'Rivers must be protected if people are to survive'

Iftekhar Mahmud | Update:

Dr Mujibur Rahman Howladar

Dr Mujibur Rahman Howladar was appointed chairman of the River Protection Commission on 15 January 2018. He had previously been secretary of the land ministry. After joining the river protection commission, he inspected the major rivers of the country and, under his supervision, a primary list of illegal river encroachers was drawn up. An eviction drive based on this list has begun. A report is also being prepared on the overall state of the country’s rivers. In a recent interview with Prothom Alo, Mujibur Rahman Howladar talked about the government’s plans regarding river protection and various initiatives in this regard. 

Prothom Alo: The origins of this land and its habitats are closely entwined with rivers. How are the rivers faring?

Mujibur Rahman: Rivers are not only entwined with the origins and habitats of this land, but these are the source of the people’s lives and livelihoods. This region’s civilisation evolved around the rivers. Dhaka emerged as the capital city due to the surrounding rivers. Rivers play much of a mother’s role for the people here. But the rivers are not faring well.
The court had declared rivers to be living entities. They are the source of life. Without rivers, we would not have plants, animals, humans, this atmosphere and oxygen. One third of the Earth is comprised of water and 62 per cent of the human body is made up of water. So rivers are the cradle of our lives. The rivers must be protected if humans are to survive.

Prothom Alo: Are we succeeding in protecting our rivers? They are being devoured by settlements, industries and landfills.
Mujibur Rahman: The rivers are in a bad state, being grabbed and polluted. The rivers are dying one by one. But things are changing. The River Protection Commission has been formed and a national water act has been drawn up. There had been confusion over who would be responsible to protect the rivers, but that now is the responsibility of the river protection commission. We have drawn up a list of river grabbers and are evicting them accordingly. The river-related tasks of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) and the Water Development Board have been specified. The district administrations speedily drew up lists of the encroachers. The pourashavas and city corporations built up all sorts of infrastructure like walkways along the river banks and so on. These are positive steps.

Prothom Alo: Bangladesh has signed a water-sharing deal with India for the river Feni, but what about Teesta?
Mujibur Rahman: Inter-boundary rivers are basically the jurisdiction of the Joint River Commission. We are in charge of the part that is in our territory. Feni is among the 47 rivers in our study. The river Feni has no encroachment or pollution problems, but it has many under-water sandbars and there is erosion at many places along its banks. Bangladesh and India have discussed water sharing of this river and have signed an MoU, but an initiative is needed to protect the river and increase its water capacity. It is the same with Teesta.

If we sign a deal for the river Teesta with India, we will get water in the dry season too and the cropland up north will benefit. But there has been excessive siltation in many parts of Teesta on the Bangladesh side. If we take initiative to dredge Teesta and Feni and increase their depth, we can keep double the amount of water that we get now. That would solve the problems of both the countries.

Prothom Alo: The common people used to have a right over the rivers. They would travel down the rivers, catch fish, use the water to irrigate their land, build their homes on the river banks. Where have those rights gone now?
Mujibur Rahman: That is exactly why the settlements have grown up along the river banks and that is so in most countries of the world. In our country, agriculture and fish are the main sources of employment. These are dependent on rivers and water bodies. River routes are the easiest and cheapest way of transporting goods. So it is the people who will benefit the most if the rivers are protected.
As things stand now, only a restricted number of people are benefitting from the rivers. We have drawn up a list of 50,000 encroachers. These include many influential people and companies. There are factories, multi-storey buildings too. The encroachments even include a university and a cancer hospital.

Prothom Alo: Are encroachment and pollution of rivers creating a problem for agriculture? Polluted water used for irrigation is contaminating the food?
Mujibur Rahman: Agriculture in our country is still dependent on rivers and canals. It is fortunate that we have plenty of rain and the rivers are full for eight months. The encroachment and pollution is mainly in and around the urban areas where there is not so much agricultural activity.

Rivers are the source of drinking water. If the rivers are polluted, water treatment becomes a costly process. The rivers in the southwest region of the country are basically dependent on the ebb and flow of the tide and pollution doesn’t affect these rivers. But they are being filled by siltation. Dredging is being carried out there and we have drawn up certain regulations in this regard. Before the silt would be thrown on either side of the river and so when there was rain, it would simply slide back into the river. Now the silt has to be removed and transferred to plain land at a distance.

Prothom Alo: How far will these measures protect the river? The big encroachers haven’t budged and they are very influential.
Mujibur Rahman: We will evict all encroachers, no matter how big they may be. We have already removed structures owned by many influential persons from the river Turag. Demolition costs money and the government is providing the funds. The district administration and law enforcement agencies are helping us.

The Supreme Court’s verdict was epoch-making. The prime minister has directed us to protect the rivers. So the entire state machinery is now involved in saving the rivers. The river protection commission act is being strengthened further and a draft in this connection has been finalised. It is expected to be approved by the parliament shortly. We are preparing an 800-page report about the overall state of the rivers. We plan to evict all encroachers within the next one year. No one will be spared, no matter how powerful they may be.

Prothom Alo: There are many unsettled issues lying with the ministries concerning river demarcation. There have been many land surveys in the country and each survey comes up with different directives for river demarcation. There are also allegations that river land is being leased out by the district administration and the local land officers are also leasing out river land to individuals.
Mujibur Rahman: That is true. We determine the river demarcation on the basis of the 1940 CS survey. Every river has floodplains and tidal basins. That is why the river demarcation noticeably changes from winter to summer. And so we have carried out the demarcation of the rivers along with the SPARRSO (Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation). The report will reveal how far the river boundaries changed over the last 100 years, who are the river grabbers and so on. The encroachers will not be able to escape.

The deputy commissioners are lending their support. Other than the rivers in and around Dhaka, we have begun removing encroachments from the river Bhairab in Jashore, Karnaphuli in Chattogram and other major rivers. Influential quarters have tried to resist, but we have managed to overcome them. The court has declared that river encroachers cannot contest in the elections. We have asked the central bank to disqualify river encroachers from bank loans. Integrity and credibility is required to implement our plans.

Prothom Alo: The encroachers simply return after some time and grab the rivers again. What can be done?
Mujibur Rahman: After evicting the encroachers, we try to build certain boundaries, walkways and also plant rows of trees on the banks. This will prevent encroachment in future. It is not possible to build boundary walls along the rivers as this will hamper the natural flow and route of the river and affect recharging of groundwater.

Prothom Alo: What are your long term plans for river protection?
Mujibur Rahman: The government has prepared a 100-year master plan for the rivers and this has been approved as the Delta Master Plan. This includes the Ganges barrage and separate plans for the rivers of each districts.

A positive trend has emerged in rive protection. The media lends its support too. We want to keep up this trend and hopefully the rivers will all be restored.

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