Rivers, the, “Carriers of Civilisation”, are intertwined with the economy, culture and day-to-day life of the people around the areas through which it flows. Our nation’s culture, economy and essential ingredients flourished on the bank of various mighty rivers. Situated at the foothills of the great Himalayan range and washed by the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the land is channeled by a vast system of rivers, tributaries, distributaries and water bodies.
To propel the engine of macro-economic growth of a certain country, any type of additional mode of transport appears as a boon to her sectoral diversification and when it comes to inland waterways, the prospect receives trickledown effect. These natural inland waterways course down the country and from time immemorial the inhabitants have learned to depend upon the network as a nature-dubbed mean of transport and communication. The benefit of leveraging inland waterways has long been shelved as a more efficient mode of transportation than either road or rail modes, and has a considerably smaller carbon footprint. The case for inland navigation for overall regional development is quite compelling.
It is historically evident that no major continental-sized region of the world has developed economically without capitalising inland riverine transport.
Although riveted with a salient 580 km of coastline and approximately 700 rivers including tributaries flow through the country constituting a waterway of total length around 24,140 kilometres (15,000 mi approx.), Bangladesh is yet to develop this cheaper and greener mode of transportation and inland water transport (IWT) remains a largely untapped resource. Bangladesh’s networks of 3,900 kilometers of inland waterway are the only mode of transport for 12 percent of country’s rural communities. Carrying about 194 million tonnes of cargo and roughly 25 percent of all of Bangladesh’s passenger traffic each year, inland waterway transport is less expensive for the poor and essential for trade among the country’s biggest cites and with neighbouring India and Bhutan. Moreover, better inland waterways can help Bangladesh reduce road traffic and associated greenhouse gas emissions (World Bank, 2016).
Inland water transport could spike a timely boost to regional cooperation and integration within the sub-continent in the fields of trade facilitation and transportation. A modal shift away from road transport to inland shipping could significantly garner Bangladesh’s economy by lowering logistics costs. Furthermore, IWT could also result in scalable safety benefits by replacing heavy goods vehicles which are responsible for an alarmingly disproportionate number of traffic accidents each year. The initiative would also open up business opportunities and generate employment in the area of dredging, barge and terminal construction. The regional imperative to develop inland riverine transport stems from overall energy economics and efficiency (how much weight of cargo one horsepower engine can move). It is 150kg for trucks on road, 500kg for railway and 4,000kg for inland water transport. In terms of energy, inland shipping consumes 230 mega joules/1000 tonne-km while rail transport consumes almost double that (430) and truck a further double of that (920). Another unique feature of inland waterways is the ability to strengthen the negotiation power of the lower riparian by their ability of regulating access such as those related to ship size, navigation time period, environmental regulations for the upper riparian (CUTS International, 2016).
Since Bangladesh seeks to partner with its neighbours on river water cooperation, which includes a framework on inland water transport, it may find itself more equal to the lower riparian and lose some negotiating power as an upper riparian. But it need not take a non-engagement approach, as the resulting benefits social, environmental, economic and political that could be shared with the neighbours will outstrip all fears and perceived losses. Already, with the signing of the revised protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade between India and Bangladesh, both parties eye to use each other’s territories for transiting goods to a third country. This enables Bangladesh to use Indian territories for transporting goods to Nepal and Bhutan. Similarly, India can access its landlocked states of Northeast India and Myanmar by crossing over Bangladesh. This will surely result in a sharp rise in trade between these countries. Since 1972, four inland water routes between India and Bangladesh are currently operational namely Kolkata-Pandu (in southern Assam) via Bangladesh, Kolkata-Karimganj (in southern Assam) via Bangladesh, Rajshahi (in Bangladesh)-Dhulian (in southern Assam) and Karimganj-Pandu-Karimganj via Bangladesh. In recent time, India and Bangladesh governments have signed an agreement to establish the new waterways between the two countries using the Brahmaputra River. Currently, Bangladesh sources less than 10 percent of import from India, and sends less than 1 percent of exports — a situation that should rapidly improve in the near future as a result of the implementation of this protocol (Financial Express India, 2017). An interesting article published by The Pioneer in June 2016 discusses a further ‘out-of-the box’ approach for using increased IWT to boost regional cooperation. It suggests that instead of a mere division of waters, as has been the case in the Indus Waters Treaty and Ganges Treaty signed by India with Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively, the discourse could shift to adding more value to rivers and then sharing all its benefits. Inland waterways therefore hold great potential for container transport in Bangladesh.
