Urging the policymakers and activists to work collaboratively to ensure river rights, speakers on Friday blamed unwise decisions by stakeholders for the poor condition of rivers flowing through Bangladesh.
They were speaking at the inauguration ceremony of the three-day 5th International Water Conference 2020 arranged by ActionAid Bangladesh (AAB) at Hotel Graver Inn of Kuakata in Patuakhali.
Titled 'Legalising River Rights: People Politics and Practice', the conference is focused on promoting sustainable usage and maintenance of water resources.
Emeritus Prof of Brac University Dr Ainun Nishat said the government’s plans regarding the rivers are ultimately about repelling only floods.
"I was involved in the planning of Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (BDP 2100) ... the key objective of the plan is to manage the flood situation," he said.
He also criticised the reluctance of government engineers in water resource management saying that only a handful of them think about sediment load of the rivers.
He noted that squeezing the flowing path of the rivers will only increase the sediment load, subsequently disrupting the lives of people.
Dr Nishat particularly remarked about the incompetence of government organisations which is subsequently endangering the rivers. "LGD ministry alone is responsible for destroying the rivers as MPs are ruining the LGD itself," he said.
He elaborated, saying that the local parliamentarians force the ministry to build bridges and other infrastructures over rivers that hamper the natural state of the rivers, even altering their courses.
"Rivers in Jashore and surrounding areas are dying because of excessive dredging. A river that used to be 100 feet wide is flowing 25 feet wide now because of dredging," he added.
Dr Nishat also pointed out the flouting of laws and lack of cooperation among government ministries.
"The government itself is the biggest violator of the law ... Ministries do not listen to each other ... We’ve bought a boatload of dredgers but don't know what to do with them," he said.
Answering a question from the audience, the eminent scholar said only demolishing the riverside infrastructures alone cannot solve the rivers.
"For example, the pollution in Buriganga is contributed 40 percent by WASA mismanagement, 30 percent by RMG factories and 30 percent by tanneries. I can remove the 30 percent generated by tanneries, what about the other 70 percent?”.
Prof Dr Imtiaz Ahmed of Department of International Relations of Dhaka University (DU) highlighted that what we know as rivers do not fit the term without key criterion.
"You cannot call it a river without WEBS: water, energy, biodiversity and sediment," he said. He also focused on the conflict between statist perspective and WEBS perspective of river management.
Prof Imtiaz said politics of hydro diplomacy depends on two perspectives – statist and webs. “Focus on conceptual problem can in turn solve river problems. If we need to save the water then statist and webs perspectives need to be more in-line with each other," he said.
He mentioned that the primary thrust of technology and hydro diplomacy is about introducing formal and informal modes of communication while focusing on technology.
Dr Imtiaz mentioned that a revamp in infrastructure management with a water-centered architectural approach can save the rivers.
Speaking as the chief guest, Chairman of National River Conservation Commission Dr Muzibur Rahman Howlader acknowledged that work is needed to recover illegally occupied rivers.
"The river commission is working together with all stakeholders to ensure the restoration and development of rivers," he said, noting that rights of the river should be protected to secure a beautiful future of the country and the young generation.
"The objective of the law is to protect the rights of all the water bodies, not just the rivers," he added.
Dr Muzibul emphasised on public awareness and urged the water and environment rights activists to work together in a cohesive manner.
"Even before the High Court recognised the river as a living entity, there were laws in the country to protect them. But there is no proper application of the law. Without proper implementation, the rivers cannot be protected in the long run," said Dr Muzibul.
He also shared his run-in with policymakers about river rights. "In a recent meeting with some policymakers, I came to know that they think movement to save rivers can create social unrest!" he said.
"We have to reach policymakers and the law enforcement agencies to make them aware about the safety of rivers and the river-people ... We have to make them understand and act accordingly in enacting proper laws to stop river-occupying," said Dr Muzibur.
Following the inaugural session three papers were presented by the participating researchers. The event was attended by government officials, academicians, researchers and river activists.