A well-organised waterway network can do wonders for any developing nation's logistic challenges. For one, new pathways need not be constructed, only existing pathways have to be maintained. They involve far fewer challenges in land acquisition, which is a big issue in a small country like ours.
Most importantly, water transport is cheap and environment friendly. In our country, water-based cargo delivery is a lot cheaper than trucks or trains. It is still the only viable option for long-distance bulk cargo transport. All of these benefits are amplified when we bring our geography into consideration. Tens of thousands of kilometres of waterways occupy around 7 percent of the country's area.
Historically, many of our settlements and cities grew up on the banks of rivers. Naturally blessed with around 4,000km of navigable waterways (which increases to 6,000km during the wet seasons), this region has employed water transport from the early days. Even today some areas remain accessible only through water.
Even with benefits abound, this natural mode of transport has been overlooked throughout our country's history of development. How did we go astray? The colonial-era saw the prioritisation of the railway because the British Raj preferred the political control granted by it. In hindsight, scholars have pointed out that this lopsided venture contributed to economic drain, while simultaneously stripping local villagers of their abilities to make decisions on their crops and markets.
The Pakistan era saw a rise in funding of road networks and this was only accelerated with the independence of Bangladesh. The length of our road network jumped from a mere 480km in 1947 to almost 4,000km in 1970 and by 1985 it was 5,000km. The political mechanism of the state has followed this preference for road transport down to the current administration, often opting for road-based solutions even where water-based options would have been cheaper and more sustainable.
The minuscule proportion of our transportation budget that is allocated to water transport evidence this fact, year after year. Whereas roads receive about 80 percent of the transport budget, inland water transport receives around 3-7 percent.
One reason is governments find it difficult to reinvent itself against existing methods and models. The momentum towards road transport development has seen the rise of flyovers, ferries and bridges while ignoring the potentials of upgrading our terminals, launches and canals. Another, more sinister reason, is that there just isn't enough money in water transport.
It would cost the government far less to dredge a canal and make it operational than to fund a project to build a road and two bridges to cover the same route. The year-on-year maintenance costs would similarly decrease. All of which means that it would be much less profitable for the contractors and stakeholders involved, never mind that it would save the public a lot of money and hassle.
For example, the inland waterways of Dhaka city. Much has been said and written on the matter, but the situation remains stagnant. A few sparks of hope are seen here and there, with the introduction of water taxis along hatirjheel, for instance. However, the sorry state of Dhaka's bodies of water persists.
A survey presented on a Detailed Area Plan meeting four years ago highlighted the plight of the dying canals and proposed a rescue mission that would entail connecting Dhaka's rivers with these canals. The move would at once be a big step towards saving the canals (most of which are suffering from encroachment and disuse), and greatly improve the navigability of Dhaka's internal water routes. As usual, not much has been heard regarding the plan since then.
Even as the government struggles to materialise a metro rail, BRT routes and a bounty of flyovers, racing against the megacity's rising population and even as the public grunts and groans while stuck in the merciless toxic cloud of the traffic in our streets, the vast reaches of our rivers and canals remain untapped.
The city that grew up on the banks of the Buriganga seems to have forgotten it's naturally endowed mode of transport. The city that had 50 flowing canals as late as the 1980s, only boasts of 26 dead or dying canals since the 2010s. The lack of usage of water routes has allowed surrounding land-grabbers to incrementally move into canals and locals to dump garbage into the already thinning streams. This has aggravated another growing pain of the city; waterlogging.
Kallyanpur experiences severe waterlogging during monsoons as it is home to one of the city's major canals; which in recent years has shrunk to 10-12m in width and has contributed to making the waterlogging in that area worse. Similar stories are seen with every other major canal inside Dhaka. So not only are the locals deprived of a less-congested commute opportunity, they also have to trek through sewage on their way to work.
Solving these issues would require public-private follow-up on any of the several master plans made for developing water transport in Dhaka. In Kallayanpur's case, the canal would need dredging, which is much less expensive than developing a road of the same length, both on the short and long term.
Trees would be planted on both banks, which would serve to prevent erosion, reduce the need for dredging and offer some much-needed breathing space to the city dwellers.
Several large-scale dredging efforts have been made in our rivers in the past, but few have yielded acceptable results. Commentators claim this is partly due to the use of outdated dredging machinery and partly because of contractual loopholes that are exploited by the dredgers.
