Almighty Allah in His infinite mercy blessed Bangladesh with its unique geographical location. Situated at the foothills of the great Himalayan range and washed by the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the land is covered by a vast system of rivers, tributaries, distributaries and other water bodies. These natural inland waterways course down the country; and from time immemorial the people have learned to depend upon the network as a natural means of transport and communication.
Unfortunately, due to continuous low priority given by Policy Makers to the country’s inland waterways in comparison to other competitive surface modes, Inland Water Transport (IWT) infrastructure is not as well developed in Bangladesh as Roads and Railways. In fact, inland waterway routes have suffered a gradual decline not only in navigable length but also in service quality and safety standards.
The reason is very obvious. In comparison to the competing modes (Roads and Railways) drastically low infusion of funds in the Development Plans, Annual Development Programs, and Yearly Revenue Budgets spread the resources so thinly that even existing infrastructure does not receive proper repair and maintenance attention. The following two Tables display the issue eloquently and need no further elaboration:
The meager funding in the sector has already resulted in irrecoverable damage to its once thriving 24,000 km of navigable routes. At the time of the country’s liberation in 1970, the navigable waterways measured about 12,000 km. Today there exist only 6,000 km of classified waterways, which further dwindles down to 3,800 km during the low water seasons. It means that 50% of classified waterways have been lost within a little more than forty years of self-rule.
Despite the prevailing critical conditions, it is to the credit of the Inland Waterways that it has continued to survive and is still able to serve the users who overwhelmingly belong to the underprivileged and poorer strata of the society.
Prospect of passenger movement
Bangladesh inherited five inland river ports in 1970. As the newly formed country geared up to re-build its war damages, development and economic activities accelerated. Consequently passenger and cargo movements increased. In order to meet with the demand, a number of new ports grew up; and today there exists about 23 officially gazetted main inland river ports. These are strategically scattered around the country and efficiently provides landing and handling facilities to the people, particularly to those living in remote rural areas and in coastal islands having no land connectivity with the mainland.
These river ports being the principal origin and destination points, the movement of passengers through them provides an indication of their existing activity. The current statistics disclose a growth of 0.05% which is not encouraging. The main reasons can be attributed to continuous infusion of massive doses of funds that resulted in (i) rapid growth of urban and rural road network, (ii) import of huge number of road vehicles from abroad involving scarce foreign exchange, (iii) neglect in maintenance and operation of the country’s naturally endowed existing inland waterways transport system, and (iv) user preference of passengers to swifter and more time-saving vehicles. This resulted in diverting passengers to other modes. Notwithstanding, a recent study by Asian Development Bank makes an indicative estimate of 332 million passengers in 2020-21.
Prospect of cargo movement
Transportation of bulk cargo, POL and containers is advantageous by Inland Waterways. It is cheaper, more fuel efficient, less pollutant and environment friendly. In Bangladesh context, it has added advantages in that it generates employment for the labor class and is oriented towards serving the underprivileged and poorer sections of the population. The present growth rate during recent years is about 10% and the indicative forecast of traffic in 2020-21 is 58 million tons.
Prospect of container movement
With increasing trend of containerization all over the world, Bangladesh would not be left behind and containers began to arrive in Bangladesh in the seventies. The trend has steadily grown and today both Chittagong and Mongla ports receive containers:
Due to increased economic activity particularly in the garments sector, the overall growth scenario is encouraging.
Chittagong Port handles major share of containers reaching Bangladesh, of which 70% are known to originate from or are destined to Dhaka-Narayanganj region. Of this, major volume is transported by Roads; and less than 10% by Railways. The Dhaka-Chittagong and Dhaka-Mongla highways are already congested with traffic. Their current capacity and even by developing Dhaka-Chittagong Highway into a four-lane one, it is not expected that the highways can fully cater to the increasing number of containers. This is due to paucity of container carriers, over-congestion of traffic on highways, restrictive road curves, and inadequate bearing capacity of bridges.
Railways do not carry any containers from MonglaPort as there exist no track linking the port with rest of the country. Besides, present carrying and handling capacity of the Railways is getting saturated. Railways, already aware of the situation, is going ahead with a number of development projects which include procurement of new Container Wagons and new Locomotives as well as the construction of a new Inland Container Depot (ICD) at Dhirasram. Timely completion of these projects however depends upon availability of scarce resources and annual budget allocations. Even if fund is provided and the projects are implemented, container transport from Chittagong and Mongla ports is expected to increase by a mere 15%.
Inland waterways therefore hold great potential for container transport. A good waterway system by itself is not enough for movement of containers; proper berthing and handling facilities are required to be provided. Towards this end, an Inland Container Terminal (ICT) has already been constructed by Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) at Pangaon on the bank of Buriganga River. Chittagong Port Authority, vested with the responsibility of initiating its operation, is going ahead with providing the handling equipment. The plan is to sail the container carrying vessels from Chittagong, de-stuff the goods at Pangaon, and transport those to their destined business establishments. The ICT is envisaged to handle 30,000 TEUS initially; but targeted to handle 116,000 TEUS in first phase and 1,60,000 TEUS after full completion of second phase. The scheduled date of its opening is in March-April this year.
In order to further encourage transport of containers by river routes, BIWTA is nurturing a plan to open a small-scale ICT at Khanpur on the bank of SitalakhyaRiver on BOT basis. It has a more ambitious plan to develop another one of a larger dimension at Ashuganj on the bank of the Meghna River, which is expected to serve Bangladesh-India protocol traffic as well. Besides, the Government extended permission to private entrepreneurs to construct and operate a few more container terminals in the country. However no concrete actions in the designated sites are visible.
Containers can not be carried in any cargo ship. The vessels are required to be purpose-built specially for carrying and handling containers. Private parties are not bold enough to enter an unexplored new business field. On the other hand, Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC), a public body showed initiative initially but their efforts could not materialize due to legal and other issues.
