Recreational boating is nothing new to Bangladesh. While some experience boats in real life, most of the urban youth only got to write an essay– "A journey by boat" – obviously without having enjoyed one first hand. I was one of those people until my parents moved to our ancestral home after my father's retirement.
There, with a beautiful small river right in front of my home, I decided to give boat rides a modern touch. In 2012, my friend Masud and I built a purely solar-powered catamaran (a boat that has two hulls instead of one). After that, we built more than half a dozen electric boats and kayaks – not to mention, enjoyed innumerable journeys by boat.
Even though I kept the boat-building project confined to my village home, I recently took up a kayak project in Dhaka. After building the kayak, I was in a fix – I have to test it in a waterbody.
There is a good number of waterbodies within a few kilometres of my Mirpur residence. The clean ones have no public access – I'd assume that is why they remain clean. And those with public access are too filthy to be used. So I went to see the Turag River. The meandering river cast a magnetic force on me, on the other hand, the foul-smell repulsed me to the extreme.
Kayaking has gained popularity in the adventure community of Bangladesh – but I can count the number of kayakers on my fingertips.
Al Amin Pavel launched a kayak club in Kaptai, Imrul Hasan Warsi started another near Dhaleswari, Shahjalal Numan kayaked across the country. Hanium Maria Raka and Saimon Hosain duo crossed Bangla channel on a tandem kayak. Fazlay Rabby and his friends have been into motor rafting.
The list is not very long. One notable pattern is that these new age adventure boating enthusiasts are all based in Dhaka.
Good news for them, Dhaka has rivers all around it. The bad news is, the rivers stink badly, especially in the dry season, which is why there is zero water sport activity around the city where the most adventure boaters live.
It is beyond disappointing that we treat our rivers nothing better than a sewerage to carry away all kinds of liquid and solid wastes into the sea. But there are examples in our own country where people treat rivers so well that they can drink her water with confidence.
Encroachment and pollution have wiped out of the map many of the smaller rivers and canals that once crisscrossed the city. The remainder is in no good shape either. Despite sustained social movements, river polluters and encroachers have remained untouched thanks to the absence of strong political will.
Even the country's apex court's directives to demarcate and preserve the rivers have been shrugged off in the past. However, in line with the 2009 High Court verdict to demarcate and restore the rivers of Dhaka to their original state and protect them against grabbing and from pollution, Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) last year conducted an eviction drive on the banks of Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Shitalakkhya Rivers.
The drive was sincerer than any such drive in the past. It saw resistance from various quarters on multiple occasions, it was halted a few times, an official was summoned from the field but was reinstated the following day and the drive continued.
Although no illegal occupiers were punished, BIWTA removed thousands of illegal structures and recovered hundreds of acres of land along the rivers.
The government is now moving forward with construction of walkways, parks and tree plantation on the river banks to prevent re-encroachment. Also, re-excavation of rivers has been going on in many places around the country. These moves are certainly encouraging. In recent months, the High Court has also directed the authorities to close 68 underground drains and sewerage lines connected to the Buriganga, and ordered the closure of 231 factories which have been found polluting the river.
If the political will found during last year's eviction drive sustains, it could be the greatest thing that happened to the rivers of Dhaka in decades.
If we could stop adding toxic pollutants to water, nature itself would take care of the river ecosystem and restore it. It is amazing how the Gangetic dolphins return to Turag and Buriganga every monsoon as fresh flow of floodwater from upstream flushes out the toxicity.
Stopping the pollution alone could open avenues of opportunities centring the rivers that garland the city. River tourism and water sports would surely flourish alongside traditional economic activities like fishing.
Every time I watch the Olympic Games, I can't stop regretting the fact that no individual from the land of rivers has ever made to the events of kayaking, canoeing, rowing or sailing. One cannot say enough about the importance of engaging the youth in an active lifestyle. With our long-gone backyards and diminishing public playgrounds – physical activity, especially among the urban youth, is increasingly becoming a rarity. In recent years, cycling has made a limited but pleasing comeback. Even for a pleasure bicycle trip, one has to leave the city. On the other hand, there is immense potential of various water related sports right in and around Dhaka, and as soon as the trend is set, these activities could spread across the country in no time.
Of course, once the aggression of encroachment is stopped, there's this dark abyss of pollution that we must cross before we can reclaim what used to be a boaters' paradise.
The author is a writer and an independent researcher.