The topic of reviving the Old Khowai river, running through Habiganj town, has been the talk of the town since the district administration launched drives on September 16 to free the river from encroachment.
But many townspeople are sceptical about the drive’s success as large swathes of the river’s land have been occupied by different departments of the government itself.
Aside from numerous structures built by influential individuals including freedom fighters, politicians and members of the civil society, a large multi-storey building of a general hospital and several important government establishments were built on the river over a span of about forty years, said Tofazzal Sohel of “Khowai River Water Keeper”.
Zila Parishad Bhaban, Maj Gen (Retd) MA Rob (Bir Uttam) library and memorial, Freedom Fighter Complex and Liberation War monument are among the significant establishments that were built by different government departments on the river, he added.
Even though hundreds of illegal structures are being dismantled every day from the river, which was virtually killed over the years, inhabitants of the town are doubtful about the true restoration of the Old Khowai without removing the massive structures built by the government.
During the last 10 years, The Daily Star published 27 reports and editorials about the destruction of the Old Khowai.
Ironically, the destruction of the river started in 1978 or 1979 when the river’s course was diverted to save the Habiganj town from recurring devastating floods caused by the river, said Advocate Mansur Uddin Ahmed Iqbal, founder president of Habiganj Press Club.
The diversion process, called ‘loop-cutting’, was coordinated by the then Sub-Divisional Officer of Habiganj, Azizur Rahman and the three-kilometre-long project was completed by local volunteers, he also said.
When asked about the diversion work, Executive Engineer Touhidul Islam of Habiganj Water Development Board (WDB) said affluent locals financed the project while the WDB provided technical know-how.
Under the original plan of the government, after diverting the main flow of the Old Khowai around the town, the land-locked waterbody would be kept intact in the form of a lake. The ‘lake’ would not only serve the purpose of beatification and as a floodwater retention reservoir, but it would also contribute to the supply of fish for the town’s inhabitants.
Parts of the stagnant waterbody was initially leased out to a number of locals who reared fish in it for the first couple of years. But slowly and steadily, they started building structures in it and eventually, others followed suit. Soon enough, the river mostly disappeared and at places, it now resembles a sewage drain, Touhidul said.
Tofazzal Sohel of “Khowai River Water Keeper” said the situation went out of hand when the government started to construct various establishments on the land of the stagnant waterbody.
Opportunists took advantage of the situation by building structures on the river while many landowners, having their land by the river, extended their dwellings into the land of the river, he added.
WDB Executive Engineer Touhidul said now the government has set its priorities. After removing the illegal structures from the river, beatification work will be done around it.
Later on, to ensure its waterflow, the main river will be connected with it by installing sluice gates at the mouth of the connection, he added.
Contacted, Mahmudul Kabir Murad, deputy commissioner of Habiganj, said they would continue the drive to free the Old Khowai.
He also said following the recovery, both sides of the river will be demarcated with walkways and a beautiful riverside park will also be constructed.
Milon Biswas, an elderly inhabitant of Rampur village, located near the Old Khowai, said the original river was once 200 feet wide, but the encroachers have destroyed it and they turned it into a narrow drain at some spots.
Reminiscing about how the destruction of the river has resulted in the destruction of several canals that used to connect Machulia, Rampur and Sultanpur areas, he said he was relieved to hear about the ongoing efforts to restore the old river.
Machulia area resident Sumon Mia used live on fishing in the Old Khowai.
He said he had to start pulling rickshaws as fishing in the river became impossible after most parts of it were encroached upon while water in many other parts became polluted with sewage and garbage dumped by locals.
However, there seems to be a sign of light at the end of the tunnel. Many of the individuals, who had illegally occupied the land of the river, have now started to remove their illegal structures on their own.
Suja Mia had built his house after taking possession of three decimals of the river’s land in Rampur area.
He said, “I have removed my house from there to save the river. If the river is saved, the people of Habiganj will reap benefit from it.”
A respite from waterlogging is one benefit trader Swapon Dey is looking forward to after the authorities started carrying out the drives to free the Old Khowai.
Small shops by the roads in WDB area of the town have to close shutters due to waterlogging in the area even after a very little rain, he said, adding that hopefully their sufferings will be over soon with the restoration of the Old Khowai river.