Present growth trend shows that there shall be no dearth of containers to be transported from the two sea-ports by IWT. The Pangaon terminal is also expected to be able to handle the same. There is therefore an urgent need for container vessels. Private parties should be encouraged to enter this prospective business arena and the Government should provide patronage by extending soft bank loans, tax holidays/ rebate, etc.
It is apparent that even though the ICT at Pangaon is completed by scheduled time, delay in procurement of suitable vessels is going to create a hurdle in proper utilization of its facilities.
4. Prospect of bangladesh–india iwt ‘protocol’ routes
Bangladesh with its unique geographical location is strategically located in South Asia and is in a position to serve the region by providing transit facilities to its neighbors. Under a bilateral “protocol’ signed between Bangladesh and India, inter-country and transit trade using inland waterway routes in Bangladesh is already under way. The principal commodity of inter-country trade is Flyash, which has a good source of supply in Kolkata area and ample demand in Bangladesh. The total ‘protocol’ freight (including Flyash) is showing an increase, indicative estimate in 2020 being 3,500 thousand tons.
Potential of bangladesh iwt in sub–regional connectivity
In 2010 Bangladesh and India signed a Joint Communique laying down a provision for using Chittagong and Mongla sea-ports by Bhutan, India and Nepal in order to promote transit trade between the countries. This led to an initial assessment of the country’s transport system; and experts agreed that since the country’s road network has structural and other weaknesses, most freight shall require to be carried by railways and inland waterways.
Bhutan: There exists an inland waterway route from both Chittagong and Mongla seaports upto Bangladesh border (Daikhawa, Chilmari). The waterway extends to Dhubri (India) where an important and busy river station exists. A 150 km long road in good condition exists from here to Thimpu, which is a very thriving commercial center of Bhutan.
This inland route falls within Bangladesh-India ‘protocol’ waterway and is also favorable for inter-country trade and for using as a transit route between India (Kolkata) to Bhutan.
Nepal: Banglabandha, a land port situated at Bangladesh boundary line, is currently in use as a crossing point for traffic and trade with Nepal. A 42 km long road runs from the border to Kakravita, a prominent and busy business hub in Nepal, However in accordance with an Agreement between India and Nepal, trucks from Nepal can come upto ‘zero point’ of Bangladesh border, but cannot enter into Bangladesh territory. In a similar manner, Bangladeshi trucks with export cargo are not allowed to go to Kakravita in Nepal across Indian territory. Therefore back-to-back transshipment has to be made into Indian or Nepali trucks at ‘zero point’. The cumbersome transshipment operation and other unhealthy practices in no man’s land are frustrating the operators; and recent port activities show a gradual decline.
There is an opportunity to extend a friendly hand to neighboring land-locked Nepal by allowing use of Bangladesh’s sea-ports, its extensive waterways and land ports. Cargo destined for Nepal can be transported through Bangladesh by availing facilities in advantageously located Mongla sea-port. Incidentally, Mongla Port handled about 60,300 tons of Nepalese transit cargo in 1997-98, which fact provides a positive indication of future possibilities.
The following multi-modal routes using the country’s waterways network have been identified preliminarily:
Ashuganj, Baghabari and Noapara are very prospective inland river ports that can be used as transit and transshipment points for trade with Bhutan, India and Nepal. All the three river ports are presently very active and have waterways connectivity with Chittagong and Mongla seaports and Road connectivity with numerous Land Ports situated on Bangladesh-India border. Not much investment is required to make them suitable for inter-modal transport service.
The three river ports are advantageously located in the country’s waterways system and are suitable as multi-modal transshipment points for transport of containers to and from Bhutan, India and Nepal. With suitable development this service can be in addition to their routine services extended to regular passenger and cargo vessels.
In view of past low priority and comparatively meager allocations given to Inland Water Transport sector, its infrastructure has undergone drastic decline in capacity and quality. A glaring example is the cumulative reduction in length of navigable (classified) waterways of the country from 24,000 km to 6,000 km. Besides being poorly maintained the sector remains heavily under-utilized.
The construction of Jamuna and other large bridges, forthcoming PadmaBridge, import of huge number of road vehicles, and other such actions are giving unbalanced impetus upon a single mode of transport to the detriment of other modes. This is creating an unhealthy situation in the total Transport Sector leading to its uneven development, unbalanced investments, deterioration and loss of existing natural assets, traffic congestions, etc.
The prevailing situation in Transport sector is sending unfavorable signals to the inland water transport operators who are getting frustrated and may shift to more profitable business ventures. This does not augment well for the country as this will lead to further deterioration of the country’s naturally gifted inland waterways.
Effect of PadmaBridge: The construction of PadmaBridge is expected to change the existing overall traffic pattern of the country, particularly that of the South-West region. Berthing and handling density may shift from some river ports to others due to changed scenario. Bulk cargo and POL, because of their intrinsic character, shall continue to be transported by the waterways.
Completion of a container handling terminal at Pangaon though belated is a great leap forward. Augmen-tation of facilities in existing inland river ports, particularly those at Ashuganj, Baghabari and Noapara is likely to encourage goods movement significantly. Such and similar actions are likely to improve existing water-borne traffic and pave the way for multi-modal cargo and container movement. Bangladesh with its naturally endowed waterways network is strategically located in South Asia and can contribute towards raising the living standard of the region’s people by providing transit facilities to its neighboring countries, Bhutan, India and Nepal.
The potential of the country’s waterways remain untapped; its prospects are yet to be exploited. What is required now is a determined political will to set priorities properly considering the country’s present needs and future aspirations. The immediate aim should be to arrest further damage to the country’s waterways transport system and maintain it, at the least, at its present level.