A good waterway system by itself is not enough for movement of containers; proper berthing and handling facilities are required to be provided. Towards this end, an Inland Container Terminal (ICT) has already been constructed by Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) at Pangaon on the bank of Buriganga River. Chittagong Port Authority, vested with the responsibility of initiating its operation, is going ahead with providing the handling equipment. The plan is to sail the container carrying vessels from Chittagong, de-stuff the goods at Pangaon, and transport those to their destined business establishments. The ICT is envisaged to handle 30,000 TEUS initially; but targeted to handle 116,000 TEUS in first phase and 1,60,000 TEUS after full completion of second phase. Also, there is an opportunity to extend a friendly hand to neighbouring land-locked Nepal by allowing use of Bangladesh’s sea-ports, its extensive waterways and land ports. Cargo destined for Nepal can be transported through Bangladesh by availing facilities in advantageously located Mongla sea-port. Incidentally, Mongla Port handled about 60,300 tonnes of Nepalese transit cargo in 1997-98, which fact provides a positive indication of future possibilities. Ashuganj, Baghabari and Noapara are very prospective inland river ports that can be used as transit and transshipment points for trade with Bhutan, India and Nepal. All the three river ports are presently very active and have waterways connectivity with Chittagong and Mongla seaports and Road connectivity with numerous Land Ports situated on Bangladesh-India border. Not much investment is required to make them suitable for inter-modal transport service (World Bank, 2016).
The government has taken up a master plan to improve navigability of the waterways across the country as more than 2,000 kilometres of river routes have become inaccessible over the last decade due to loss of navigability. Under the master plan, extensive river dredging will be conducted considering the adverse impacts of poor navigability of rivers. Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) said the master plan will be implemented during a period of 15 years or more at a cost of Tk 21 lakh crore (21 trillion).
The three river ports are advantageously located in the country’s waterways system and are suitable as multi-modal transshipment points for transport of containers to and from Bhutan, India and Nepal. With suitable development, this service can be in addition to their routine services extended to regular passenger and cargo vessels. In view of past low priority and comparatively meager allocations given to Inland Water Transport sector, its infrastructure has undergone drastic decline in capacity and quality. Besides being poorly maintained the sector remains heavily under-utilized.
Since moon has a dark side too, apparently there are prevailing bottlenecks with inland water transport in South Asia are that a river needs enough depth throughout the year for it to be a viable inland waterway. Yet, in their natural state, many Bangladeshi and Indian rivers simply do not have that level of water. This means that extensive dredging will be required to make the rivers navigable. This dredging will have a tremendous impact on the ecology of the rivers. Species like the blind Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica), which navigates by echolocation, already endangered, may be wiped out. Moreover, the water in rivers has competing demands, including dams and farming. To maintain the water levels in the river to the degree needed for them to function as inland waterways, the water use for these activities will be curtailed. Dredging may also impact aquifers along the river, damaging the ability of water to percolate underground. On top of all this, the removal of riverbed material in creeks or rivers near the sea may allow the ingress of saline water, damaging the ecosystem in the region. So, it is an imperative demand that government should form laws and guidelines to regulate inland waterways and define the socio-economic and environmental impact of inland waterways. Furthermore, they should undertake a comprehensive feasibility study of rivers to assess navigability and identify sites for possibility of upgrading existing traditional boats.
Reaching the ending stoppage, it is to be reaffirmed again that the potential of this country’s waterways remain untapped; its prospects are yet to be exploited in a need-based manner. What is required now is a determined political will to set priorities properly underpinning the country’s present needs and future demands. The time-bound aim should be to arrest further damage to the country’s waterways transport system and to endorse institution-led maintenance modality which will help the country tremendously.
The writer is Assistant Secretary (Research and Development), Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry.