Rivers are the oldest means of transport in the massive Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta, where a dense lattice of waterways once carried over 70 per cent of the goods and passengers within the region. Today, however, less than 2.0 per cent of goods are transported by water.
Now, both Bangladesh and India - the two countries that share the delta - are reviving these long-defunct water channels. With congested roads, swelling carbon footprints and the rising costs of land, they are turning to the region's 3,500 kilometers of navigable rivers for a greener and cheaper alternative.
Since 2016, when India passed the National Waterways Act, the country has actively developed the Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems as National Waterways 1 and 2. More than 100 new water courses have also been added to the navigable network.
In Bangladesh, where rivers carry about a quarter of all passenger traffic and 80 per cent of bulk cargo, the navigability of 900 kilometers of inland water channels is being improved.
Both countries now propose to consolidate their many individual investments into a comprehensive 'Eastern Waterways Grid' by interlinking their rivers and connecting them with roads and rail to reach the last mile.
The grid has the potential to rejuvenate the economies of the eastern subcontinent, generating rich dividends for the region's 600 million people, many of whom are among the poorest in South Asia.
BUILDING ON THE EXISTING NETWORK: The Grid builds on the existing network of Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Routes (IBP) - a series of waterways which both countries can use as transit routes or to trade with each other. Currently, 10 IBP routes have been earmarked under the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol for Inland Water Transit and Trade. This long-standing Protocol was first signed in 1972 and last renewed in 2015.
India uses these routes to ferry goods to and from its isolated north eastern states far more quickly and cheaply than via the 'chicken's neck' - a narrow stretch of land that connects the north eastern states with the rest of the country - a long and arduous 1,600 km journey by road.
The busiest IBP route lies along the Brahmaputra river, where barges from India's north eastern state of Assam carry limestone, silicon, petroleum and tea to the rest of the country. The barges enter Bangladesh's section of the river at Dhubri in Assam before re-entering India's waters to reach Kolkata or Haldia port. (In Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra river is known as the Jamuna). Cargo also travels the other way, carrying essential supplies from the rest of India to the north-eastern states. This route is far quicker and cheaper than the land route through the Petropole-Benapole border - the largest check point between the two countries - where trucks have to wait for days to cross over.
It is a win-win situation. India gains better connectivity with its northeastern states while Bangladesh earns revenues from port fees, cargo handling, and other services.
Landlocked Nepal and Bhutan are also starting to harness the potential of the waterways to gain easier access to Bangladesh and India, as well as to ports on the Bay of Bengal. Bhutan is already using the waterways to export crushed stone to Bangladesh for use in its construction industry.
IMMENSE POTENTIAL: With the cost of transporting bulk goods by water being just one fifth of that by road, the Eastern Waterways Grid will help spur trade in the eastern subcontinent. Despite sharing the fifth longest border in the world, the World Bank estimates that Indo-Bangladesh trade stands well below its $10 billion potential.
The interlinking of the waterways will bring numerous benefits. Bangladesh's sizeable garment industry will, for instance, be able to import raw materials such as cotton from India at competitive prices. And its businesses will gain access to India's vast domestic market, even carrying cargo to Allahabad and Varanasi along the Ganga waterway.
On the Indian side, industries will be able to access manufacturing belts in Bangladesh, saving 10 to 15 per cent over land transport costs on some commodities.
What's more, improved navigation will lead to the establishment of terminals, jetties, container depots and storage facilities along the waterways, creating new jobs, spurring the development of ancillary industries, and triggering the development of green economic zones on both sides of the border.
And once these inland waterways are linked with coastal shipping, new commercial corridors with Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand are likely to emerge, generating a chain of multiple impacts across the region.
Both India and Bangladesh are keen to take the Grid forward. "Developing an economic corridor - including revitalising the protocol routes with India, the establishment of economic zones and other river functions - is a priority for our government," said Mohammed Mezbah Uddin Chowdhury, Bangladesh's Shipping Secretary.
Emphasising the potential benefits for the people, Sanjeev Ranjan, India's Secretary for the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, said, "India and Bangladesh need to work together to ensure that the fruits of these investments reach the people and they prosper as a result of the easy mode of transportation that the waterways is going to provide them."
The recent inauguration of the 'Maitri Setu' -- or the India-Bangladesh Friendship Bridge - is a step in the right direction. Both nations now need to address the soft constraints to seamless waterway connectivity. This includes enhancing bilateral protocol agreements to foster user confidence, promoting harmonization and uniformity in navigational standards and operational protocols, and simplifying procedures for customs clearance.
It is to be noted that work on the Eastern Waterways Grid received support from the South Asia Water Initiative, a trust fund supported by the United Kingdom's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, and Norway. In addition, the World Bank is providing technical and financial assistance to the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) to augment navigation on the Haldia-Varanasi stretch of Ganga (part of NW-1). It is also supporting the development of the Dhaka-Chattogram waterways in Bangladesh.
The writers are with the World Bank. The piece is excerpted from World Bank Blogs