Rowing through Business Routes

Staff Correspondent
Thursday, October 26th, 2017


Opportunities in using and reviving thousands of kilometers of waterways in riverine Bangladesh are mostly ignored


Bangladesh, being a deltaic country is blessed with rivers that enable easy and cheaper means of transportation system through waterways. However, it looks like the country is largely oblivious of the importance of river routes, especially of its glorious past. Rivers, streams, canals and even marshlands have left unfathomable impacts on the life, lifestyle, livelihood, culture, literature, trade, and commerce in this part of the world. Even till date, no one could deny the fact that their potentials could not be used for maximising public welfare and facilitating businesses.


The country has 24,000km of rivers and streams and currently navigable waterways vary between 8372 km during monsoon to less than 4,000 km during dry season. Still, there are 995 active river routes. Unfortunately, Bangladesh has lost about 18,000 km river routes in the past four decades.


How is the scene, otherwise?


In April 2013, the chief minister of Meghalaya state of India, Mukul Sangma, reportedly said that his government was keen on reviving traditional river routes to neighbouring Bangladesh to promote trade. The trading activities through river routes came to a halt in 1971. However, the changed political map was not the cause of decades of discontinuation of trade through river routes. Rather, as the chief minister pointed out, trade had to be discontinued due to dwindling water level.


The cause, as noted by the Indian leader, is applicable for all of the rivers in Bangladesh. There are various reasons including impact of climate change and mindless use of river for the purpose of selfish development. The unremitting decrease in water flow has caused death of some rivers while many others have become moribund. This unexpected fate of rivers already had enormous negative impacts on livelihoods of people in many parts of the country besides irredeemable damage to the climate.


Rivers had been the prime routes of communications only a few decades ago. Country boats, ferries and cargo vessels were the most popular and common mode of transports for both carrying passengers and goods.


Some private companies, however, are trying desperately to continue decent and efficient passenger ferry services, but those are limited to some routes like Dhaka-Barisal, Dhaka-Khulna and Dhaka-Chandpur. Water transports on all other routes are mostly shabby as their operators hardly care about passengers’ comfort, which is also another reason for their falling attraction.


Many of the operators, however, argue that they are not confident enough about the future of water transport in the end as river routes are declining gradually every year. There are no specific data available about the matter from the authorities concerned.


Inland water transport network


With more than 230 big and small rivers crisscrossing the country, Bangladesh has one of the largest inland waterway networks in the world. The water transport system connects more than 25 districts with the capital.


The last comprehensive hydrographic survey was carried out in 1989. According to the survey, the total length of rivers is estimated to be in the range of some 24,000 km, providing a very high degree of penetration. Out of this total, 6,000 km are accessible for movement of modern mechanised vessels during the monsoon season, which comes down to 3,800 km during other months of the year. The network also include 11 major inland ports, 23 coastal island ports, 133 launch stations and more than 1,000 minor landing points located in rural areas.


Since the surveys in 1989, there has been no comprehensive survey on waterways.


Inland Water Transport (IWT) fleet


Department of Shipping (DoS) and BIWTA are supposed to maintain the records about IWT fleet, but their manual data record system is not capable of maintaining the very recent information about the number and the characteristics of the fleet of passengers and cargo vessels. A study of the World Bank says that the number of passenger vessels has remained static in past few years at around 2000 with a capacity of carrying 230,000 passengers. The Bank published the study in September 2007 titled ‘Revival of Inland Water Transport: Options and Strategies.’


According of operators, passenger vessels accomplish one one-way trip per day when cargo vessels make on average 12 trips per year during a period of 330 days.


Trade and business through waterways


Most of the hats, bazaars and business centres in the country are still seen besides rivers. Even towns and cities were established and grew up alongside or near rivers as boats and ships were the only means of transports before motor vehicles and trains came to the scene.


In Bangladesh major trade activities used to be centred in Narayangonj, Ashugonj, Chilmari, Sirajgonj, Rajshahi, Chittagong and Mongla because of their close proximity to rivers. Traditional country boats that largely constituted the merchant fleet were the prime means of moving goods from Chittagong and Mongla ports to different parts of the country including the capital city of Dhaka.


However, with development of roads and rail communications and rising difficulties in waterways, launches and boats have become the second option for most of people excepting those who live in remote coastal districts like Bhola, Barguna, Barisal, Patukhali and Chandpur. Rivers, canals and streams outstretch roads in total distance till today, but the widely used water transport system is losing attraction due to lack of modern ferries, cargoes and ships.


