Strengthening River Protection Commission

Strengthening River Protection Commission

The government's rescue plan is failing to stop the encroachment of rivers and wetlands by influential people. With alleged political clout, they are out to grab the country's rivers, canals and wetlands.

This, however, demonstrates the lack of bite of the relevant regulations. As a result, environmental degradation, blocking of drainage and sometimes total extinction of the wetlands are taking place. Many rivers, canals and wetlands flowing around major cities across the country are in the clutches of grabbers.

There is no denying that inadequate action from the government is posing as a hindrance to stem the tide of encroachment that has assumed a serious proportion as evident in the monsoon-time deluge and water-logging.

Indeed, water pollution in the rivers around Dhaka city is so high that no life form can survive there. Chemical waste is polluting river water to such an extent that it is difficult to treat. Continuation of such pollution will bring about a serious water problem. Underground water table is also depleting fast and if it continues, there will be no underground water left for drinking.

The rivers around the capital city can hardly be termed as rivers anymore due to rampant encroachment by the grabbers. Also, the rivers are in a pitiable condition due to continuous pollution by the surrounding industries. The existence of rivers is already threatened due to massive urbanisation in the city to keep up with the rising population in the capital. In future, civic life will be at stake as there is going to be an acute shortage of fresh water as more rivers are being filled up to build houses. This is happening not only in the capital but also all over the country.

Many of the canals that used to exist in the capital decades ago have already vanished, while the rest are under threat due to unabated encroachments and dumping of solid waste. The canals connected with surrounding rivers were the natural drainage network which has almost been destroyed.

The National River Protection Commission (NRPC), constituted in September 2014 to reclaim rivers from grabbers, can actually do little as it was formed only to recommend relevant issues without any executive authority to implement them.

Most of the government actions against the encroachers, albeit on a limited scale, did come not in line with the NRPC recommendations, but following movements and protests by victims and rights groups and court orders. Some 60 cases were filed by them against the river, canal and wetland grabbers over the past several years. Some verdicts went in their favour. Some grabbers had to leave their encroached land from rivers and relocate their industrial setups following court verdicts.

The Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB) had recently filed a writ petition to the High Court (HC) seeking government action against pollution and the grabbing of rivers around the capital.

The court also ordered immediate steps to dredge the Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Shitalakkhya rivers around the capital and remove the dirty materials deposited on the riverbeds. But the order could not be materialised in full.

About the status of the regulator in a field where the powerful quarters are desperate to clutch scarce land that fall in their way, water analysts say, the NRPC is the weakest Commission in Bangladesh and it is  just a 'paper tiger'. It seems that the government constituted the Commission only to carry out the HC verdict as it had a legal obligation.

Insiders say the Commission's current activities are almost 'nil' as it does not have a Chairman to head it. No fresh appointments were made after retirement of its founding-Chairman and a member after completion of their three-year contracts last year. On the other hand, the Commission does not yet have its approved organogram. Lack of manpower is also hindering the commission's job badly.

Any delay or negligence in saving the rivers, which are the lifelines of the country's economy, is bound to end in disastrous consequences. There will be shortage of both drinking and farm water and subsidence of soil.

The land grabbers have also filled up both the sides of the Dhaka flood protection embankment from Kamrangirchar to Gabtali through Rayer Bazar. Flourishing businesses relating to stone crushing and sand supply have sprung up on one side of the river bank while other industries have occupied the other side. The authorities are least bothered to take action against the river encroachers and prefer to remain silent to such acts.

The people involved in the act of river grabbing must be identified and punished to set an example so that such acts are not repeated in future. It must also be ensured that evicted structures along the river banks are not reclaimed after the elapse of a certain time. The concerned authorities must be very firm in their efforts to protect the rivers.

Coordination among the agencies concerned is vital for river dredging. Drying rivers in northern part of the country need to be dredged by the Water Development Board (WDB), as those rivers are used for irrigation and not for commercial transportation. It is also important to revive the water transport system for ensuring easier and cheaper communication.

Marine academies should be set up in the country for ensuring modern management of the water transport system. The government needs also to take up a mega plan to dredge rivers for overall development of water transport system. There must not be any delay in going for massive plantations of trees along the riverbanks in order to protect people from the increasing natural calamities due to global warming.

A strong framework needs to be worked out to revitalise the River Protection Commission with a view to saving the rivers. But no less important is to ensure people's participation in such initiatives.

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