Water, water everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.” These lines were once used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to symbolise the thirst and suffering of the sailors of a ship on the sea in his “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. But it has become a cruel reality for us. One third of the earth is water. But people of this century are suffering from shortage of pure water.
Decades ago, the powerful and affluent people used to make movement by boat and ship from one place to another. River was a vital mode of journey of people and transportation of goods.Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore used to travel from Kolkata to Kuthi Bari at Shilaidaha in Kushtia by boat. Great novelist and poet Bankimchandra Chatterjee depicted the river beautifully in his writings. He was also a Magistrate. During and after his government service, he used to make boat travel.
But situation has changed. Due to advancement of science and commerce, air travel has boomed. People have not only ignored water journey but also tortured rivers in various ways, putting their existence in jeopardy.
Around 450 rivers have criss-crossed Bangladesh. But shortage of pure water is more acute here than any other parts of the globe. Which are the reasons? Most of the problems in Bangladesh are manmade. The case with destruction of rivers is not an exception. Most of the rivers are either grabbed or allowed to be dry up for lack dredging.
Rivers around capital Dhaka and its outskirts are grabbed in a rampant manner and highly polluted. Toxicity of water of the rivers Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Shitalakhya is so high that its water has assumed black colour. Industrial effluents and household wastages are directly emitted to the rivers.
A section of unscrupulous people have taken rivers as tools of earning money. They have erected residential buildings, and structures for industrial, commercial and pleasure centres on the river banks.
Many realtors prefer building houses by filling rivers and canals. They prefer money to environment. A section of customers are hands in gloves with the realtors as they buy such plots or flats constructed on river bed or banks illegally. Both realtors and customers are contributing to great human catastrophe.River grabbing and pollution have taken a heavy toll on city dwellers in various ways. Shortage of pure drinking water, water-logging and flood in Dhaka are consequent upon grabbing of rivers and canals.
Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA) is trying to treat the polluted water but in vain. The water supplied to the city dwellers is found to be highly polluted and toxic.
Many people are being affected by diarrhoea, cancer and other serious diseases taking toxic water. River pollution is causing loss of lives and loss of money for treatment purpose. People are losing their beloved family members and breadwinners.
The children are worst affected by water pollution. They have not immunity power like adults. The hospitals are flooded with patients including children suffering from cancer, diarrhoea and liver diseases. If this situation continues, the country will lose its future.
Grabbing and siltation of rivers are causing great havoc to the agricultural sector. Bangladesh’s economy was once largely dependent upon agriculture. Now, this sector contributes 14.10 per cent of the country’s GDP. Experts think agriculture should be diversified and promoted for meeting country’s domestic need and exporting. Bangladesh, which has already achieved food sufficiency, can export rice. Jute is another potential export item for the country. But adequate river water is needed for the purpose.
Earlier, thousands of canals were created across the country for irrigation project. Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) used to look after such canals which have now died and have been grabbed for lack of monitoring.
As canals are not functional, farmers are largely dependent upon the water from deep tube-wells run by electricity. Although the government has a gone a long way to bringing 100 per cent area under electrification, people in cities sometimes experience load shedding for shortage of power. The rural people are more affected by load shedding. Use of power in agriculture has aggravated the situation.
The industrial sector, which contributes 33.71 per cent of the GDP, bears the brunt of shortage of power which is spent in the agro projects. If river water can be used for cultivation of lands, both agriculture and industrial sectors will be saved.
Water can be a major mode of journey of people and transportation of goods. We are fully dependent upon highways for journey. Every day, many people are killed in road accidents. Apart from wrong driving, multiplicity of motor vehicles and heavy load on highways are responsible for the situation. Some goods are carried in river ways but it is not good enough. Experts say waterway journey is safer and cost effective compared to highway. In case of strike and road blockade programme, the industrialists and businessmen cannot send their products to the destinations and count a huge loss. RMG and other exporters sometimes lose the orders of the foreign buyers if they fail to shift the products to the port timely. Use of waterway is needed for industrialist to provide customers with their products at low cost. Local entrepreneurs will be able to compete with imported goods and create a niche in the market if cost effective carriage of raw materials and finished products can take place via rivers.
The country is currently deprived of the proper facilities of the rivers for being grabbed and polluted. This situation was not created in a day. The cumulative effect on abusing river for personal and commercial purposes for decades has contributed to the dilemma.
Lack of monitoring on the part of the authorities concerned and abuse of political and financial influence by land grabbers are to blame.
Better late than never. The High Court has come up as the saviour of the water bodies. In a milestone verdict, the court granted the status of “legal person” to rivers to be saved from encroachment and pollution.
The government authorities should comply with the apex court order to save the 450 rivers across the country. Public awareness needs to be boosted to deal with rivers properly. The government has taken a hard line stand against river grabbers. It is for the first time that Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) launched eviction drive to demolish structures on river banks in Dhaka and Chattogram. Unfortunately, it has suspended such drives. We want the drives to be continued.
The government should constitute an effective river commission which will be able to function independently to protect the water-bodies. The Election Commission should disqualify the river grabbers for contesting any polls as directed by the apex court. The Bangladesh Bank ought to issue circular to disqualify river encroachers to any loan. The appropriate authorities need to take steps to boost public awareness to be friendly to rivers. Proper monitoring is required to prevent reconstruction of structures on the evicted places. Let us save rivers to save life, economy and environment.
The writer is a columnist