Saving the country's canals  

Shihab Sarkar   | Saturday, 22 June 2019

Bangladesh is a country of rivers numbering more than seven hundred. Like the rivers, their distributaries and tributaries, large and small canals also distinguish the land. A lot of them have their origins in the nearby rivers or water bodies. The rest are excavated by the villagers. When it comes to measuring the vital role of canals in the agriculture of Bangladesh, they appear to be no less important than the rivers. It is mainly the irrigation facilities which prompt the farmers and peasants to excavate many canals. Large or mid-size rivers, which are not too far, serve as the source of the canals' water. The best time that arrives every year for a canal is monsoon. With its river-source becoming swollen with rainwater, the canals also get their share. The water remains there till the summer, enabling the farmers to irrigate their croplands with their water.

The canals, a vital aspect in keeping the country's agro-sector continuously productive, have lately been hit by bad times. Even 2/3 decades back, the menace of canal encroachment would be viewed as an atrocious idea. But no more. With decades wearing on, a section of village-based influential people are found encroaching on the canals. Given the farmers' need for adequate agricultural output, some of the canals are dug on voluntary labour. Normally, the important canals of the country are excavated and maintained by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED). Due to some of the canals' location at vital rural points, especially those close to urban fringes, they continue to tempt encroachers towards them. Earth-filling of long stretches of century-old canals is a regular phenomenon in the country's rural expanses, including trading centres. Many commercial land-plots are created out of filled-up canals. With the canals long vanished, myriad types of infrastructure are being raised in their place. Meanwhile, the local agriculture suffers due to excessive stagnant water and continuous flooding. A great rationale behind digging canals is flood control and releasing water.

The filling of the scores of canals across the country has long been impeding navigation. The fully or partly filled canals these days stand in the way of smooth movement of vessels. This inconvenience surfaces during the monsoon. In the past, these canals used to function as virtual rivers. Disappearance of canals meant increase in the length of certain water routes, as the vessels had to abandon short-cut trips. In a country of hundreds of canals, these humble but highly useful water-flows continue to die out throughout the year. The canals beside commercial centres or densely populated areas get choked with domestic waste and debris, if not disappearing altogether. In many areas, there are not even the faint traces of the once vibrant canals. In their place agricultural lands continue to emerge without respite, along with human settlements. That people are embarking on all these endeavours at their peril needs not be repeated.

Canal grabbing was largely an urban menace. Three decades ago, the city of Dhaka was dotted with at least 50 canals out of total 65 that would keep Dhaka free of stagnant rain water and flooding.  Most of them flowed into the four rivers that surroundDhaka. Thanks to non-stop encroachment of the remaining 50 canals, the number of these flows came down to 26. Dhaka WASA has taken initiatives to recover these vital canals from illegal occupation. A similar spectacle is found in Chittagong City. The recent increase in its water-logging is ascribed to its inoperative main canals.

 Encroachers have gobbled up Dhaka's main canal flows. They are still on the prowl, eying the rest. Administrative entities based in the capital will keep trying to resist grabbers by enforcing the relevant laws and regulations. But how could the outlying and obscure, yet vital, rural canals be kept flowing unhindered remains an enigma.