Trade utilising the inland water transport (IWT) services can serve as one of the key factors for economic recovery in Bangladesh, as well as in South Asia. But lower navigability and inadequate infrastructure at river ports are now the biggest challenges faced by the country.
Despite having a huge potential, the IWT sector could not grow properly due to the lack of waterway maintenance for years, speakers said at a webinar titled "Promoting Inland Waterways: Prospects and Challenges," organised by Unnayan Shamannay on Tuesday.
Presenting the keynote paper, the organisation's Research Officer Ayan Soofi said, "The waterways have remained under-invested due to a policy priority for improving the road network.
"Our study found that Bangladesh had allocated Tk1,04,161 crore for road development and maintenance between FY2010-11 and FY2019-20, while the allocation was nearly eight times lower for the IWT sector at only Tk13,084 crore."
He continued, "Most of the urban centres and industrial belts are located close to the river network, but Bangladesh is yet to fully utilise the massive potential of waterways. However, the government has recently prioritised improving the IWT sector, and taken infrastructure projects in this regard.
"Cargo transportation through the IWT sector increased by 2.60 times in 2019-20, compared to 2017-18. Thus, it can be said that the use of IWT is increasing. But the movement of cargo is still not increasing as expected, due to the high dependency on roadway-based connectivity."
Addressing the webinar, economist and former governor of the Bangladesh Bank Atiur Rahman said, "In the post-covid world, inland waterway trading will become more important in South Asia.
"Eighty percent of the total investments for economic recovery are going to the developed countries. Whereas the foreign direct investments in developing countries have gone down by 12%. Under the circumstances, there is no alternative to increasing regional trading between the South Asian nations."
Bangladesh must make inland waterway transport easier and more cost-effective, he recommended.
On the issue, Bangladesh Cargo Vessel Owners' Association Executive Director Mahbub Uddin Ahmed (Bir Bikram) said, "I am urging all stakeholders, especially the international development partners, to come together to attain this goal, because every nation will benefit through the enhancement of inland waterway trade and transportation."
Soma Mitra, director, Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kolkata) highlighted the possibility of reducing pressure on the Benapole land port by facilitating waterway transportation in the north-eastern part of West Bengal.
International trade expert Prithviraj Nath said whenever taking initiatives to facilitate waterway connectivity, the stakeholders should consider the environmental and social impacts of those initiatives with utmost caution.
Speakers also emphasised the need for up-to-date and reliable data to assess the viability of waterway connectivity, gaining the confidence of business communities, as well as launching more pilot voyages to assess the risks and taking actions accordingly.