Brahmaputra: Dredging on one side, filling on the other

Despite carrying out dredging, chars (shoals) are emerging in different areas of the old Bhramaputra river and knee-deep water in most of the places in Jamalpur. The photo was taken from the old ferry ghat area of Jamalpur town on Sunday afternoon.Abdul Aziz

A middle aged man was crossing the old Brahmaputra river at the old ferry ghat area of Jamalpur town at around 2:00pm on Saturday. He was crossing on foot, not in a boat. As there is knee-deep water in the middle of the river, he had no problem crossing the river.

However, this area of the Brahmaputra River was dredged last year, with substantial amounts of money spent on government projects. Despite the dredging efforts, the river has filled up again and returned to its previous state.

Sand is piled up beside the Brahmaputra river at the old ferry ghat area of Jamalpur town.
Prothom Alo

While conversing with local resident Billal Hossain at the ferry ghat, he expressed that sand trading has been conducted under the guise of dredging. According to him, the dredging was not executed in a systematic manner and failed to facilitate navigation restoration. He questioned why the river remains in such a dire state despite purported proper dredging.

The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) has undertaken dredging projects in the Brahmaputra River, allocating Tk 27.63 billion for this endeavor. The initiative aims to dredge a total of 227 kilometers of the river spanning five districts—Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Sherpur, and Kishoreganj. While dredging has been completed in certain areas, work is ongoing in others, and some areas are yet to see commencement.

However, residents express disappointment with the outcome of dredging in the areas where it has been conducted.

The residents have lamented that the dredging efforts have yielded no tangible results. In numerous instances, sand has been accumulated either on the char or along the riverbank. During the rainy season, this sand gets mixed with the river and exacerbates the filling up of the riverbed. Furthermore, substantial amounts of sand have been deposited on the riverbank in certain locations, raising concerns about potential mixing with the river during the impending rainy season.

Questions have arisen regarding whether the dredging efforts, executed at a considerable expense, will yield any substantial results. Consequently, frustration has mounted among the people. In response, a group of youths organised a cultural event titled 'Mriter Chitkar' (Cry of the Dead) in the knee-deep waters of the Brahmaputra River in Mymensingh in May of last year. The event was orchestrated as a form of protest.

Chars (shoals) appear in the middle of Brahmaputra river in Mymensingh at the jail ghat area of the city.
Kamran Parvez

The people of Jamalpur are also disappointed. Jamalpur pourasava panel mayor and district Awami League member Md Fazlul Haque Akanda's residence is in the Chhankanda area of Jamalpur town. The Brahmaputra river flows near his residence.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said, "The river has been dredged for two years. But there is no change of the river. The river is being dredged in some areas and it is being filled up within a few days. As a result, there is no outcome of the dredging."

Brahmaputra now

According to the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division of the planning ministry, the river Brahmaputra is 283 kilometres in length and 200 metres in width.

The river flows through Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Sherpur and Kishoreganj districts. The river Brahmaputra, which was once fierce, has lost its navigability now. Therefore, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) took up a project worth Tk 43.71 billion for dredging the Brahmaputra, Dharala, Tulai and Punarbhaba rivers. A large portion of this will be spent for the Brahmaputra river.

The target of the BIWTA project is to bring back navigability to ensure movement of vessels and to maintain a minimum width of 90 metre and a minimum depth of 8-10 feet throughout the year. It will be categorised in the second class waterway then. Providing water for irrigation is also another major goal of the project. Notably, first class waterways have a depth of 12 feet and second class waterways have a depth of 8-10 feet.

The dredging of river Brahmaputra started in June 2019. The deadline of the project ends in June next year. The BIWTA sources say there has not been much progress (35 per cent as of June last year). Therefore, a decision has been made to extend the duration of the project.

BIWTA chief engineer (dredging) Rakibul Islam Talukder told Prothom Alo on Sunday that they need 100 dredgers right now to dig the river. They have only 45 dredgers currently. They need an allocation of Tk 8 billion per year. But they received Tk 8 billion over the last five years. He said as per the contractors were asked to dump the sand at least one kilometre away from the river bank, otherwise they won’t get any payment. However, it is very hard to find a place to dump the sand.

