Bangladesh seeks to protect rivers with new law

Bangladesh, India should work together on transboundary rivers instead of working separately and then starting to talk, says water secretary of Bangladesh
<p>Sunset on the Teesta river</p>

Sunset on the Teesta river

The Ministry of Water Resources in Bangladesh has drafted a new river law. Zafar Ahmed Khan, Secretary in the ministry, says the new law is aimed more at protecting and conserving rivers than at exploiting water resources.

In an exclusive interview to thethirdpole.net, Khan also talks about transboundary rivers and controversial water sharing issues between Bangladesh and India. He suggests that instead of working separately and then starting to talk, the two countries should work together, conduct scientific studies on the rivers they share, and ensure sustainable development. This is the only way to protect the ecosystem that the countries share, he believes. Excerpts:

The Third Pole (TTP): Bangladesh has a water resources management law. It also has a law on water bodies management and we have been hearing that the government is drafting a river law. Time and again some experts ask if such a law is necessary. What do you think?

Zafar Ahmed Khan (ZAK): Yes, I strongly believe that there is utmost necessity of a stronger river protection law. The present one will have enforcing and controlling authority over the organisations that are closely related to river protection management. So, this river law will play an effective role to save all the water bodies in Bangladesh from pollution, grabbing and filling.

We already have a national water policy based on the guideline given by our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she was in power in 1997. A guideline cannot be enforced without the help of law. Now we need a law to streamline the use of water resources and ensure its protection from pollution. Individually it is not possible to enforce anything; a combined effort is needed from different stakeholders. I strongly believe that through a river law such steps can be taken. Therefore, such a law is very important.

TTP: What will be included in this law?

ZAK: Experts are still working on it. But I think the objectives of the law will be protection of rivers from pollution, illegal occupation, preventing industrial wastes and maintenance management and coordination process among the different stakeholders of rivers. Let me tell you one thing, this river law combines national water policy. It also gives most emphasis on securing drinking water and prevents misuse of water.

TTP: Officials of the National River Conservation Commission say it will take at least one year to turn the draft into a law. Is that correct?

ZAK: As far as I know, the draft is now in a framing stage and water experts are scrutinising it. Once that is completed they will send it to us and after that we will have an inter-minister meeting. Later it will be sent to the cabinet before the approval of the parliament. This is the process and we are trying to frame it as early as possible.

TTP: We have so many transboundary rivers with India. Will the new law address water sharing problems between Bangladesh and India?

ZAK: We have 54 transboundary rivers with India and three with Myanmar. Among them only Ganges water sharing treaty has been signed with India. Teesta water sharing is still pending and the rest are under process.

The river law focuses on Bangladesh’s internal water problems. Yes, some principles or major phenomena will deal with transboundary rivers. In those cases the Joint River Commission officials of both India and Bangladesh need to sit together for fine tuning and solving unresolved issues bilaterally.

TTP: You just spoke of different stakeholders in rivers. Who are they?

ZAK: There are various organisations like the Water Development Board, Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority, Department of Environment, Water Resources Planning Organization, LGED, Divisional Commissioners,  Deputy Commissioner,  Upazila Nirbahi Officer, Ministry of Land, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Shipping, Ministry of Information and Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. These and other internal organizations’ coordinated effort will be needed.

Ganga Barrage hangs fire

TTP: On April 11, 2017 at a news conference in Dhaka, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina termed the feasibility study and project design for Ganga Barrage at Pangsha “completely flawed and suicidal like Teesta Barrage was.” She also said she had instructed the Water Resources Ministry to find alternative sites for storage of Ganga monsoon flows for utilisation during lean period. It has been almost one year since the Prime Minister said this. Have there been any developments since then?

ZAK: Our water experts are already working on it and a technical committee has been formed headed by Abul Kalam Azad, the Chief Coordinator of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). He also arranges meetings. But we have to keep in mind that this water issue is very complicated due to uniqueness of our geography, morphology and topography. We cannot come up with an alternative to Ganga Barrage overnight. We need some time to find a solution. The scientific study is going on. But let me share with you the thought of PM Sheikh Hasina. She feels that if we construct any barrage to control a natural flow of a river, that causes back flow. As we experience the incident of Indian Farakka barrage that leads to opposition in India, due to its bad effect on peoples’ livelihoods. Therefore, we need to think a lot before constructing any structure. But I can assure you that the work is going on and it is on the right track.

TTP: At the same press conference, Sheikh Hasina said she had requested West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to find a place for a reservoir to hold the water for the project. Did you get any response from Mamata Banerjee?

ZAK: The issue is being dealt with by the Foreign Ministry. And so far, we have not received any response from India.

TTP: Reportedly, China and Japan wanted to fund the Ganges barrage project, but later PM Hasina spoke of it as an India-Bangladesh joint venture. What has been the Indian response?

ZAK: Well, as I said, a technical committee is working on it, and we cannot start working on the Ganga barrage until we receive the findings. So, there is no question of funds right now. If the committee thinks that there is an urgent need to do the work jointly, we can invite India to work with us. Even then if we feel we need more external help, then of course we can take help from other countries. But right now, we do not need any help and have not decided what we’ll will do.

TTP: The Teesta water sharing treaty with India is still pending, but Bangladesh officials are saying they hope to find a solution. What will that solution be?

ZAK: A draft has been framed at the technical and bureaucratic level in both countries and the agreement is ready. But it can become a reality only if a negotiation can be conducted at the political level within India. Prime Ministers of both countries have assured that the agreement will see the light of day. We also strongly believe that it will happen any time, as both prime ministers are committed to it. I strongly think that the political will from India is an important factor that can play a vital role to solving the Teesta water sharing issue.

TTP: Do you agree that reduced water flows have dried up rivers in Bangladesh and have strained India-Bangladesh relations?

ZAK: It’s a reality that both countries are trying to ensure the best use of their water. The question is, how can we solve this existing issue peacefully? Personally, I feel that we should address this problem basin wise. We, Bangladesh and India, belong to the same geography; so, we should not do anything against the ecosystem and geography.  Both countries should think of the benefit of both countries, rather than just one country. That will lead to a win-win situation rather than serving any individual interest.

Navigating through the Sundarbans

TTP: There have been oil spill incidents in the Sundarbans. Why do India-Bangladesh navigation routes go through the same location despite knowing that it involves so many risks?

ZAK: This is not my department but let me tell you that right now the navigation route is very active under the provision of the ITT Inland Water Transportation treaty. There is a special arrangement to look after the activities of the routes and meet navigational requirement like dredging, signals, pilot station and other formal arrangements.

Ghasiakhali was the main channel of communication between Bangladesh and India. The Sundarbans channel was used due to temporary disruption of that channel. Now the Ghasiakhali channel is in operation and the Sundarbans channel is almost closed.