In a country where almost all of its rivers are polluted, doubt remains regarding the efficacy of verdicts such as granting legal status
Although Bangladesh is home to the largest delta, the Ganges, and is a land of rivers, it is ironic that there are no exact data on how many rivers flow inside the country and how many it has lost over the years.
A country which not only survives but thrives on rivers, today struggles to protect itself from the powerful, influential and politically connected encroachers.
Despite Bangladesh surviving on rivers for multiple resources such as food and transport, using them as a dumpster is a well accepted practice. River pollution is a key challenge of the day.
Highlighting the current state of affairs of rivers across the world, and their importance in the soon-to-arrive water crisis due to climate change and human interference, World Rivers Day is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of September every year. This year the theme of this day is “Rights of the Rivers.”
How much impact can a landmark verdict have?
Bangladesh has one of the most progressive laws in the world to protect its rivers. Starting with the National River Protection Commission Law 2013, emphasis on laws on river protection has been there time and again, related to shipping and land.
However, the latest High Court verdict in 2019 sealed the deal granting all the rivers of Bangladesh a legal status in court - meaning the rivers are now regarded as “living entities” in the eyes of the law just as human beings are.
After this landmark judgement, the National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) has been given the authority to act as the legal guardian of these natural estuaries, and granted the authority to sue any party encroaching on the rivers in order to protect water bodies, canals, swamps, shorelines, hills and forests.
But in a country where almost all of its chief rivers are polluted in various degrees with industrial waste and drainage leading into rivers, doubt remains regarding the efficacy of such verdicts.
Meanwhile, almost every river around Dhaka city is dwindling in the cat-and-mouse game of illegal grabbing and eviction, besides pollution.
Sayeed Ahmed Kabir, a Supreme Court advocate and a member of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), said this law supported the long standing movement geared to protecting rivers.
“For a country like Bangladesh, it is undoubtedly a brave verdict. NRCC, the organization tasked with protecting the rivers, did not have any autonomy. In fact, it only had the power to make recommendations. We have been demanding giving it more power for a long period of time, and this verdict did just that, given it outstanding authority to sue encroachers,” he said.
Since the law came into effect, the city corporation authorities - both in Dhaka and Chittagong - initiated major drives to save rivers and evicted hundreds of illegal structures built near rivers. In the Annual Report 2018, NRCC provided a district-level list of 49,558 illegal grabbers without disclosing their names to the public.
‘We fail to appreciate the blessings of nature’
The NRCC has been trying to conduct a national river census to end the debate once and for all about the number of rivers in the country. Meanwhile, progress made by the Bangladesh Space Research and Remote Sensing Organization (Sparrso) project in calculating the accurate number of rivers via satellite mapping is unknown.
According to its Annual Report of 2018, of the 724 rivers that it collected data on from the divisional commissioners, it claimed 194 were free from pollution. Of the most polluted ones, the Padma, Meghna, Bangshi, Buriganga, Turag, Balu, Dhaleshwari, and Ichhamoti topped the list.
Joint Secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (Bapa) Iqbal Habib stressed that connecting the people with river-saving initiatives was the dire need of the hour.
“There is no point in activists like me screaming ‘Save the River’ if people do not relate with the cause. I have been doing this for many years, but unless you make people see that a river is an entity that benefits all, and saving it is not just a cause of the elites, they will not come running to claim their stakes.”
“Sometimes we just don’t realize how blessed we are by nature,” the renowned activist added.