Rediscovering the Potential of the World’s Oldest Highways - Bangladesh Waterways

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River crossing in Bangladesh
Boat passengers in rural Bangladesh. Photo credit: Erik Nora

When my team and I saw this boat passing by us in July 2013 in rural Bangladesh, near the border with Mizoram, Northeast India, and Myanmar, I felt immediately empathic.

How many people are on that boat? Eighty? Does it have a motor? Can those people swim, especially the women? No lifejackets! I wondered how long their trip was, and then I thought: What if they needed a bathroom break? Memories of my family's escape from Vietnam by boat in 1981 flashed back—34 refugees jammed into a traditional fishing boat normally home to a family of seven, with no motor, no life jackets, and no toilets! We floated around the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean for 16 days. Most of us could not swim, certainly not the women and girls.

I'm a senior transport specialist, and when we saw that boat, we were far into Bangladesh's interior to work on improving the lives of those travelers (and others) in the picture above. In 2012, our team began to think about how to make transporting water a more economic, efficient and, especially, a safer and more comfortable experience for the people of South Asia. Inland water transportation is crucial to Bangladesh. It services one-quarter of the country's passengers. At least 12 percent of Bangladesh is living in rural areas, so a boat is the only form of transportation other than walking.

Boats are an important way to move cargo. Vessels on inland waterways carry over half of Bangladesh's cargo traffic. Hence the purpose of our trip and, ultimately, our project—to improve services for passengers and cargo on major inland waterways along the Dhaka-Chittagong-Ashuganj Corridor, which carries not only Bangladeshi traffic, but also trade from India and Bhutan. 

Ultimately, this proposed Bangladesh waterways improvement project is part of a regional connectivity program in South Asia that aims to connect Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Tying the region together would bring opportunities for trade and growth, job creation, even the potential for eco-tourism. 

And "eco" is a key term here. Bangladesh is a wet country, laced with some 700 rivers, streams and canals with a total length of about 24,000 kilometers. Approximately 6,000 kilometers are navigable during the monsoon period depending on the size of the ship, shrinking to about 3,900 kilometers in the dry periods. Because of its low-lying topography, exposure to both inland flooding, coastal storm surges, and it's extremely dense population; Bangladesh is classified as one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world.  

While working on the project, we found ways to make boat travel more environmentally-friendly than it already is. Because we are also interested in promoting climate change resiliency, the project really had two main goals. The first: how to make the 22,300 registered vessels, river terminals and landing stations/ghats safer and more comfortable for passengers and cargo transporters. The second, and equally important aim, was to address the impacts of climate change. So we built storm shelters for vessels into the project design. 

Shipping and water transport produce far fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than car or truck transport, so shifting from roads to waterways can contribute to net emissions reductions. If the vessels currently using Bangladesh's inland waterways switch to liquid natural gas, they would produce even fewer GHG emissions than they currently do.

Adaptation and mitigation strategies are both part of our proposed project in Bangladesh and part of the COP21 agenda. Adaptation refers to making climate-smart investments that can withstand extreme weather patterns. That means designing infrastructure like new ports and canals, to factor in extremely high tides, massive storms and storm surge. Mitigation strategies range from moving bulk transport off roads and onto boats, improving ports and waterways to reduce waste, and more research and development into cutting emissions, like upgrading engines to make them more efficient and analyzing the potential of liquid natural gas.

Finally, as we were working our way through Bangladesh's waterways we saw, and avoided, huge patches of floating hyacinth. They're a navigational hazard. But they could be turned into biogas and used as an energy source or fuel for cooking. One of our team members suggested that we pilot a biogas scheme using water hyacinths as input.

This idea is already being used in India and piloted in several other parts of the world, including in Niger, Guatemala and Uganda. If it works, it could provide a source of energy and income for the poor communities living around waterways. And it would clean up the "traffic lanes," clearing the way for boats to move more quickly and efficiently. Better still, such ideas to reduce GHG emissions and mitigate climate change may be able to qualify for climate finance in a follow-on project.

We are always open to new ideas. What do you think of the potential of water hyacinth and biogas? If you have other ideas for climate financing on inland waterways, our team would appreciate hearing from you, because connecting the region and promoting growth along waterways in a safe and sustainable fashion would be good for people and for the environment.


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