Posted July 11, 2019
Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme
The Bangladeshi Supreme Court recently ruled that rivers have legal rights. The decision aims to protect the rivers from increased environmental strain in a densely populated country. Bangladesh is the fourth country to give its waterways legal rights, following similar rulings in India, Colombia and New Zealand. The verdict gives the Rivers Conservation Commission – which is now the legal guardian of Bangladeshi rivers – the power to take strong action against people and businesses that pollute or illegally dredge rivers. At the same time, however, Bangladesh has undertaken dredging works in 178 waterways around the country, with 1,600 kilometres of river dredged.
Considering the state of water resources in Bangladesh, it is unsurprising that the country might take strong action to protect its rivers. Bangladesh is located in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers and water from 57 rivers flows through the country. As the lowest riparian country in the basin, those rivers flow through China, India, Nepal and Bhutan before reaching Bangladesh, making it dependent on other countries for 92.5 per cent of its water drawn from rivers.
While other lower riparian countries may utilise other water resources to reduce their dependence on their upstream neighbours, Bangladesh is heavily reliant on its rivers for drinking water, fishing and crucially, agriculture (which accounts for 80 per cent of the water used in Bangladesh each year). That poses a problem, as rivers in Bangladesh are increasingly polluted and saline. Much of the pollution in the rivers comes from urban environmental pollution. Thousands of businesses dump around 15 megalitres of wastewater into rivers and canals each year, particularly in Dhaka. While there are fines in place for polluters, levels of pollution in Bangladeshi rivers have not decreased since the introduction of these penalties and in some cases, river quality has worsened. This is probably because either the fines are not high enough to deter polluters or because enforcement is not strong enough.
Rising salinity levels are putting further strain on water quality. There are a number of reasons for this and part of the problem is due to natural causes, such as: sedimentation, sea level rise, storms and tidal flooding. Human interventions, however, have also increased river salinity levels. Of the 54 rivers that enter Bangladesh from India, more than 25 are diverted in the dry months, leading to reduced flows and greater saltwater intrusion downstream. Dams built upstream have a similar effect, by reducing flows downstream. Meanwhile, weak governance and government capacity in Bangladesh have prevented regulators from mitigating the impact of saltwater intrusion.
Granting legal rights to Bangladeshi rivers could help to protect them, particularly from pollution. Ensuring that those rights are adequately enforced, however, remains a key challenge. Considering that Bangladesh has failed to enforce existing laws relating to water pollution, it would be optimistic to hope that this new initiative will prove significantly more successful. The problem of Bangladesh’s upstream neighbours and increasing salinity levels has also been unaddressed by the ruling (the Indian Supreme Court overruled the decision that granted legal rights to its own rivers). There are also concerns about the lack of community consultation, that communities living by rivers will be adversely affected and that no framework has been put in place to adequately support river conservation. Bangladesh’s rivers are in desperate need of restoration and conservation, but granting them legal rights is unlikely to be enough to achieve that.