Like many other countries in the world, Bangladesh also is observing World Rivers Day today.
Due to the pandemic, events and programmes have been confined to virtual or selective presence. The signature programme of the Day, "March for Rivers", has been converted to "Online March for Rivers" since last year. Starting from 2014, this joint event of the civil society organisations has become an annual feature of World Rivers Day in Dhaka.
The history of environmental activism itself is not very old in Bangladesh, and river activism is even younger. However, it (the latter) grew very fast, which might also imply the gravity of the issue.
Globally, the concerns for rivers revolve around saving fresh water resources, river pollution and erosion of banks. Bangladesh has them all and some additional local concerns like encroachment of river land, often referred to as river grabbing. Sometimes it becomes difficult for me to explain to foreigners how a river can be "grabbed".
Sand mining is globally considered a destructive activity against rivers and there is prevalence of such activities in many countries. What differs in Bangladesh is the scale of such destruction, showing complete disregard to legal, ecological and geographic framework. Such deep destruction of rivers is rare outside of Bangladesh.
There are more examples of the uniqueness of the issues here. For instance, the "shock and awe" method of chemical fishing where chemicals are used to stun a school of fish. This not only destroys the fish habitat, but is also very harmful for other aquatic biodiversity, micro-organisms, soil, and water. And let's not even talk about the unsustainable and river-killing "development" projects and infrastructure building.
As rivers connect and correlate every aspect of the ecology, economy and society of this deltaic country; to stop their multi-dimensional degradation, civil society initiatives have been mushrooming in every nook and corner of Bangladesh.
The enthusiasm towards the events like observing Rivers Day is very encouraging for others. Even Mark Angelo - the founder of World Rivers Day and a Canadian river-hero - expressed his astonishment on several occasions.
On the eve of World Rivers Day 2018, he told me in an email interview, "To see so many events taking place in Bangladesh is inspiring. And I congratulate you, your colleagues, and all other individuals and groups in your country that have embraced this event. And riverine people, in particular, deserve a very special acknowledgement for initiating the celebration of WRD in Bangladesh. In addition, to see the founding of a national Rivers Day Observance Council in your country is both exciting and impressive".
It is, however, questionable if observing rivers day is enough for the civil society to fight for the rights of the rivers. There is no doubt that World Rivers Day is one of the occasions when we can meet, exchange views, share our thoughts as well as renew our commitment to the betterment of the rivers. But we have to go beyond the events. Degradation level of rivers in Bangladesh has gone to a point that we have to quickly cover a lot of ground to stop further degradation.
First of all, there is no alternative to the implementation of existing laws and regulations. Bangladesh has dozens of laws and regulations which are aligned with the protection of the rivers. We have dozens of government institutions to take care of rivers under those laws. Our environment-friendly, in particular river-friendly, High Court have delivered some historic judgement and directives.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already proved her commitment to the cause of rivers. However, there are practical issues which need to be addressed. Civil societies have to take a stand to ensure implementation of laws.
We need more civil society organisations which deal with environmental law. We have a couple of such organisations based in Dhaka. We need more on the ground level, who can deal with localised environmental issues in the local courts or administrative units.
Secondly, civil societies in Bangladesh need a better understanding of rivers and related issues. We need knowledge-based movements. We are lacking in this respect. Minimum understanding on riverine ecology, economy, diplomacy is imperative for river activists. Holding events and presenting statistics will not take us very far.
How lack of understanding can divide the river activists was recently visible on the Teesta Masterplan issue. Many of us have been passing judgment without seeing the original documents. Lack of knowledge on a complex issue like river restoration may give clean chit to river grabbers and polluters or the project-monger officials.
Thirdly, we have to engage the community more closely in the river movement. To ensure community interest we have to demonstrate the value of rivers in their daily life. Otherwise, some people may come and join events like World Rivers Day celebration; but the gap between civil society aspirations and achievements will continue to persist.
Until last year, the theme of World Rivers Day varied across countries and regions. There was no central theme of the day. Civil societies from different countries used to adopt and declare the theme according to respective realities. But since last year, the World Rivers Day organisers have been declaring a common theme for the whole world. This year's theme is 'Waterways in Our Community'.
This is high time for Bangladesh to bring the rivers back to the community.
Sheikh Rokon is the founder and secretary general of Riverine People. He can be reached at twitter/skrokon
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.