Many noteworthy civilisations through the pages of history have used waterways as the lifeline to prosperity. Both the broader Bengal region and subsequently Bangladesh are no exception. Merchants from faraway continents such as Europe and America have been able to amass a fortune on Bengali lands in this way.

According to the book Maritime and Riverine Insight Bangladesh by Syed Ariful Islam, former head of Bangladesh’s water transport regulatory body, the Department of Shipping, during 16th century Mughal rule in South Asia the eastern province of Bengal had significant shipbuilding tonnage. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the annual output of Bengal alone was more than 2.2 million tons. To put this in context, Bengal’s shipbuilding tonnage was more than the combined output of the Dutch, British and North American shipyards.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, the mighty rivers of Bengal became part of the mythos that spearheaded the liberation movement of Bangladesh. The firebrand Bengali slogan during the pre-liberation years was “Tomar amar thikana, Padma-Meghna-Jamuna,” which translates to “Our Home Lies at Padma, Meghna and Jamuna Rivers,” the three rivers that are at the heart of today’s Bangladesh.

Waterways as the central agenda of a new country

Bangladesh came into being as a sovereign state after a long political struggle and a bloody war of independence in 1971. The emancipation struggle was politically articulated by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Bangabandhu, who would go on to become the founding father of the country. Because of his rural upbringing, Mujib was well aware of the economic linkage between the rivers and the people.

A bulkhead boat being commercially used | Photo by Kajal Abdullah

After the country’s independence in 1971, the first administration, led by Mujib, established several water-related regulatory institutions, namely the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation, the Joint River Commission (for trans-boundary water management) and the Water Development Board of Bangladesh. Under his efforts, the Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act 1974 was enacted – this was eight years before the United Nations formulated its own territorial waters delineation treaty, the United Nations Convention on the Law of The Sea (1982). As a premier, Mujib kept the highly important water ministry under his control, a common practice in South Asian executive governance.

In five decades since independence, Bangladesh has had a good record with regard to making laws and regulations. As of 2020, Bangladesh had ratified 29 conventions of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations’ specialised agency for regulating shipping. But have these ratifications reaped any results? The answers lie in deep-dives.

The evolution of the waterways

In February 2019, the highest court in Bangladesh declared that rivers were living entities and involved living persons. It asked for a holistic approach to protect rivers from encroachment and pollution, two major problems in the rivers of today’s Bangladesh. This was a landmark directive.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh’s navigable waterway stretched 12,000 km in 1960. In a short span of just five decades, the stretch has halved. According to a World Bank report in 2007, three-fourths of all commercial activities in Bangladesh occur within 10 km radius of a navigable waterway.

Complexities of the shipping sector

Bangladesh’s shipping industry consists of two segments: informal and formal. The size and nature of the informal sector have not been thoroughly evaluated. On the other hand, the formal shipping sector has various components. Within this, domestic shipping consists of coastal and inland shipping and international shipping is highly formalised under standard regulations.

Domestic shipping – coastal and inland water transportation – has been overlooked in Bangladesh. It is anticipated that, if personal boats are accounted for, Bangladesh has the largest fleet in the world. According to Bangladesh’s regulatory agency, the Department of Shipping, the country has a 27,000-strong fleet that is formally registered. The number of non-registered ships and boats is surely several times more.

The historical data tell us that Bangladesh is not exploiting the comparative advantages of inland water transport (IWT). For instance, a look at the container handling data from 2019 shows that only 1% of inland cargo was handled via inland waterways system.

In terms of cargo transportation via inland waterway networks, the scenario is somewhat better. In 2018, according to research firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), some 76 million tons of cargo was transported through Bangladesh’s inland water network. To put this in context, Bangladesh’s inland waterway cargo accounts for about 61% of the country’s total imports.

On the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index (LPI), Bangladesh underperforms when compared with most other coastal countries of Asia. The LPI score is determined based on indicators related to infrastructure, logistics competence, tracking capacity, timeliness and competitive pricing. With regard to the aggregated LPI score from 2012 to 2018 among 36 coastal countries of Asia, Bangladesh’s rank was 31. Comparator countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Cambodia, Lebanon and Oman performed better than Bangladesh.

Inland waterways policy imperatives

During the 2020 covid-19 pandemic, when the supply logistics chain was disrupted, the inland water transport (IWT) sector acted as the backbone of the Bangladesh supply chain system. Interestingly, unlike with other modes of transport, this did not stop activities for a single day during the pandemic.

Bangladesh is blessed with world’s most extensive IWT network.

Bangladesh is blessed with world’s most extensive IWT network. It is cost effective, eco-friendly and less accident-prone than other modes of transport. Despite this potential, Bangladesh has not been able to extract the best results from this network. To address this, we need to look at some gaps and solutions.

Outdated regulations: The two core laws for regulating inland shipping are more than 35 years old.[1] These need to be updated by addressing the design, licensing, construction, operation and maintenance of IWT vessels.

Inadequate budget allocation: IWT has the lowest budget allocation of all transport sectors. In FY2020-2021, for example, IWT received only 7% of transport investment – the lowest of all. This allocation should be increased as per the sector’s potential.

