Rivers as ‘living entities’ still left in the lurch

Published: 00:00, Sep 23,2019


ANY legal mechanism appears to be unfortunately absent centring on issues of river conservation and the fair share of the water of transborder rivers, with  Bangladesh having marked World Rivers Day on Sunday, as was done across the world. The day’s Bangladesh theme for the year was ‘River is a living entity, ensure its legal rights.’ What appears to be ironic in the national observance of the day is that the High Court in February issued an order declaring rivers to be ‘living entities’ with same legal rights as a person, rendering them as ‘juristic people’ having rights to be legally protected from any kind of harm or destruction, in which even pollution could amount to human rights violation, allowing them to take a legal recourse. But as the rivers are not usual living entities, the court put them under the care of a guardian, which is the National River Conservation Commission in this case. The commission, after initiatives that it began after the court had given the order, in the middle of September made public a list of grabbers of rivers and river land, 46,742 of them, based on lists sent in by 61 deputy commissioners, with two districts yet to send in the lists and one having said that it had already reclaimed the land that had been grabbed.

But even in such a situation, the commission cannot take action against any grabbers or polluters of the rivers as the commission, as the guardian of the rivers, lacks the required powers to do so, leaving the government with the task to amend the relevant laws. Officials are learnt to have started working on the amendment to relevant laws. But there has already been enough gap between the passing of the order and the beginning of the law amendment work and it could take long before the law or laws are amended to arm up the commission to take action against the offenders. But there is all the likelihood that the government could take action against the offenders on the recommendations of the commission until the commission is not adequately equipped to do the task. And the commission, aided by the government agencies concerned, could, meanwhile, reclaim the river and river land so far grabbed in efforts to restore the original characters to the rivers. On the other front, Bangladesh authorities are yet to ratify the UN Watercourses Convention, although they had been in the campaign when the United Nations  was adopting the convention after the mid-1990s, that could help them to work towards realising their fair share of the water of transborder rivers. Bangladesh has at least 54 transborder rivers flowing through it, with three — the Sangu, the Matamuhuri and the Naf — flowing down from the upstream Myanmar and the rest from the upstream India.

In the light of all that has happened, while Bangladesh should immediately ratify the UN Watercourses Convention 1997 in order for it to advance its right to the fair share of the transborder rivers, the government must also immediately empower, through amendment to the relevant laws, the River Conservation Commission to stop rivers from being grabbed and polluted and to protect the rights of the rivers as living entities. But as long as amendment to the laws is not in place, it must take action against the river grabbers and polluters, on recommendations of the commission, on its own.

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