's office demolished around 300 structures along the river. But the drive was halted soon afterwards.
In this regard, Ilias Hossain, deputy commissioner of Chattogram, said that the port authority leased out the land along the river for building a container depot.
He said the port authority will take the decision on demolishing those structures.
The High Court directed the port authority to demolish all illegal structures by April 9 this year. The port authority appealed to the High Court, and took time until May 18. There are allegations that the structures have still not been demolished.
"We are looking for alternative ways or to restart the dredging with new equipment," Omar Faruk, secretary to the Chattogram Port Authority, told The Business Standard. "But we cannot do anything with regard to the bridge over the river as it depends on the government's decision."
Aliur Rahman, general secretary of Chattogram Canal and River Protection Movement, said the port authority earns a lot of money through the Karnaphuli river.
"The 2018 High Court order has not been fully executed yet. The port authority should and must conduct the eviction drive," he said.
"If they do not take any action, I will file a contempt of court case," he added.