Issues with inter-ministry coordination: More than a dozen government agencies in Bangladesh are directly involved with rivers and IWT. However, these are not aligned through real-time information. An integrated and common dynamic dashboard for regulators could reduce the overlapping nature of tasks and significantly decrease decision-making time. This would help in formulating an impactful coordination plan. It could also significantly boost the revenue exchequer and strengthen Bangladesh’s e-Governance agenda.

The need for human resources with digital monitoring tools: Bangladesh’s regulatory body for inland shipping, the Department of Shipping, is highly under-resourced. It is reported that there are only four surveyors responsible for inspecting over 27,000 registered vessels, in addition to innumerable unregistered bulkheads and engine boats. As a result, the standard of the services provided, such as vessel inspection, is highly compromised. A digital central monitoring system would also inject efficiency into the survey mechanism.

The multi-layered structure of the IWT system: The IWT logistics system in Bangladesh is unsophisticated and informal. Most of the business deals in this sector are done orally. This sector is centred around intermediaries, who distort markets and increase the cost. The vessel owners and shipping staff have formed informal unions and associations, which in turn regulate market operations. Inland vessel booking is controlled by syndicates and brokers, which practice interrupts competitively priced shipments. Building capacity and digitising the sector would significantly reduce the inefficiencies induced by intermediaries. The quality of IWT infrastructure can to be improved through digital monitoring, vessel booking and inland vessel tracking using GSM infrastructure.

Lack of protection of workers: in Bangladesh, most shipping staff enter the sector without any training and formal recognition. Water navigation is a high-risk trade but staff do not have any job accident insurance. This could be redressed through a policy intervention.

The environmental factor: According to a World Bank report of 2020, the social costs of annual CO2 emissions from inter-district road freight transport in Bangladesh is equivalent to 1.2% of the country’s GDP. One policy solution is to focus on transportation modes with lesser carbon emission. If traffic is redirected to the waters, this would be a big boost for the environment.

Unregistered bulkheads: Bulkheads are like the rickshaws of the inland waterways. They are locally and informally built across Bangladesh and most of them are unregistered. Their designs are not standardised, and they are poorly equipped with almost no navigation gears. They are not registered under any regulatory body. They are comparatively vulnerable, because of faulty electric wiring, and have no master bridge. An estimated 100,000 bulkheads operate commercially across Bangladesh. Bulkheads need to be regulated through a formal registration process.

Poor communication system for bulkheads: According to estimates for 2014 from Bangladesh’s Department of Shipping, mobile phones are the main source of communication for 97% vessels. Only 0.1% of vessels use radio on inland waterways. As such, GSM technology can play a vital role in vessel tracking and communication. Mobile operators struggle to provide network coverage in some major commercial waterway points. Advanced communication technologies like Vehicle Tracking Services may be feasible for inland vessels, especially bulkheads. Low-cost and dedicated tracking devices to monitor inland vessels can also be introduced. For instance, innovations like those of Jahaji, a Bangladeshi company that has built a dedicated vessel tracking device for inland waterways, which uses low-cost external antenna tech, could be encouraged.

Need for an IWT knowledge hub: Inland water transport (IWT) sector in Bangladesh is not data- and evidence-driven. Threats to national security from the waterways are a transnational problem in South Asia. A database of ships and shipping staff will reduce such threats as well as criminal acts. Analytic decisions based on real-time big data could help in developing a dynamic knowledge hub for the IWT sector. A knowledge hub will also effectively help in formulating sector strategies.

Water is the new strength

The scenario is changing. Some drawbacks of the inland waterway sector are gradually being addressed. In Bangladesh, all-inclusive delta development and harnessing of the blue economy were first prioritised in 1996. From 2008, the work was kickstarted. In 2014, Bangladesh settled disputes with its two neighbours, India and Myanmar, and won 119,000 km2 of maritime area in the southern Bay of Bengal. This vast new territory has opened new doors for a flourishing blue economy that could harness marine resources.

Bangladesh has already adopted measures for the sustainable use of marine resources under its long-term Delta Plan 2100. The technical support in this policy formulation was provided by none other than the Netherlands, a country well known for the sustainable use of its water resources. In 2013, Bangladesh took a path-breaking initiative and established its first university, University Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Maritime University, to study and research the sea. As a boost to the knowledge economy, the university is the third maritime university in South Asia and the 12th maritime university in the world.

The government’s current planning approach is to protect the entire water ecosystem, which includes rivers, estuaries and the sea. The rivers have been the life of deltaic Bangladesh but the waterways have lost their glory largely because of policy neglect. However, they continue to play an important role in the socio-economic lives of Bangladeshis.

Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, once told prominent development consultant Julian Francis that rivers were the lifeline of the country. This lifeline needs restoration. The primacy of inland water transport (IWT) of Bangladesh has to be restored. This could be done through technology interventions and data analytics-driven decision-making.

[1] Inland Shipping Ordinance 1976 and Bangladesh Merchant Shipping Ordinance 1983

Kajal Abdullah is CEO and Co-Founder of Jahaji Ltd. He is a tech entrepreneur. He is a guest lecturer at the University of Dhaka. He was CEO of 1971: Genocide-Torture Archive & Museum, the only genocide museum in South Asia. He worked at Bangladesh government’s a2i programme, BBC and BRAC. He pursued his graduate studies at the University of Dhaka and a media fellowship at RNTC, Netherlands.