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Potentials of inland water transport in Bangladesh

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

proper berthing and handling facilities are required to be . already aware of the situation. POL and containers is advantageous by Inland Waterways. Chittagong Port handles major share of containers reaching Bangladesh. it is not expected that the highways can fully cater to the increasing number of containers. major volume is transported by Roads. This is due to paucity of container carriers. present carrying and handling capacity of the Railways is getting saturated. Railways do not carry any containers from MonglaPort as there exist no track linking the port with rest of the country. The Dhaka-Chittagong and Dhaka-Mongla highways are already congested with traffic. Timely completion of these projects however depends upon availability of scarce resources and annual budget allocations. (iii) neglect in maintenance and operation of the country’s naturally endowed existing inland waterways transport system. restrictive road curves. the overall growth scenario is encouraging. Inland waterways therefore hold great potential for container transport. a recent study by Asian Development Bank makes an indicative estimate of 332 million passengers in 2020-21. In Bangladesh context. Their current capacity and even by developing Dhaka-Chittagong Highway into a four-lane one. A good waterway system by itself is not enough for movement of containers. of which 70% are known to originate from or are destined to Dhaka-Narayanganj region. and inadequate bearing capacity of bridges. Bangladesh would not be left behind and containers began to arrive in Bangladesh in the seventies. Railways. Prospect of cargo movement Transportation of bulk cargo. (ii) import of huge number of road vehicles from abroad involving scarce foreign exchange. Besides. and less than 10% by Railways. more fuel efficient. less pollutant and environment friendly. It is cheaper. The trend has steadily grown and today both Chittagong and Mongla ports receive containers: Due to increased economic activity particularly in the garments sector. Notwithstanding. Prospect of container movement With increasing trend of containerization all over the world.funds that resulted in (i) rapid growth of urban and rural road network. Even if fund is provided and the projects are implemented. This resulted in diverting passengers to other modes. The present growth rate during recent years is about 10% and the indicative forecast of traffic in 2020-21 is 58 million tons. 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. over-congestion of traffic on highways. 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. Of this. container transport from Chittagong and Mongla ports is expected to increase by a mere 15%. and (iv) user preference of passengers to swifter and more time-saving vehicles.

the Government extended permission to private entrepreneurs to construct and operate a few more container terminals in the country. but targeted to handle 116. de- stuff the goods at Pangaon. On the other hand. The plan is to sail the container carrying vessels from Chittagong. 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.000 TEUS in first phase and 1. There is therefore an urgent need for container vessels. Towards this end. which is expected to serve Bangladesh-India protocol traffic as well. Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC). and transport those to their destined business establishments. It has a more ambitious plan to develop another one of a larger dimension at Ashuganj on the bank of the Meghna River. Under a bilateral “protocol’ signed between Bangladesh and India. Besides. an Inland Container Terminal (ICT) has already been constructed by Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) at Pangaon on the bank of Buriganga River. Private parties should be encouraged to enter this prospective business arena and the Government should provide patronage by extending soft bank loans. a public body showed initiative initially but their efforts could not materialize due to legal and other issues. . Containers can not be carried in any cargo ship. The principal commodity of inter-country trade is Flyash. Private parties are not bold enough to enter an unexplored new business field.000 TEUS after full completion of second phase. India and Nepal in order to promote transit trade between the countries. The Pangaon terminal is also expected to be able to handle the same. Chittagong Port Authority. Present growth trend shows that there shall be no dearth of containers to be transported from the two sea-ports by IWT. delay in procurement of suitable vessels is going to create a hurdle in proper utilization of its facilities. indicative estimate in 2020 being 3. The vessels are required to be purpose-built specially for carrying and handling containers. The scheduled date of its opening is in March-April this year. 4.000 TEUS initially. 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. vested with the responsibility of initiating its operation. inter-country and transit trade using inland waterway routes in Bangladesh is already under way. However no concrete actions in the designated sites are visible.500 thousand tons.provided. etc. is going ahead with providing the handling equipment. It is apparent that even though the ICT at Pangaon is completed by scheduled time. The ICT is envisaged to handle 30. The total ‘protocol’ freight (including Flyash) is showing an increase. In order to further encourage transport of containers by river routes.60. BIWTA is nurturing a plan to open a small-scale ICT at Khanpur on the bank of SitalakhyaRiver on BOT basis. tax holidays/ rebate. which has a good source of supply in Kolkata area and ample demand in Bangladesh.

