Khowai in dire straits
Riddled with floating trash and indiscriminate encroachment, the Old Khowai River in Habiganj town is under threat of being occupied again, just two years after eviction drives were launched in 2019.
Today, the river hosts around 2,000 occupants and is barely navigable, locals said.
Abdur Rahman, a resident of Habiganj town near the river, said, "Khowai used to be 250 to 300 feet wide and 25 to 40 feet deep. Currently, it has come down to 20 to 150 feet width."
In many places, it seems as though no river existed here whatsoever."
"Once upon a time, the river used to be the lifeline of the district town," said Zahirul Haque Shakil, professor at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) and a Habiganj town resident.
"Recovering the river is crucial to make this town liveable. Saving the river from issues like illegal occupation and pollution means that the town's people will be safeguarded as well," he added.
Khowai River Waterkeeper Tofazzal Sohel pointed the finger at local influential people, political parties, as well as various government establishments as the main agents behind its encroachment.
"If it was bad before, the situation went out of hand after the government started constructing various establishments on the river's shores."
"Sensing an opening, opportunists took advantage of the situation and started building structures on the river," he added.
Among the establishments are several important government buildings and a large multi-storey general hospital, this correspondent found during a visit.
This correspondent also found several workers rebuilding a Krishak League office, which occupies land on the river's bank in Anantapur.
Contacted, Joint Secretary of district Krishak League SA Mahfuz said the office will be a temporary one, which will later be moved somewhere else.
Ekramul Wadud, Habiganj district unit president of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), told this newspaper the district administration had started the process of evicting illegal occupants by demarcating the river in September 2019.
But after a while, the initiative started to fizzle out, being halted time and again due to unknown reasons, before finally stopping altogether.
Contacted, Tareq Mohammad Zakaria, additional deputy commissioner (revenue) of Habiganj, informed that there are no eviction plans at play for now, although some development works are on the cards.
"Of course, we do want to demolish the illegal establishments and recover the river. However, it's difficult to work here because we don't have sufficient budget," he added.
Meanwhile, waste dumping and the resultant pollution is another issue the river is burdened with.
Sadhon Das (75), a resident of Masulia, said, pollution in the narrowed down river has taken a serious turn as municipal waste is dumped there.
In addition, human waste from open toilets on the riverbanks and others across the town also find their way into the river through drains and canals.
BAPA's Ekramul Wadud, said, "The Khowai river plays a vital role in maintaining the town's rainwater harvesting and ecological balance during monsoon. But currently, the river has been at the heart of the town's water shortage issues."