Government projects focusing on the protection of rivers have been moving forward at an extraordinary rate since last year.
As guidance tools, such projects are using the Delta Plan-2100 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the National River Conservation Commission's (NRCC) Reference Report on Rivers.
The main objective of these guidance tools is to restore the navigability of water bodies and additionally, to restore natural reservoirs of fresh water that will lessen dependency on ground water reserves.
The Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) and Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) are key players in the ongoing initiative.
Speaking to The Business Standard, NRCC Chairman Dr Muzibur Rahman Howlader said, "River protection – which not only means eviction drives and dredging, but also pollution control – must continue under an umbrella project."
Although the commission plays an advisory role, more than one High Court observation in 2019 declared the NRCC as a "person in loco parentis" [Latin for "in the place of a parent"] for rivers across the country.
In its Annual Report 2018, the NRCC provided a district-level list of 49,558 illegal grabbers. The report also includes 124 recommendations and directions.
On December 25, 2018, the government launched the implementation of the 1st-phase of Delta Plan-2100. According to the plan, 88 rivers, 352 canals and eight water bodies across the country would be re-excavated to retain navigability by the end of 2020.
According to Kabir Bin Anwar, secretary of the water resources ministry, around 700 acres of river land have been reclaimed and more than 4,000 illegal establishments were removed till January 23 this year.
The water resources ministry is spearheading the Delta Plan-2100, while the Water Resources Management and Development Committees in 64 districts are handling implementation.
A district deputy commissioner leads each committee, which is comprised of representatives from the BWDB, Local Government and Engineering Department, Roads and Highways Department, Bangladesh Railway, Department of Environment, Agricultural Extension Department, Department of Fisheries, BIWTA and green activists.
"It took us one year to prepare the list of illegal grabbers. We have started conservation of the water bodies across 64 districts in a planned manner. We are lucky that the people are supporting us in evicting the illegal grabbers," Kabir said on the eve of the International Day of Action for Rivers.
The BIWTA has been conducting eviction drives following a separate list of illegal establishments.
During 2019 and onwards, the BIWTA has evicted around 8,000 illegal establishments, including concrete and semi-concrete structures in Dhaka and Narayanganj, which are the two top industry-intensive districts in the country.
"Around 162 acres of river land was reclaimed in the BIWTA drives," said Kazi Wakil Nawaz, director (port) of BIWTA.
He also added that as an additional duty, the BIWTA would facilitate a private initiative of installing water filters along the Buriganga River.
"To control dumping of sewage into the Buriganga, we are going to install two filters on March 17 this year. If the government endorses the initiative, BIWTA will continue such efforts," Nawaz added.
Meanwhile, NRCC Chairman Muzibur Rahman Howlader emphasised on a holistic approach and said the ongoing river protection drives are a positive sign.
"River protection is not merely the eviction of illegal grabbers. All the eviction and excavation projects will go in vain if river pollution continues unabated. As there are strong environmental laws, the authorities concerned should implement them and punish the offenders," said Muzibur.
He added that making a proper list of illegal grabbers would be possible if the river boundary is demarcated following a hydrological survey, which has not been done yet.
A hydrological survey determines a river boundary with the river's high watermark, foreshore and floodplain area.
The NRCC, with support from Space Research and Remote Sensing Organization, is conducting a survey to prepare a complete database on the country's water bodies.