On 13 January 2023, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, flagged off the MV Ganga Vilas on the longest motorised river cruise in the world. On its maiden voyage, the vessel is sailing from Varanasi in north India to Dibrugarh in northeast India. On the way, it will travel along rivers in India, then Bangladesh, then India again.
This journey illustrates the complex management of shared waterways, and serves as an example of how cross-border transport between India and Bangladesh can be planned in a way that minimises and mitigates adverse environmental impacts.
In the initial – and longest – stretch of its voyage, the MV Ganga Vilas sailed down India’s National Waterway 1 (NW-1), along 1,620 kilometres of the Ganga River from Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal. Since 2017, work has been underway to develop National Waterway 1 as a shipping route – at a cost of USD 770 million – as the country seeks to reduce carbon emissions from road transportation. The Inland Waterways Authority of India has estimated that shifting from road and rail to river transport for freight through National Waterway 1 could save up 4.54 million tonnes of carbon emissions until 2045.
4.54 million tonnes
Carbon emissions that the Inland Waterways Authority of India estimates can be avoided by shifting from road and rail to river freight on National Waterway 1
An associated project, the Jal Marg Vikas Project, has been developed at a cost of USD 30 million, with support from the World Bank. This project aims to create infrastructure such as river ports on National Waterway 1; to improve road and rail connections to these ports; and to improve the design of vessels that will use National Waterway 1, National Waterway 2 (along the Brahmaputra in Assam), and the transboundary waterways between Bangladesh and India. Both National Waterway 1 and the Jal Marg Vikas Project are parts of India’s National Waterways project, which aims to develop shipping routes along 111 waterways throughout the country.
India and Bangladesh’s transboundary waterways
India and Bangladesh share up to 54 rivers, a transboundary network of approximately 3,500 km of navigable watercourses. Historically, river transport – both freight and passengers – has been important in Bangladesh, but it has dwindled compared to rail and road in the country. Now only about 5% of passengers and 6% of freight move by river transport in Bangladesh.
Since 1972, with the signing of the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol for Inland Water Transit and Trade, the governments of Bangladesh and India have agreed a number of protocols that enable vessels of one country to ply the waterways of the other along designated “protocol routes”. India uses these routes to ferry goods to and from its north-eastern states far more quickly and cheaply than via the narrow stretch (the so-called ‘chicken’s neck’ at Siliguri) that connects these states to the rest of India.
National Waterway 1 connects to the Bangladesh-India joint waterway system, allowing vessels to sail to the Bay of Bengal from Haldia, then enter Bangladesh’s river system through Chattogram port. The MV Ganga Vilas route then goes upstream towards Dhaka, joins the Brahmaputra (called the Jamuna in Bangladesh) at Aricha, and then stretches on to northeast India, all the way to Dibrugarh in eastern Assam.
The governments of India and Bangladesh planned this transboundary route in a way that aims to minimise negative effects on the environment. In the process of developing the waterway to maintain water depth and reduce silt, the governments focused on dredging rather than constructing barrages or storage reservoirs, despite these options being cheaper. Barrages or storage reservoirs would have meant less water closer to the river banks, causing serious ecological disruption.
The governments also decided to bar any vessel that sits deeper than three metres underwater from using the waterway. This reduced the need for dredging. The shipping channel has also been restricted to 45 metres in width – the Ganga can be as wide as 500 metres at full flow across along the stretch that National Waterway 1 runs through, and the Brahmaputra even wider.
Now both countries are consolidating their existing 10 transboundary ‘protocol routes’ into what is called the Eastern Waterways Grid. The Eastern Waterways Grid builds on these protocol routes, aiming to improve navigability through dredging, to add and rejuvenate river ports, and to improve road and rail connectivity to these ports in both countries.
Mohammed Mezbah Uddin Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s shipping secretary, said to the World Bank in 2021: “Developing an economic corridor – including revitalising the protocol routes with India, the establishment of economic zones and other river functions – is a priority for our government.” Meanwhile, Sanjeev Ranjan, secretary for India’s Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, told the World Bank: “India and Bangladesh need to work together to ensure that the fruits of these investments reach the people, and they prosper as a result of the easy mode of transportation that the waterways is going to provide them.”
Dolphins, fishers and land – responding to concerns
When the plan to develop National Waterway 1 as a shipping route was mooted, some fishers and landowners in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal raised concerns about the effects of shipping on fish catches, and about how much compensation would be paid for land acquired for its ports. Some were worried about pollution from the boats. In response to these concerns, the Inland Waterways Authority of India decided in consultation with riverbank residents that boat speed would be regulated, and all boats obliged to take away their own garbage and spent fuel.
Fishers and environmentalists also expressed concerns about the effects that dredging for the project would have on river life, especially on the endangered Ganges dolphin. National Waterway 1 passes through the Vikramshila dolphin sanctuary, India’s only dedicated protected area for its national aquatic animal. The Ganges dolphin finds its prey through echolocation, so sound plays a crucial role in its life – meaning shipping noise could be very damaging. Environmentalists also feared that dolphins and other aquatic animals would be entangled in ships’ propellers.
To deal with these concerns, the Inland Waterways Authority of India decided that all Indian ships must have propeller guards, and that a speed restriction would be maintained in the sanctuary area. During dredging – which is an ongoing task given the high silt load of the rivers – a buffer zone 100 metres wide on either side and 500 metres upstream and downstream is to be maintained to minimise impacts on dolphins, and dredging is also to be regulated during fish breeding and spawning seasons.
Another concern has been the effect of a river port in Varanasi, which is adjacent to a turtle sanctuary. After the publication of an environmental impact assessment for the National Waterway 1 project, it was decided that boats would travel at no more than 5 km per hour (2.7 knots) through the sanctuary.
While the environmental and social concerns have not fully disappeared, the incorporation of these concerns into design changes has raised hopes among riverbank residents and fishers that shipping activities will not harm the environment and their livelihoods. Whether these changes will truly avoid harm in the long run remains to be seen.
Waterways in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, the joint waterway is using large navigable rivers – including the Meghna, Padma and Jamuna – that already have considerable traffic. However, traffic volume on these rivers is expected to increase substantially, so a detailed environment impact assessment (EIA) was carried out in 2016 for the Chattogram-Dhaka-Ashuganj corridor, which lies on the route that the MV Ganga Vilas is taking, and which many more ships are expected to take soon.
The Bangladesh government decided after receiving the EIA report that environmental safeguards imposed would be similar to those in India. In addition, ships are required to regulate their speeds in those stretches where banks are at risk of erosion from the waves generated by passing vessels.
Transboundary cooperation between India and Bangladesh remains a work in progress – but collaboration on shipping presents great potential for increasing trade, while lowering the carbon footprint of transportation. The ability to incorporate scientific, environmental and local concerns in a quick and transparent manner – and to consistently and effectively implement the resulting decisions and policies – will be key to its long-term success.
This work is part of a collaborative editorial series between the World Bank, ICIMOD and The Third Pole that brings together climate experts and regional voices on “Regional Cooperation for Climate Resilience in South Asia”. The views and opinions expressed by the author are her own. The series has been funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through the Program for Asia Resilience to Climate Change – a trust fund administered by the World Bank.