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. However in accordance with an Agreement between India and Nepal. Not much investment is required to make them suitable for inter-modal transport service. Bangladeshi trucks with export cargo are not allowed to go to Kakravita in Nepal across Indian territory. Finale . is currently in use as a crossing point for traffic and trade with Nepal. Mongla Port handled about 60.This led to an initial assessment of the country’s transport system. Incidentally. Baghabari and Noapara are very prospective inland river ports that can be used as transit and transshipment points for trade with Bhutan. a land port situated at Bangladesh boundary line. The following multi-modal routes using the country’s waterways network have been identified preliminarily: Ashuganj. In a similar manner.300 tons of Nepalese transit cargo in 1997-98. Therefore back-to-back transshipment has to be made into Indian or Nepali trucks at ‘zero point’. India and Nepal. most freight shall require to be carried by railways and inland waterways. but cannot enter into Bangladesh territory. India and Nepal. 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. Chilmari). Cargo destined for Nepal can be transported through Bangladesh by availing facilities in advantageously located Mongla sea-port. With suitable development this service can be in addition to their routine services extended to regular passenger and cargo vessels. There is an opportunity to extend a friendly hand to neighboring land-locked Nepal by allowing use of Bangladesh’s sea-ports. The cumbersome transshipment operation and other unhealthy practices in no man’s land are frustrating the operators. and experts agreed that since the country’s road network has structural and other weaknesses. which fact provides a positive indication of future possibilities. and recent port activities show a gradual decline. The waterway extends to Dhubri (India) where an important and busy river station exists. which is a very thriving commercial center of Bhutan. Nepal: Banglabandha. A 150 km long road in good condition exists from here to Thimpu. its extensive waterways and land ports. A 42 km long road runs from the border to Kakravita. trucks from Nepal can come upto ‘zero point’ of Bangladesh border. Bhutan: There exists an inland waterway route from both Chittagong and Mongla seaports upto Bangladesh border (Daikhawa. a prominent and busy business hub in Nepal. 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.

particularly that of the South-West region. This does not augment well for the country as this will lead to further deterioration of the country’s naturally gifted inland waterways. Such and similar actions are likely to improve existing water-borne traffic and pave the way for multi-modal cargo and container movement. traffic congestions. The potential of the country’s waterways remain untapped.In view of past low priority and comparatively meager allocations given to Inland Water Transport sector. particularly those at Ashuganj. Bhutan. its prospects are yet to be exploited. shall continue to be transported by the waterways. Berthing and handling density may shift from some river ports to others due to changed scenario. deterioration and loss of existing natural assets. Besides being poorly maintained the sector remains heavily under-utilized. This is creating an unhealthy situation in the total Transport Sector leading to its uneven development. import of huge number of road vehicles. etc. Effect of PadmaBridge: The construction of PadmaBridge is expected to change the existing overall traffic pattern of the country. unbalanced investments. The immediate aim should be to arrest further damage to the country’s waterways transport system and maintain it. 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. and other such actions are giving unbalanced impetus upon a single mode of transport to the detriment of other modes. Baghabari and Noapara is likely to encourage goods movement significantly. . India and Nepal. 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. forthcoming PadmaBridge. Augmen- tation of facilities in existing inland river ports. Bulk cargo and POL.000 km. What is required now is a determined political will to set priorities properly considering the country’s present needs and future aspirations.000 km to 6. because of their intrinsic character. at its present level. 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. Completion of a container handling terminal at Pangaon though belated is a great leap forward. The construction of Jamuna and other large bridges. at the least.