Before the construction of the Jamuna Bridge, Aricha, Daulotdia and Nagarbari were the buzzing ferry ghats (terminals), handling thousands of vehicles and passengers every day. All the three ghats also provided thousands of people with business opportunities while offering employment opportunities to thousand others centering ferry services.


Mawa and Paturia are now the two major ferry ghats of the country. Trucks, lorries, buses and other motor vehicles use this two ferry ghats to transport goods and passengers from the south and southwestern districts of country where people live on mainly farming and fishing. The river transport also facilitates business between many other regions of this country. BIWTA estimates more than 4,000 vehicles are transported every day by the ferries and tugs across the country. Inland ports handle about 40% of the nation’s foreign trade.


Officials estimate inland waterways carry about 35% of Bangladesh’s annual freight volume while more than Tk 16,000 crore worth of goods are transported every month by cargo ships, ferries, tugs and boats to various parts of the country. If not for the ferries, officials say, prices of goods can be four to five times higher than normal as road transports and railways are more expensive than water transports. The World Bank study in 2007 found out that when the tariff for cargo is below Tk 1 per ton-km, for road it is around Tk4.5 and for rail the tariff ranges between Tk 2.5 and 4. The present tariffs have gone up for all modes of transports, but the water transports still remains the cheaper option.


On average, two million people travel in the launches and ferries every day, but the number has not increased in the past few decades. Official data shows that the share of IWT in the passenger transport market decreased from 16% in 1975 to 15% in the recent years. The main reason of this fall is the phenomenal rise of passengers using better and faster road transports, which soared over 90% recently from 54% in 1975. The share of IWT in the cargo transport market has also decreased from 37% in 1975 to 16% now.


Development initiatives and programmes


BIWTA has taken different initiatives to revive the moribund river routes and develop new ports, ghats and landing stations to improve and ensure better services to river routes’ users. The state-owned organisation already restored navigation on a large number of rivers by dredging and developing many ports, ghats and landing stations.


Last year, 500 hectares of agricultural land in Madaripur and Char Janajat were reclaimed from the Padma River and 800 km of river routes were restored by dredging in major rivers. Among the 800 km restored routes, about 200 km routes were under the Madaripur-Charmuguria-Tekerhat-Gopalganj dredging project


BIWTA also conducted eviction drives to free riverbanks from encroachment. Walkways and eco-parks are being constructed along the riverbanks to keep off encroachers.


New business opportunities


New business opportunities exist to further develop the services of river transports for both carrying passenger and goods. The World Bank study says that the IWT has the potential to become a major actor in the transport of container between Dhaka and the seaports of Chittagong and Mongla. With the strong growth of container traffic at the port of Chittagong, the ports throughput will soon reach the threshold of one million TEUs per year. Railways are congested and the road does not have the bearing capacity to carry container trailers.


Currently, 90% of the containers are stuffed in Chittagong and Mongla ports and transported as conventional general cargo to the Inland Container Depot in Dhaka. While road capacity is expected to increase and improvement of railway services is envisaged with support from the donor community through a program of policy and institutional reforms and investments in the track and in a new inland container depot, IWT will remain competitive due to its lower costs and the limited need for investment.


Further opportunity


The study of the World Bank says that about 4.6 million people are estimated to be employed in the IWT sector.


There are two authorities responsible for the management of this sector – the Department of Shipping (DoS) and BIWTA. The DoS is responsible for safety, regulatory framework, training and scrutiny of maritime staff. It includes the Inland Ship Safety Administration (ISSA), which is responsible for the definition and enforcement of ship safety rules and for registering vessels. ISSA is also responsible for managing environmental aspects of the sector.


The World Bank study advises that responsibilities between the DoS and the BIWTA should be specified as the overlapping of responsibilities between the two organisations is apparent. While BIWTA defines construction design, DoS certifies the same vessel after construction. Crew members are trained by BIWTA but licensed by DoS. BIWTA issues some classification rules for ship operations with DoS monitoring these rules. All of these functions could be better executed by one of these two organizations.


Financial management of BIWTA needs to be improved for more efficient and transparent use of resources allocated to the sector with revision of the sector’s financing structure.


In addition, the government needs to put in place the regulatory and control mechanisms to prevent misuse of government funds that may occur because of increased private sector participation in port operations or dredging.


The river network can significantly eases the burden on congested roads by introducing modern and safer passengers’ ferries and cargos. This environment-friendly mode of transport will also help to save about 58.5 million liters of diesel and 155,000 tons of CO2 per year because of lower diesel consumption. Additional savings estimated at 100 million liters of diesel and 260,000 tons of CO2 would be generated by adding a gearbox to country boats. The total diesel consumption of the IWT sector is estimated at 350 million liters, about 13% of the total consumption of diesel in Bangladesh.

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