The High Court has directed a full report on all the existing rivers in the country, the river encroachers in the various divisions and steps taken by the government to recover river land.
The directions were passed by the bench of justices Mojibur Rahman Mia and Kamrul Hossain Mollah during a hearing on a writ petition filed by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) on Sunday. We welcome the direction of the High Court.
According to the information raised in the writ petition, there are discrepancies between different organisations regarding the number of rivers. According to the river protection commission, the number of rivers is over 770.
The Ministry of Shipping says there are a total of 496 rivers in the country. The river booklet of Bangladesh published by the Water Development Board identifies 405 rivers. On the other hand, M Enamul Haque's research mentions 1,182 rivers.
The High Court has given instructions regarding river many times before. In a judgment on a case dated 3 February 2019, the High Court asked the government to take initiative to protect all the rivers of the country. Referring to the Turag River as a 'living entity', the court referred to the National River Protection Commission as the custodian of all rivers in the country.
It also gave 17 instructions to get rid of river pollution and occupation. But has the river commission acted as a guardian? Many among those in power are challenging the authority of the river commission. Without the strong role of the government, it is not possible for the river commission to fulfil its responsibilities.
The secretary of the Ministry of Education was directed to include in the textbook a separate chapter on river conservation and pollution, in the High Court judgment on river protection. There was also mention of creating river awareness among the workers of every factory in the country.
Despite the High Court ruling almost three years ago, what steps have been taken by the concerned institutions and departments to protect the river? If taken, there would be no need to count the number of rivers all over again. Where the government does not have accurate information about the number of rivers, how will they take steps to protect the rivers?
Many rivers, canals and reservoirs have been filled by occupiers. As the number of rivers is not correct, it is not possible to identify the number of encroachers. The situation has not improved despite repeated directives from the High Court to protect the rivers around Dhaka, namely Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Shitalakshya respectively.
Due to climate change, the water of coastal rivers has become excessively saline. In this context, the rivers must be protected to meet the demand for water. No river should be killed in the interest of development projects. On the contrary, if the river is protected, the development of the country will be sustainable and people's lives will be uninterrupted.
Although the High Court has declared only Turag as a living entity, effective and sustainable measures must be taken to protect all rivers by treating them as living entities. The question is, will the concerned departments and institutions wake up after the directives of the High Court?