It costs at least Tk 450 to go to Barishal from Dhaka by road. By river, it is only costs only Tk 220 to cross the same distance on water. Although river routes offer cheap and safe travel, waterways have never been important to policymakers of the country. The length of roads has increased every year since the country's independence, but waterways have shrunk. Vessels can operate along less than a quarter of the total length of the rivers in Bangladesh.
The waterways have shrunk due to constant encroachment, filling, change in the course of rivers. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the length of waterways in Bangladesh was about 12,000 km in 1960. In the next three decades, the length decreased to 6,000 km. In 2005, the length reached 5,968 km during the rainy season and 3,865 km in the dry season.
Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) is responsible forr supervising the waterways of the country. According to them, the total length of rivers in the country is 24,000 km. Of these, vessels can travel down only 6,000 km. In the dry season, the this is decreased to 4,347 km. The waterways of the country have halved in six decades, from 1960 to 2020.
Professor Mizanur Rahman, director of the Accident Research Institute of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), said the waterways should be increased and attention should be paid to this sector. He said waterways cost the second lowest in transporting goods and passengers. There had been an opportunity to use all the rivers of Bangladesh as waterways due to geographical advantage, he said adding that the price of products would decrease at a consumer level due to low transportation costs.
In addition, the rate of accidents on waterways is less than on roads, he said adding that, overall, if the entire waterways could be used, it would have a significant positive impact on the economy.
Though experts place emphasis on waterways, government budget shows that river routes receive the lowest allocation compared to roads, railways, air and shipping. A total of Tk 51.80689 billion had been allocated to the transport sector in the current fiscal. Of this, 62.63 per cent of the total allocation will be spent on roads, 23.62 per cent on railways and 6.97 per cent on air. The shipping sector received 6.79 per cent allocation.
We have a large population and a high demand for transport. The demand is on the rise. So, there is no alternative but to place emphasis on river routes. This will decrease pressure on the roads too.
Professor Adil Muhammad Khan, general secretary of Bangladesh Institute of Planners, considers that this has happened due to divergent views on river routes. He said both the railways and the waterways have been affected due to emphasising more on road routes. He said this must change as it is not possible to build sustainable means of transportation without river routes.
According to the IUCN and the World Bank, 54 per cent of the country’s total passengers traveled by road, 30 per cent by railway and 16 per cent by inland waterways in 1975. In 1996, 15 per cent of the passengers traveled by waterways and in 2005, it was only 8 per cent.
However, the exact percentage of passengers traveling by river routes is not available. BIWTA claims that one-fourth of the total passengers and about half of the goods are transported by river.
Increase in passenger and freight transport
According to the BIWTA, about 211.05 million people (including passengers traveling river river routes more than once) traveled by inland water routes in the 2010-11 fiscal. In the same year, 14.1 million tonnes of goods were transported by river. On the other hand, in the 2018-19 fiscal, some 314.7 million passengers traveled by inland waters while 55.945 million tonnes of goods were transported.
Enamul Haque Bhuiyan, deputy director of BIWTA’s maritime safety and traffic management department, claimed that the development of ghats or terminals and river routes contributed to the increase in passengers and cargo transport.
Advantages of waterways
If the river ways are okay, the navigability also remains okay. This in turn plays role to protect the overall environment and biodiversity. Also, the rate of accidents is low on the waterways. According to the passengers’ platform Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity, a total of 6,201 accidents took place on the roads, railways and waterways in 2019. Of these, there were 7,855 deaths on the roads in 5,516 accidents. Over the same period, there were 219 deaths in 201 accidents on the river routes.
The rivers are also source of food. According to the fisheries department, 320,598 tonnes of fish have been caught from the rivers in the 2017-18 fiscal.
Mir Tareq Ali, professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at BUET, considers silting as one of the main reasons for deterioration of river routes. He stressed the need for regular and planned dredging. “We have a large population and a high demand for transport. The demand is on the rise. So, there is no alternative but to place emphasis on river routes. This will decrease pressure on the roads too.”
World Maritime Day
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) will celebrate the World Maritime Day this year on 24 September. IMO member states have been observing the day since 1978.
*This piece, originally appearing in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been translated for the English edition by Nusrat Nowrin.