The government is working on a mega plan to connect five rivers surrounding greater Dhaka with the River Jamuna, remove polluting industries from riverbanks, construct circular road and rail routes, and create a green belt.
All these are part of an integrated blueprint to make Dhaka livable again by improving traffic management and protecting the environment.
All government agencies, from Dhaka Wasa to Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), will work under an umbrella with support from the World Bank and public-private investment to implement such projects.
In this way, with no authority of a government agency in taking up a project in Dhaka independently, duplication in projects can be prevented and those unnecessary ones can be avoided, according to government officials.
First and foremost, 141 cubic metres of water will be brought to the Buriganga, Shitalakhya, Balu, Turag, Dhaleshwari from Jamuna in the upstream during the dry season.
Excavation of the river basin followed by regular maintenance dredging in the upstream is necessary to ensure water flow to the rivers during dry season. The Water Development Board and the BIWTA are expected to work jointly on the issue.
The Prime Minister's Office is working with the relevant ministries to formulate the master plan to ensure sustainable river-centric development.
The World Bank has already formulated a draft Terms of Reference for conducting technical assistance surveys for the proposed master plan.
The government will shift polluting industries on riverbanks to special economic zones to stop pollution and force others remaining there to set up effluent treatment plants (ETP), according to the terms of reference.
For building ETPs, the factories will be provided with low-interest loans and tax rebates, it added, prescribing fines for river polluters.
Under the master plan, an 88-kilometre stretch of circular road and circular rail will be constructed around Dhaka city.
Initially, six bridges on the circular waterway will be renovated so that 25-foot high water vessels can move beneath them. Five more bridges having a height of 40 feet will be rebuilt later.
The BIWTA is now implementing a project to build a 72km walkway adjacent to the five surrounding rivers. Construction of the remaining 150km of walkways, creation of green belt and ancillary facilities on the two banks of the circular waterway will also be included in the programme.
The government will also work on restoring groundwater resources with the Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) in conjunction with Integrated Water Resource Management.
The MAR, refers to the intentional recharge of water to aquifers for subsequent use.
The artificial recharge of groundwater aims to augment water storage of the aquifer by modifying the natural movement of surface water and utilising suitable civil construction techniques.
The public health and engineering department and Dhaka WASA may work together to pilot the option.
The ministries will carry out integrated development activities under this master plan by trimming various ongoing river-centric projects around Dhaka.
But high government officials fear project repetition, mismanagement and waste of money in many ongoing projects of various ministries and agencies.
A high-level meeting chaired by Ahmad Kaikaus, principal secretary to the prime minister, has decided not to approve any development projects centred on these rivers before finalising the master plan.
Top executives from ministries and agencies concerned, including the finance ministry, the local government ministry, the water resources ministry, the shipping ministry, attended the meeting.
Top government officials believe there will not be enough passengers for the circular waterway once metro rail and flyovers open to traffic.
They have also questioned the rationale of investing such a huge amount of money in constructing circular railways and roads along the rivers.
The government has decided to conduct a detailed survey to introduce a sustainable transport system centred on the rivers around Dhaka. Besides, the government will fix the roles of different agencies involved after assessing environmental and economic issues under a technical project.
A high-level committee, headed by the PMO, has decided to stop all the ongoing projects related to the river-based transport system around Dhaka prior to getting the survey report.
On 31 October, the Economic Relations Department (ERD) sent the proposed master plan's draft Terms of Reference prepared by the World Bank to various ministries.
According to the World Bank, "The environmental, health and economic costs associated with river pollution are estimated to be around $2.83 billion annually and it has been estimated that, without any action, the total financial loss because of river pollution will reach $51 billion over the next 20 years."
Industrial waste accounts for around 60% of pollution in the surrounding rivers and Dhaka city corporation drainage lines for 15%, while petroleum discharge from ships and launches and other reasons are responsible for 10% of river pollution, the World Bank said.
In fact, the five rivers receive about 60,000 cubic metres of toxic wastes discharged mainly from nine major industrial clusters – Tongi, Hazaribagh, Tejgaon, Tarabo, Narayanganj, Savar, Gazipur, Dhaka Export Processing Zone and Ghorashal.
Ahmad Kaikaus said, "There are duplications in the proposed projects and we have to prevent waste of public money by avoiding those."
Commenting on the need for a technical survey on the circular waterway, he said, "The division concerned was reviewing the project from its own point of view. But an overall survey is needed before making a decision on such an important issue."
Several top officials who participated in the meeting questioned the viability of investing such a huge amount of money in constructing the circular railways and roads along the rivers.
Mohammad Mezbah Uddin Chowdhury, secretary of the shipping ministry, said, "With the introduction of metro rail and flyovers inside Dhaka, passengers will not be interested in commuting by water transport."
The meeting decided to undertake a specific project only after a detailed survey. In this case, the implementation of projects that have not yet started at the field level will be stopped for the time being.
Separate studies conducted by the Accident Research Institute of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) and the World Bank found that the speed of vehicles in Dhaka has come down to walking speed owing to a lack of roads in Dhaka, given a growing population.
According to the studies, traffic congestion in Dhaka is behind a loss of $3-5 billion annually. However, according to the government, the loss is $7.05 billion a year, or about 2% of GDP.
Experts say many unnecessary projects are being taken up owing to a lack of coordination among different government agencies.
They have called for coordinating the transport system to avoid losses.
Shamsul Haque, a Civil Engineering professor at Buet, told The Business Standard, "Estimating an equal number of passenger movement, different government agencies come up with a separate project design but for a similar route. Separately, these projects seem viable, but when we combine those, there is nothing but duplication and a waste of public money."
For example, work is underway on the Dhaka Elevated Expressway to create alternative arrangements to avoid traffic jams from the south to the north in Dhaka. The Madanpur-Debogram-Bhulta-Joydebpur four-lane project is being implemented for almost the same purpose. At the same time, Hatirjheel (Rampura Bridge) -Shekherjaiga-Amulia-Demra Road development project is being taken up, he pointed out.
Zahid Hussain, former lead economist at the World Bank's Dhaka office, said it is more important to ask the question: Do we have the capacity to implement so many projects?
"None of the projects in Dhaka and its surrounding areas are being implemented properly as more projects have been taken up than the capacity. As a result, project costs are increasing," he also said.
However, there has been no progress in reducing traffic congestion and people's suffering, he added.
He further said the authorities should take up top priority projects first, which will save money, human resources and help completing the projects soon.