Bangladesh has been projected to be a developing country soon. To materialise the projection a vibrant transboundary trade is vital to enhance the ongoing economic activities, more specifically within the regional area. Here, an effective and functional waterways transport system through the inland and transboundary rivers can be utilised as one of the drivers for making prosperity materialise. Smooth waterways transit facilities can widen the scope of the free-trade relationship among the neighbouring nations and broaden Bangladesh's prospects. Seemingly, the regional stakeholders including the government of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan are well aware of this need. The Bangladesh government has formulated the Delta Plan 2100. The plan addresses not only the water management and climate change issues but also stressed the overall need for sustainable development of the country, including the promotion of the country's inland waterways transport (IWT) communication so that trades among the neighbouring countries can be facilitated further.
Most of the tributaries and distributaries flowing over Bangladesh are the integral parts of three major basins, namely the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the Meghna. In Bangladesh, many rivers of these basins are wider and shallower with moderate slopes carrying a huge amount of sediments. Therefore the formation of sand bars or char is very common as the river losses its carrying capacity due to lack of sufficient water flow particularly in dry periods. If we need the rivers navigable round the year, the necessary environmental flow of the river must be ensured. In addition, river improvement measures should be carried out regularly with survey monitoring. Basin-wide river management programmes need to be planned and implemented steadily. In this regard, close cooperation among the riparian countries is highly desirable. Otherwise, we hardly can yield the benefits from the cluster-based management procedures.
Under the Delta Plan 2100, the government is undertaking projects that will restore 2,500 km of waterway or 24 river routes through dredging. Common perception suggests that river dredging is the way to maintain navigability. But, only dredging cannot ensure the flow and availability of water round the year. Before undertaking dredging and river training activities, it needs assessment on the hydro morphological condition of rivers, water-sediments carrying capacity and the condition of river regime. Unplanned dredging and dredge material disposal activities may adversely affect the normal flow regime which exhibits deterioration of the river morphology. This will appear in part to imbalance the equilibrium condition of the river causing the riverbed and banks to become more vulnerable. The dredged materials must be dumped in designated areas where future land development prospects with protected river banks can be expected. The dredging plan should be drawn with an objective not only to prevent overspill but also to keep water flowing during the dry season. Over-deepening of a certain river reach and sand mining by localised dredging should be avoided.
It is worth mentioning that year-round navigability is crucial for uninterrupted trade and commerce relying on water transport. The rivers under the protocol, thus, require intensive attention and proper maintenance. Depending on IWT route classification, a minimum of 1.5 m to a maximum of 3.6 m least available depth (LAD) along the river routes is mandatory for the smooth operation of inland waterway transports. Tasks like navigational improvement of river routes and mutual trades cannot be successfully carried out with individual participation. Joint initiative and active participation of common user countries are always to be advantageous. The Commerce Ministry, Shipping Ministry and Water Resources Ministry, can accelerate joint initiatives with their counterparts in India and Nepal for basin-wide improvement of navigability.
The authorities must consider the opinion of riverine people during the planning stage of any development works on the river. Because they know the ways to protect or destroy the river. If the river banks are converted into a tourist spot or recreational place, the riverine people would explore income opportunities and protect the place and river itself from all sorts of pollution. They would remain passive in preventing pollution or any manmade adverse action if they are not involved in the process of development activities. This is noteworthy that pollution control is also a crucial task to keep the river ecosystem healthy. An unhealthy or dying river decreases the economic feasibility of a river route which go against the country's sustainable development goals.
To achieve the country's development goals by 2031 and 2041, many infrastructural development projects including inland transport network expansion, upgrading the inland ports and transport facilities have been initiated by the Government of Bangladesh. The mid-term and the long-term targets that have been set in the Delta Plan 2100 will require a huge amount of investment plan. The authorities must give priority to conducting feasibility studies based on environmental, social and economic aspects before initiating and implementing the projects. Thereby, suitable investment plan has to be prepared by the regional trading partners to fulfil the development targets.
In conclusion, the usage of waterway communication using the river routes under the Bangladesh-India water transit and trade protocol needs coordination, exchange of information and balanced trades. For instance, updated data on water flow and sediment, pollution are to be shared regularly for river management purposes. A joint task committee can be formed to monitor the status of IWT route conditions and trades. More tourism potential through protocol routes can also be explored. Collaborative research programme can be planned to find solutions for present and future challenges in water transits and trades.
The author is a professor at the Department of Water Resources Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). The article is based on an interview taken by The Business Standard's Sadiqur Rahman.