A child swims in the polluted Buriganga River in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka to collect plastic bottles in this 2014 file photo. The country’s rivers have been declared legal entities that must be protected. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Bangladesh’s top judicial body has made a landmark judgment in an attempt to save the country’s rivers and water bodies from illegal encroachment and pollution.
A High Court bench of Justice Moinul Islam Chowdhury and Justice Ashraful Kamal declared rivers as legal entities and assigned the National River Protection Commission (NRPC) as the “legal guardian” in protecting the rights of water bodies, canals, swamps, shorelines, hills and forests.
The ruling on Feb. 3 was in response to a petition by the Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh group over illegal encroachment of the Turag River near capital Dhaka.
The court declared that any person encroaching on rivers and water bodies should be barred from contesting elections and receiving bank loans. It also ordered the government to amend laws and give “harsh punishments” to encroachers and polluters of rivers.
In addition, the court asked the government to form a digital database of water bodies by using satellites, to promote an awareness campaigns in all education institutes and to make a list of those who encroached and built illegal structures.
Following the verdict, state authorities in capital Dhaka and the southeastern port city of Chittagong have initiated major drives to save rivers and destroyed hundreds of illegal structures built near rivers.
Environmentalists and activists believe the court judgment on river protection was long overdue.
“This is a landmark judgment but it will require strong political commitment to implement. We have seen indiscriminate encroachment and pollution of rivers and water bodies [by people] with political and business patronages,” Sharif Jamil, a joint secretary of environmental group Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, told ucanews.com.
Crowds gather as state authorities demolish illegal structures near the Buriganga River in Dhaka on Feb. 6. (Photo by Piyas Biswas)
According to Banglapedia, the national encyclopedia of Bangladesh, the country had about 700 rivers four decades ago but only about 400 exist today.
Jamil said that when Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, the total length of rivers and water bodies was 24,000 kilometers, which has reduced to fewer than 3,000 kilometers today.
“The directives of the court must be properly implemented, otherwise this riverine nation has no future. We have already filled out adjoining water bodies such as canals and swamps by grabbing and polluting. Saving rivers is a quest for our survival,” he said.
The court’s directives are key to saving Bangladesh from an environmental disaster, said Father Albert T. Rozario, former secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.
“Over the years, we have seen an epidemic of river and water grabbing and pollution that has led to the deaths of many rivers and water bodies. That means we don’t love our environment and we are leading the nation to a disastrous future. The court has shone the light in the darkness and this is the amulet that can save us all,” Father Rozario, a Supreme Court lawyer, told ucanews.com.
NRPC chairman Miznur Rahman Howlader admitted that saving rivers and water bodies is an uphill battle.
“As far as we know, at least 58 rivers are currently endangered due to encroachment and pollution. In most cases, encroachers and polluters are politically and financially influential persons as well as industrialists. We are preparing a list of grabbers for the government to recommend for de-encroachment,” he told ucanews.com.
“This is an uphill battle and we can only win it if there is a strong political commitment and social movement to save rivers and water bodies.”