Syed Ishtiaque Reza
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently called for a coordinated action to protect and revive the rivers of the country. She believes that saving rivers is integral to the future economic development of the country. The prime minister made the link while unveiling a new model at her office called the “Comprehensive Plan for Stabilization of the Jamuna-Padma River and Pilot Intervention for Land Reclamation”.
Prime Minister said, ‘Bangladesh is a riverine country, with rivers inextricably tied to not just our heritage but also our livelihood’. She rightly said that our rivers are dying. The recent severe floods that devastated Bangladesh`s 27 districts and haor region are a wake-up call for the authorities concerned to act immediately to recover the dying rivers to protect the nation from even more perilous natural disaster in the days to come. From the very beginning of her tenure for the second time in power after the 2008 general elections, Sheikh Hasina put emphasis on better management and protection of river resources.
Despite the formation of different high-profile bodies, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina`s repeated directives and the outcry of environmentalists, there has been little progress in saving rivers, including the ones surrounding Dhaka, from grabbing and pollution and restoring their navigability.
Prime Minister has personal desire. But this is not enough. The country needs concerted efforts by different agencies and enforcement of laws for recovering the rivers. There are many committees, laws, decisions and polices to reclaim rivers, but not proper actions.
Our rivers are dying. Big rivers are being reduced to wide dusts stretch in places. Drying trends have been reported in the Southern and Northern parts of the country. And the pollution problem in the Buriganga and many other rivers are well recognized. The future of our rivers appears bleak.
Against this backdrop the prime minister’s call for better management of this crucial resource is very significant. Green Activists are active since long. But we believe that a clarion call from our prime minister will garner huge public support. Only a strong political call can give a new lease of life to our rivers.
The first step to make the campaign for saving rivers successful is to halt encroachment of rivers and wetlands. Second one is planting trees along the rivers. Forests increase rainfall by transpiring and cycling moisture in the atmosphere locally. Trees reduce soil erosion and slow down run-off during heavy rains. So instead of flash floods, water is gradually released, contributing to dry season flows. Trees also trap sediment and pollutants improving river water quality.
In many parts of the country streams are disappearing because of groundwater over-exploitation. As groundwater levels drop, instead of the aquifer feeding the stream, streams are being sucked dry. So while calling for saving the rivers, we must think of this groundwater extraction culture.
Restoring rivers is a complex problem. The district and upazila administrations are major obstacle to saving rivers as they do not take any directives of the Prime Minister, ministers and court seriously. Local politicians are major players in occupying rivers and canals. There should be a strong message from the centre to the local administrations and other authorities concerned for making the rivers free from encroachment and pollution at any cost.
It is time to get serious about protecting the rivers that can still be saved. The government has done a good thing in setting up a high-level committee to save rivers around Dhaka and Chittagong’s Karnaphuli. It is certainly high time that such an initiative was undertaken. The committee would do well to stop the continuous discharge of the thousands of tons of industrial waste, garbage, and sewage water into our rivers. In the past projects to clean up rivers such as Shitalakkhya failed because of the impunity granted to polluters.
Industrial sites need to be relocated away from rivers. To save Buriganga, the Hazaribagh Tannery has been shifted to Savar. Unfortunately, the Dholeswori river is being polluted now.
It is high time, not only to stop encroachments and land grabbing culture along rivers, but also to stop rampant sand mining and deforestation in the catchment areas. We must restore riparian and flood-plain ecosystems. It is also time to bring big polluters in cities to book and make investments in sewage treatment and solid waste management in urban areas.
Syed Ishtiaque Reza