The government should reduce tax and VAT on river dredging equipment to boost private sector participation in this development sector, which in turn will help improve the environment as well, stakeholders said at a webinar on Saturday.
This move is necessary as Bangladesh lacks adequate river training, capacity building, and sustainable dredging initiatives keeping social, economic and environmental factors in perspective, they said.
At the event, organised by the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) titled "Sustainable River Dredging: Challenges and Way forward," experts also drew attention to the government's lack of a master plan and adequate budget for river management.
DCCI President Rizwan Rahman said, "Bangladesh is a riverine country and the waterways play a diverse role in our economy. But the number of rivers is decreasing due to siltation and stream flow reduction.
"This is affecting the waterways, which is the cheapest means of transportation here. Navigable and well-managed waterways will help facilitate cross-border trade growth with neighbouring nations."
He added that Bangladesh used to have 24,000km of waterways, but the number has dropped to 6,000km in monsoon and 3,600km during droughts.
"It is impacting the economic and ecological state of our country. It is high time to improve the waterways through dredging for the sake of our industrial and socio-economic development, as Bangladesh is scheduled to become a developing country by 2026," Rizwan said.
Providing some recommendations, Rizwan continued, "The government should include river dredging programmes into fast-track development projects. Import duty, vat and advance import tax on dredging machineries should be rationalised to encourage private and foreign investments in this sector.
Presenting the keynote, BRAC University's Professor Emeritus Ainun Nishat said, "Current dredging operations must be evaluated immediately. Dredging should be done in a sustainable manner so that the economy can benefit from it. Rivers not only carry water, but life too.
"There are two types of dredging operations – maintenance and capital. Maintenance dredging must receive a special emphasis for ensuring efficient river management, and the government should prepare a master plan for this move."
He added, "The authorities should invest more on dredging and desilting projects, and the private sector can play a major role here. The Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model will be useful for initiatives such as river dredging, sand extraction, land recovery, land accretion and land reclamation.
"Bangladesh needs to create skilled manpower and update the rules and guidelines for sand dredging. Authorities should implement the rules strictly."
Speaking as the chief guest, State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury said the government is making a serious effort on the river management sector in accordance with the Delta Plan.
He further said, "We must manage our rivers through efficient dredging as these are our natural assets. We had recently increased the Mongla Port's capacity, and this move is now helping to ease the pressure on Chittagong port.
"We are also working to make 10,000km of inland waterways navigable. We will soon procure 35 more dredgers for faster excavation.
The state minister continued, "We have brought transparency in dredging projects by installing a real-time monitoring system. We have also made the tendering process more transparent as well.
"However, we have limitations and challenges. So, I am urging the private sector to come forward with more investments for this sector."
Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industries' (FBCCI) former president Md Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin said, "I am urging authorities concerned to curb inconsistencies at the policy level to help make the private sector more confident."
Mohiuddin also spoke in favour of boosting coordination among the stakeholders and related government departments, making the tendering process more disciplined.