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Water: The lifeblood of all Bangladesh

Interview - May 12, 2015

United World sits down with the Honorable Minister of Water Resources, Mr. Anisul Islam Mahmud to discuss his priorities as Minister and the importance of rehabilitation and rejuvenation of Bangladesh’s waterways.


You are quite unique as you are a Minister and also a member of the opposition. How did that come to be?

This is not something very unusual, it exists in many countries. In Germany now you do not have any opposition as such because both major parties are in the government.  What happens normally in an election is that the party which wins wants to get the full benefits of it. And they keep the government to themselves and do not share it with others. There is nothing in the Constitution which says they cannot do it. And it is the Prime Minister who makes the cabinet and therefore she has the charge. If another particular political party wants to cooperate with it, they can. So in that way there is no problem. They cooperate with the government because if only do they get the chance in being the opposition in the Parliament, but they also get influence in every sphere of the government.

So I have given you the example of Germany, one of the most democratic and transparent countries that you can have. They do not have any opposition as such. In terms of war and other issues, they always have a national government which is responsive. However, it does not stop our party from criticizing if anything goes wrong in the functioning of the government.

The government has the 2021 vision of becoming a middle-income country. This goal is really possible if disaster management and things like water management and water resources, are managed correctly. In terms of moving towards that vision, how does your Ministry fit in? What are your plans of action? 

The water in Bangladesh is one of the most capable resources. But when you talk about the rivers, it is also a big problem because most of the time what happens is that when you need the water, mostly during the crises, we do not have much as many of our big rivers dry. On the other hand, during the monsoons we have excessive water and this ends up in floods.

Bangladesh reserves 7% of the total catchment area of the 3 rivers which passes through its territory, which are the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the Padma. This rest is about 3% that lies in India, Nepal, Bhutan and partly in China. So we have a problem, because even if we want to have better management of our rivers and water, it is not always possible as what happens in the upstream affects us a lot. This is why we are now talking about regional cooperation where each river has to be managed as one unit.

When we talk of disasters we are talking of disasters in many senses: floods, cyclones and storm surges. Cyclones and storm-surges are impossible to control, especially cyclones. We can control storm-surges and we do it by building embankments in places that are low. So we have been doing these things extensively and in fact, for our food security and also to prevent flooding, we have raised a lot of embankments along the rivers. We have also built many retaining walls, and then above all we have developed a few big irrigation projects: the Teesta project, which is our largest project, the G.K. project and then the Kobadak project, in the coastal area.

We have lots of irrigation projects which are contributing quite a lot to manage the water. During the floods they help us achieve food security, for which we also get aid from our Rice Research Institute. They are developing crops which are flood resistance: as the flood water goes up the crop does it as well. They have also developed some crops which require less water, so that we can produce during winters. Then they have also come up with crops which have a shorter maturity process, so they are not lost in case of early floods. So we are doing this type of innovations. We were a food deficit country and today we pour about 2 to 3 million tons of rice and we are more or less self-sufficient. In fact we are also exporting some rice into Sri Lanka, we have already about 3,000 tons there and another amount will be probably exported to India.

However, we also have long term problems regarding climate change. The prediction, which people are still investigating, is that by the end of 2100 there will be a 0.8 meter raise in the sea level. If the sea level raises by that amount and everything remains as it is, almost one-third of the countries are going to be underwater. That is the reason why we are making plans and redesigning our embankments so that we can deal with this rise. Many of them are going to be renovated.

In Bangladesh everyone knows that the biggest catastrophes are the cyclones and the floods. But there is another one which I think is more dangerous and has been happening almost every year: the loss of land next to rivers and oceans as the banks get eroded. Every year we lose thousands of hectares of land and almost 15,000 people have been displaced. These displaced people are in fact a lot of the floating population that you see in Dhaka. In fact, around 30% of them are these victims of land erosion. Land erosion is more dangerous because with the floods and the cyclones, at least the land stays there. But with land erosion, land is gone. It is very difficult to solve this because of the high density of population. These displaced people are excluded from the society and it is distressing for everyone. So now we are giving a lot of emphasis and investment in preventing land erosion. In fact, we are going to have a very big project to strengthen the right bank of Jamuna river from the place it enters into Bangladesh till the Jamuna Bridge. We are going to strengthen it so that this erosion stops.

We also have another problem, which is the question of certainty. The rivers that you see here are 20 km wide, from one side you will not see the other and there is not 1 channel, but multiple channels. Regularly the rivers are really difficult. I am saying that we are going to improve and stabilize one bank, but still it is going to be very difficult to bring it to a manageable width. The problem is that we get about 1.5 billion tons of soil from the river system that flows from the Himalayas, India, Bhutan, Nepal, etc. and also increases deforestation. These 1.5 billion tons of silk is a huge amount. In our country there are not many rocky formations, the entire thing is mostly kind of a swamp, and soil. So if you have 1.5 billion tons coming, even if you take even 10% it is a huge amount and the river rises. As it rises it goes to one of its sides as the water has to find its own space. So these are problems and we are looking into them and stabilizing them. 

These are massive undertakings in terms of construction. What sort of agencies or partnerships do you use for the construction?

We have an agency called Water Development Board. They come up with the projects and make the designs; then we get resources from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Government of Bangladesh as well. Once we have got the resources, we employ private contractors. Sometimes they use the armed forces to do some of the job.

The monsoon brings huge amounts of water but until now through the embankments we have reduced the probability of floods. Last year there was a tremendous amount of water coming down but we had an overflow in only one place, in the northern side. Of course there have been other overflows in other places, and because of lack of resources we cannot do embankments the way they do it in America. There they build all the structures and then cover them with hard materials like rocks. Here we cannot do it because it is very costly. I will give you an example: to protect one meter of the river bank, where it erodes, it costs about 7 thousand dollars. If I do it with international contracts it would cost me 3 times more.  It is 7 thousand dollars per meter. If you are doing one kilometer is 7 million dollars. We are somehow doing our job reducing the probability of floods, protecting lowlands from water entering, and we are having these irrigation projects where we try to prevent the floods during the rainy season and then try to get water during the dry season. 

The private contractors that are carrying on the work obtained the contracts through the Water Development Board. What is the role of the Ministry in the coordination of these agencies? 

In the northeastern side there are particularly low-lying lands. Round the year there is a very small pillar of land where you can produce. But even these crops are not really predictable because sometimes what happens is that the land is too wet. So we do small infrastructures, so if there is an early flood it can pass over. On the other hand, if there is a low amount of water then your crop is over. So we have developed submersible structures, even for transportation we are now making submersible roads in those areas, because If you make non-submersible roads there is water stagnation.

The national water policy was designed in 2010. What would you say the main focus of the policy is?

The main focus now is keeping the rivers alive. Lots of rivers have been illegally used while many of them have the saltation process and we did not do continuous dredging, which we should have done. In this water policy the main focus is on dredging and keeping the rivers alive. Rivers are the main channel of transportation, specifically of the food production. So we have to keep alive these rivers and now we are putting lots of emphasis on dredging while protecting our existing structures: the irrigation project, the embankments and the polders that we are trying to rehabilitate.