Rakibul Islam Talukder further said the river Brahmaputra mingles with the Jamuna river in the Fulchhari union of Gaibandha. It would have been possible to revive the flow there had the BIWTA dredged the area. However, they could not do that in the face of protest from the locals despite going there twice with the employees from the administration.

Prothom Alo inquired about the obstruction from the locals that barred the BIWTA from dredging the Brahmaputra river in Fulchhari of Gaibandha and Dewanganj upazila in Jamalpur. However, no one could shed lights in this regard in this area.

Speaking to Prothom Alo over the phone, Fulchhari upazila chairman Selim Parvez said, “Why would the people stop the BIWTA? Rather, people want the river Brahmaputra to be dredged as lack of navigability of the river leads to flood situations every year.”

“I see a dredger in the river near my house. However, I have never seen it working. People concerned are looting public money in the name of dredging the river,” he added.

Dredged sand returns to the river

Recently, four correspondents of Prothom Alo visited areas near the Brahmaputra river in Mymensingh, Jamalpur, Gaibandha and Kishoreganj to see the progress of the project taken up in 2018 and talked to local people’s representatives, common people and people involved in the movement to save the river. They say the dredged sand is being piled up on the banks of the river, which eventually gets back to the river again. The river has been excavated arbitrarily in places where there are chances to sell sand. At the same time, the project is progressing at a very slow pace. As a result, sands from the unexcavated areas are filling up the dredged areas.

For instance, dredging has been ongoing for the last three months in the Satarkandi village of Kanchipara union in the Fulchhari upazila. Visiting the site at around 1:00 am Sunday, it was seen that the dredged sand was piled up on a newly surfaced char in the middle of the river.

A person relevant to the dredging works told Prothom Alo on condition of anonymity that they can’t dump the sand any far as no one wants to give a place to dump the sand.

Visiting the villages adjacent to the river Brahmaputra in the Gouripur and Ishwarganj upazila of Mymensingh, it was seen that although there were flows of water in some places of the river, these places were surrounded by small chars. These areas have been dredged up already. The project is being implemented in the Gafargaon and Trishal upazila of the district by the Bengal Structure Development, a contracting firm under the Bengal group.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, chief executive officer (CEO) of the agency SM Rabiul Islam said people do not allow us to keep the sand on their land along the riverbanks on both sides of the river. The people do not allow them to dump the sand even on khas lands.

He said there is a lack of coordination among the contractors. There are cases where sand from the non-dredged areas fills up the dredged areas due to lack of coordination among the contractors.

The dredged sand was supposed to be sold. However, not much has been sold. Senior assistant commissioner (revenue) of Mymensingh, Dilruba Islam said so far some 75.4 million cubic feet of sand has been sold in auction so far. Around 140 cubic feet of dredged sand remains unsold. Besides, many piles of the sand have not been weighed yet.

Local residents fear that a portion of the sand that are piled up on the riverbanks will return to the river during the upcoming monsoon.

Local resident Omar Faruque was saying the way the sand is being piled up on the riverbanks, it is almost certain that it will return to the river in the monsoon again.

‘Benefits won’t be realised’

The IMED published a review on the ongoing project of the BIWTA last June, highlighting several flaws. According to the IMED inspection team, the depth of the river was only four feet in several places instead of the required 8-10 feet. The report also noted the absence of maintenance dredging around the sites of capital dredging. It emphasised that the project's benefits would not materialise without maintenance dredging around the capital dredging sites.

Concerned individuals and experts argue that dredging work must be expedited to ensure completion in one go. They assert that dredging a river in phases is futile and a waste of resources.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on condition of anonymity, a retired BIWTA engineer stated that waterways along the Brahmaputra River could be restored if the project were completed within two years.

The engineer also warned that without maintenance dredging alongside capital dredging, the rivers would revert to their previous state by project completion, given the current pace of implementation. Despite dredging efforts in various rivers over the last decade, none have regained navigability due to the lack of maintenance dredging.

* This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam and Ashish Basu