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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 166
April 24, 2010

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Revive the rivers

Ershadul Alam

RIVERS, often called the life lines of the world or more often the blood lines of the human race have always cherished man from cradle to grave. Today's world is the contribution of the rivers as all the civilizations have started their journey from the river banks. Almost all the towns, cities and localities were formed by the bank of the river. The towns and cities where we live in today were developed by the utilization of the offerings of the rivers. In doing so, we have exploited the rivers causing serious injury to them. Bangladesh, especially the city of Dhaka is not an exception to this. Some recent newspaper reports reveal that truth. The rivers around the city are being narrowed and polluted by the insensible human behaviour towards them.

River pollution is a major problem considering our socio-economic and geographical context. All the rivers around Dhaka are more or less polluted which are increasing gradually. The Buriganga is the most polluted river of the country. The dwellers of the city depend on and suffer from the Buriganga in various ways.

Reasons behind river pollution are diverse and various actors are responsible for those harmful activities to the nature and environment. Dumping of wastes, carrier and land grabbing among others may be identified as the reasons behind the pollution and narrowing of rivers.

We have laws, rules and policies on water resource management, though we do not have law especially on rivers and their management which led to river pollution and river grabbing. The rivers are being managed by some existing laws which to some extent inadequate and outdated to handle the river management in these days. To discuss about a few, the Bangladesh Water Development Board Act, 2000 can be mentioned. The Act was enacted to ensure development and management of water resources of the country. In this aspect, the rivers and their management can be covered by this Act. Before the passing of this Act, the Act of 1972 was in operation which was repealed later. Under the provision of this Act (section 3) a board named the Bangladesh Water Development Board is established to perform the activities for efficient development and management of water resources.

The Board under this Act is authorized to monitor the flow of water of the rivers and channels and underground aquifers as well. For efficient water resource management, the Act has provisions to develop standards and guidelines for operation and maintenance of all water management structures and to take all necessary actions and projects to develop the water management. The Act categorizes two types of functions to be taken by the board; the structural and non-structural functions. For development of rivers and water resources, the board can construct dams, barrages, reservoirs, embankments and while on the other side it can break all illegal structures built on the rivers. To ensure the navigability of the water course the Canals Act 1864 deals with the channel which includes river, canal, khal, nala or water, whether natural or artificial.

Under this Act, the government can authorize any person to make and open any navigable channel, or to clear and deepen any navigable channel, and to stop any watercourse, or make any tracking path. Any other acts necessary for the making or improvement of any such channel can be done within the jurisdiction of this Act. Recently, a taskforce formed by the government has identified some bridges on the rivers around the city which have created obstacles of water flow of the rivers. The HC last June issued a set of directives to complete the demolition of illegal structures and remove the debris by November 30 this year. The drive should continue until all illegal structures are demolished. But we followed that the HC had to deliver the directive again on January 24 this year to start the demolition as stipulated by its earlier previous order. Beside the Act, the court at its own motion took the initiative to free the rivers from grabbers which is a step forward made by the High Court to protect the rivers. Concerted actions by all stakeholders can ensure the protection of rivers, which we lag behind. Breaking illegal structures from the rivers, re-excavation and de-siltation of the rivers done by the authority formed under the Act of 2000 should be guided by a sustainable strategy which in the long run will ensure a proper river management standard.

Before the passing of the Act of 2000, we have got in hand a policy on protection and development of environment of the country. The objectives of the Policy are to delineate some guiding principles for protection and development of environment. In the Policy, we do not see any special focus on river management or protecting the rivers from pollution. However, in clause 3.5 of the policy we see some reflections on water development, flood control and irrigation while clause 3.5.5 of the policy particularly stated about protection, management and development of the water bodies. To give effect to the Policy of 1992, the Conservation of Environment Act was passed in 1995 which has given special focus on the formation of an authority to deal with the issues on environment and its protection. We, in this Act like the previous Act and Policy, find no special attention on the river issue. But specific provisions are there on imposing restrictions on vehicles emitting smoke injurious to health and environment. It was very realistic to impose such restrictions upon the vehicles in those days, because in the 1990s, air pollution was a vital issue of environment concern. But today water pollution, especially the river pollution is added to it with more signs of dangers to life. Application of remedial, corrective and preventive measures in a more coordinated way is required to save the rivers from polluters and grabbers. The authority set up under the Act of 1995 has scope to take both remedial and corrective measures against the polluters under section 4, 7, 8 and 9. The Act of 1995 carries the legacy of the Act of 1997 (Environmental Pollution Control Ordinance) and the Act of 1970 (The East Pakistan Water Pollution Control Ordinance 1970). To try the offences under the above laws, the government has enacted the Environment Court Act, 2000. The Court established under the law has jurisdiction to try the offences under the Act of 1995 or any other law regulating environment in Bangladesh.

Even with all these laws in hand; pollution and illegal occupation of rivers are going unabated throughout the years as if the polluters and the grabbers are above laws. But stricter actions as initiated by the highest court of the country will protect rivers from death. To do so, a coordinated approach by all concerned is needed. Both long term and short-term processes should be there to manage the rivers and their resources. Implementation of law and above all social awareness is necessary to protect the rivers from death.


The writer is an advocate and researcher.


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