Why should you observe River Rights Day? There are already two global river related days. World Rivers Day is observed on the fourth Sunday of September. International Day of Action for Rivers is observed on 14th March.
Why do we need to block another day for the rivers? The answer to this question lies in an apparently simple yet highly complex puzzle: How many rivers are there in Bangladesh?
The answer is not an easy one. It is commonly referred that Bangladesh is crisscrossed by 'hundreds' of rivers. But no one can be sure about the exact number.
According to government institutions, the number of such rivers varies from four to five hundred. Non-governmental sources claim higher figures. A stocktaking work, "The Rivers of Bangladesh" by engineer M. Inamul Haque, listed 1182 rivers across the country. Eminent poet Syed Shamsul Haque wrote1300 rivers had inspired him to know the origin of Bengali people.
The confusion and debate about the numbers apart, there is little doubt that rivers are fundamental to the identity of the land, its people and their rights thereof. Because not only the civilization and culture, ecology and economy; the land itself, geographically, is shaped and still under formation by the rivers.
However, these rights are being violated due to the degradation of rivers in many ways than one. Less flow in the lean seasons as a result of river diversion, erosion, encroachment, pollution, indiscriminate sand mining are directly affecting the economy and ecology of rivers.
Poorly planned infrastructure building like roads, highways, bridges and; indiscriminate real estate development are impacting the health of rivers. Even barrages, dams embankments, polders, dykes installed for 'river management' are responsible for river degradation.
Theoretically, there is no dearth of government institutions and legal instruments in Bangladesh to ensure god health of rivers. There are at least 18 different authorities directly involved in river management.
However, they cannot even agree on the number of rivers, let alone working in an integrated manner for the benefit of rivers. Even after working in this field for two decades, I am not sure who the nodal authority on rivers is.
The impending situation reminds me a Bengali proverb- 'bhager ma ganga pay na' (shared responsibility is no one's responsibility).
There are at least 31 laws, acts, regulations, and rules passed or enacted in the Jatiya Sangsad, the national parliament. Bangladesh added a provision in the constitution, in the 15th amendment, to make the state responsible to protect the rivers and waterbodies for the future generation. The Supreme Court declared all the rivers of Bangladesh as legal and living entities in February last year. But the rights of the river and people's right to river is yet to be protected. Communities dependent on rivers for their life and livelihoods are being marginalized and deprived increasingly.
The right to transboundary or international or common rivers is another important instrument to ensure the rights of people to the rivers. Diversion, degradation and training (like barrage and dams) rivers in the upper riparian areas, impacts the lean season flow in these rivers in Bangladesh.
Inadequate flow leads to high deposition of silt on the river bed thereby triggering river bank erosion obvious in the monsoon, making hundreds homeless. The homeless move to the cities and escalate the pace of unplanned urbanization, leading to river encroachment and pollution.
Whatever the number, almost all the rivers of Bangladesh, except a few in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, are dependent on the transboundary rivers between Bangladesh and India. There are 54 enlisted or agreed transboundary rivers between two countries, but the actual number is far higher. We, from Riverine People, have tallied more than hundred rivers which cross the border between India and Bangladesh. Some of them originate from even far upper riparian countries like Nepal, Bhutan and China. But we have only two treaties and agreements – one each on the Ganges and Feni. Both the treaties are bilateral and preceded by decades long negotiation. The water flow and health of the residual transboundary rivers is dependent on the goodwill of the upper riparian countries- India, Nepal, Bhutan and China. Here comes the importance of an international legal instrument, especially for the lower riparian countries like Bangladesh.
Given this background, we, Riverine People, the national civil society organization dedicated to river, water and wetlands, is proposing and observing River Rights Day, with fellow river and environment movements since 2015. River Rights Day is linked to The Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The international treaty was adopted by the United Nations on 21st May of 1997. It is commonly known as the UN Watercourses Convention 1997. The convention is regarded as an important legal instrument for international watercourses.
To our understanding this convention upholds the rights of the lower riparian countries with perfect safeguards. It stands for the no-harm principle and equitable share of water resources among international watercourses countries, which we had been advocating for long. Most importantly it requires the member states to take steps to control damages due to any of 'development' works. This document preserved some unique provisions for dispute settlement as well.
Despite all the potentials for cooperation among common river countries, the future of the convention was dimmed. More than hundred member states including Bangladesh voted for it in the UN General Assembly, with sponsorship of 38 governments. But it took 17 years to come into force after Vietnam ratified it as the 35th state on 19th of May, 2014.
Though Bangladesh voted for the convention in 1997 the ratification process never proceeded for unknown reasons. We have been urging the government to take up the unfinished agenda for years. Now we are trying to build public opinion explaining the convention and its potential. Considering this background Riverine People have proposed, declared and have been observing 17th August, the date of the convention's entering into force, as the River Rights Day. We are hopeful that marking the day will help create public opinion in favour of the rivers.
Sheikh Rokon is a writer and researcher, secretary general of Riverine People [email protected].