a professor of industrial engineering and operations research at the Indian Institute of Technology. and for centuries almost all commerce was carried out on or alongside a river.” said Nitin Gadkari. Union minister for road transport. The idea is of a piece with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s overall affinity towards river projects.” said Narayan Rangaraj. “The idea is to use the coastal line. earlier this week. Now. which will not only bring down fuel consumption but will also generate employment. The country’s name comes from one. but the actual potential is limited. taking passengers and cargo off water and onto land. rivers and inland water to develop a strong water transport network. All of that changed with the arrival of motorways and railways. the shipping ministry is planning a new scheme – the Pradhan Mantri Jal Marg Yojana – that it hopes will revive inland water transport in a country where less than 1 per cent of all inland cargo is travelling by water. In 2005. whether it is the grand plans to rejuvenate the Ganga or the even more ambitious scheme to link all the rivers. There are too many competing needs for water. Bombay. highways and shipping. Rangaraj co-authored a paper for the Asian Development Bank that .Can India take cargo off its roads and put it back onto rivers? Rivers have always been crucial to India. “Sure. many of its foundational myths revolve around another. Yet this multi-pronged focus might be exactly what comes in the way of developing inland water transport in the country. to many it’s an attractive proposition.

with only about 4. On paper.” Rangaraj said.58 per tonne kilometre by highway. because it is fuel-efficient. except where there is a canal system or a river with a tidal component to it. for end-to-end needs.500 kilometres of navigable inland waterways. But that doesn’t mean it can simply replace the other two: the same RITES paper concluded that under the most likely scenario. That’s a huge jump from the current 70 million tonnes. environmentally friendly and often cheaper. The possibility of using inland water for transport.400 kilometres of those coming under officially recognised national waterways. but still a small fraction of the overall freight being transported in India. “If anything. Moving cargo onto the waterways would also save fuel costs and lessen the environmental impact.06 per tonne kilometre. even though water may be environmentally better and the energy put in might be less. ships about 10 per cent of its total freight over water.000 kilometres of navigable inland waterways.41 per tonne kilometre for rail and Rs 2. according to the Inland Waterways Authority of India. as opposed to Rs 1. which has more than 100. In comparison. A study by engineering consultancy RITES concluded last year that moving cargo by inland water transport would only cost Rs 1.considered the viability of inland water transport in India. inland water transport tends to be more appealing than road or rail. the potential traffic that could be diverted onto waterways by 2016-17 – if new and proposed projects are implemented – would be about 186 million tonnes. America sees about 17 per cent of all intercity freight shipped on inland waterways and China. which represents less than 1 per cent of all inland cargo that was transported in India that year. . “Otherwise. These carried approximately 70 million tonnes of cargo in 2011-2012. it’s not really viable. concluding then that it would only be sustainable in certain sectors where the conditions are just right. Bangladesh moves more than 35 per cent of its cargo by water.” India has 14. I believe things have gotten worse since then. for having sufficient draft and viable flow is marginal at best.

“You can even think in terms of a larger industrial policy framework and encourage the growth of industries along waterways.” he said.” The shipping ministry. which the Inland Waterways Authority of India reports to. Automakers. such as along the Ganga. Just as roads have been developed by the public sector. .” Part of the problem. and there is hope that these competing road and rail interests will now be balanced out in favour of a larger integrated policy. the Walchand Hirachand Professor of Transport Economics at Mumbai University. “The only problem one faces here is transshipment. road developers as well as those pushing for the construction of mono and metro rails are encouraging the government into capital-intensive projects that might end up providing the same results as much cheaper waterway options. says the government will need to take the load off the land routes.As more pressure gets put onto our road and railway networks. just as you have developed sea ports? All you will need to do is find out which areas where there will need to be upgrades. S Sriraman. where you can move coal and food grains that are now going by road at a much higher cost. however. but all of our trains go through transshipment points too. “About 65 per cent of freight in our country is moving by road.” he said. such as water taxis and ferries. Why not develop riverine ports. so too should inland waterways. The minister has clearly indicated an added emphasis on developing waterways. It should be much less. any possibility of alternative transport will have to be considered. were the competing interests of those who profit off the roads and railways. Sriraman said. “A lot of freight movement that currently takes place by rail or road should really be moving by inland waterways if they are near places where they don’t really need additional modes to move the goods. now comes under one unified transport ministry headed by Gadkari.