Three mighty rivers, which enter Bangladesh from India at different points, play a very important role in the areas of transportation, cultural practices, and livelihoods of the people.
Eastern states of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh are more or less connected by these rivers. These rivers were once the main communication links for people of this region for traversing from one place to another.
Using the waterways benefits trade as it is less expensive than other modes of transportations.
In the age of globalisation, the scope of connectivity through these old waterways becomes more important.
The mobility and access to the facilities depend on the sound infrastructure of both inland waterways and highways. In Bangladesh, domestic communications comprise roads, rails and waterways.
Rivers, streams, and canals together cover 7.0 per cent of the total surface i.e. about 24 thousand kilometers of Bangladesh. Inland water transport is one of the oldest modes, not only for economic reasons but also for environmental sustainability.
Inland waterways network consists of over 5,968 km of navigable waterways for mechanised vessels during the monsoon season, and it comes to about 3,865 km during dry season. The Inland Water Transport (IWT) sector transports over 50 per cent of the total freight traffic. Moreover, it carries around one-quarter of all passenger traffic in waterways. There are about 22 major ports (among them 11 ports are newly developed) and 448 secondary in the waterways network across the country.
Approximately 0.7 million river vessels are transporting goods as well as passengers in the country. Annually, 50 million passengers are carried through this waterways network, says Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authoritiies (BIWTA).
On the other hand, according to Roads and Highways Department (RHD), there are about 18,250 km (86 per cent of total length) paved roads comprising of 3,477 km of national highway, 4,105 km of regional highway, and the rest 10,666 km of zilla roads in the country.
It is also evident from the ADP allocation figures that government is prioritising investment in roads compared to rails and waterways infrastructures.
There are some issues which need to be addressed for the development of the IWT sector. These include navigability, dredging for economic benefits, searching new river routes and required investment in IWT.
The dredging for reviving the waterways is not possible due to the non-availability of resources during the time when it is necessary. For carrying out cost-effective dredging operations, long-term investment is needed.
Moreover, the real potential of the waterways as mode of transportation are yet to be explored. The waterways are still cost-effective compared to other mode of transportations. Planning and management of the waterways should be people-centric.
The writer is a Senior Research Associate, Unnayan Shamannay.