BIWTA has claimed to be working on these issues by creating a real-time monitoring network for the next dredging mega project that the government is undertaking. Here opportunities exist for the private sector to bring in modern, GPS-monitoring enabled dredgers.
Another easy yet major improvement would be addressing our dilapidated terminals. Dhaka's busiest terminals (Swarighat, Wasighat, Kholamura and Sadarghat) could all be dramatically modernized with some simple steps.
For one thing, we need better loading and unloading facilities. Why is it that our country's busiest terminal - the river equivalent to Kamalapur station of Hazrat Shahjalal Airport - require passengers to walk a wooden plank just to board their vessel?
These last few metres of ill-design drastically reduce user comfort and even make the entire medium of transport downright unusable for large segments of the population, including pregnant women, people with movement disabilities or the elderly.
This is not to say that the terminals themselves don't come with their accessibility challenges. One need only plan a trip to Sadarghat to experience the bottleneck between the road network and the river transport network.
Such issues have been highlighted in many government plans with proposals to relocate the hub to a more road-accessible point. The only visible development is the addition of parking facilities, which most of the low-income users never needed in the first place. Rather, much-needed public transport facilities and terminals are still fervently awaited.
Businesses would do well to pay attention to these terminals as they have always been economic hubs. Each of them are ecosystems supporting several hundred shops and thousands of working individuals. Around 30,000 businessmen directly depend on Sadarghat terminal alone. In a series of consultations conducted before a joint project by BIWTA and World Bank, locals reported the lack of usable toilet facilities for women as a major issue.
Corporations could benefit from solving such basic needs for such a huge number of people.
The benefits of developing our long-distance water routes are plenty; environmentally and economically. Not only does water transport produce fewer greenhouse emissions than its road-based counterparts, it would also improves connectivity during the wet seasons and even through floods.
A major problem faced by Western countries is that the water routes freeze over during winter and become unusable, while some Southern nations experience extreme dryness during the summers. We are blessed with an even climate that allows for a greater utility of water-based transport.
Shifting some of our passenger traffic to launches and streamers would greatly alleviate the burden on road traffic. That would in turn decrease the need for constantly building new road infrastructure to keep up with growing transportation needs and decrease the costs of maintaining these roads too.
As it stands, half of Bangladesh's cargo is carried over water. However, most of it is limited to bulk cargo and petroleum products. The existing water route in the Dhaka-Chittagong corridor, which is our most important and most overcrowded freight corridor, is severely underutilised. A World Bank-funded project to develop this route is still underway with some phases of the project completed, such as the Pangaon terminal construction.
But even a successful implementation of these projects will not be enough to ensure proper utilisation of our water routes. Here businesses can find a sea of opportunities to get involved.
Smaller businesses may seek to capitalize on the tourism aspect by introducing river cruises. It is funny how underdeveloped our river tourism sector is, given our geographical constituency. Flocks of Dhaka dwellers seeking peaceful weekends would need only travel to their nearest terminal to enjoy hotel-like luxuries and beautiful river views.
The best part is that the whole thing wouldn't even require the business to procure expensive cruise vessels, because it is quite easy to repurpose our local boats to serve this purpose. Interested parties need only look as far as Kerala's houseboats to see how beautifully this is already being done.
For larger businesses, there is abundant scope to innovate vessel technology. A major complaint of users of the Dhaka-Chittagong waterway cargo route is that it takes too long (40 hours). Businesses could invest in experimenting with recent shipping technology to improve speeds and increase fuel efficiency.
A recently published article on the Maritime executive titled "The Bangladesh commercial River transport industry" recommended several technological solutions to tackle our local problems, such as using hydrofoils to improve speed or using tug barges for improved fuel efficiency and reduced freight costs.
Entrepreneurs could also offer end-to-end logistic solutions to companies who are on the fence over choosing this medium for their freight needs. This would help the companies themselves reduce their carbon footprint while also cutting down transport costs. If enough of these services are reliably offered, then we can expect to see a boost in the adaptation of this transport medium, which would undoubtedly help push up the surrounding ecosystems.
If the government and private sector succeed in revitalising our waterways and integrating water transport into common usage, then that'll bring even more opportunities for businesses of all sizes.
Larger companies that are interested in manufacturing can get into making small passenger boats or even cargo vessels. RFL has already ventured into this market in September of this year with their new "Support" line of fibreglass vessels, starting at only 12,000 Tk.
The author is currently working at Groundscrapers. He can be reached at [email protected]