Bangabandhu Tunnel: A game-changing connectivity infrastructure coming up in Bangladesh with Chinese help

The tunnel will link the Asian Highway network. Through this route, goods can be moved directly across the border between India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

Masfi-ul-Ashfaq Nibir Jan 13, 2023
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Bangabandhu Tunnel (Photo: Twitter)

Bangladesh is experiencing a revolutionary transformation in communication infrastructure through the inauguration of a series of mega projects. The Padma Bridge, the Metro Rail, and the Bangabandhu Tunnel -  each of these projects are unique examples of infrastructure consolidation in Bangladesh that will accelerate neighbourhood connectivity and enhance economic prosperity. 

Of all these projects, the Bangabandhu Tunnel being built beneath the river Karnafuli is the most ambitious. 
The tunnel, which will open in March, will connect Anwara Upazila on the other side of the Karnafuli river with Chittagong's main city. The first underwater tunnel in Bangladesh is being implemented with joint funding from the governments of Bangladesh and China.  According to knowledgeable sources, the total cost of the tunnel project was Tk 84.46 billion of which China is providing Tk 55.05 billion.

The tunnel is 9.3 km long, of which the underwater part is approximately 3.4 km. Vehicles will ply through a four-lane road constructed at a depth of 18 to 31 meters under the Karnafuli river.

Following a technical survey in 2013, the government approved the construction of the underwater road tunnel. The next year, Bangladesh and China signed an MoU in Beijing. On June 30, 2015, the Bangladesh government and China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) signed the contract for the construction. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated the construction work of the tunnel in 2016.

Revolutionise transport and communication

Communication and transportation in Chittagong, now called Chattogram, the commercial hub of Bangladesh, will undergo a revolution as the tunnel will directly link Dhaka and Cox's Bazar. By reducing the distance between Dhaka, the tunnel will turn the southern portion of Chattogram port city into a business zone.  Both banks of the Karnafuli river would be developed as "one city two towns", like China's Shanghai city, where the eastern and western parts are connected. Shanghai, China's largest and most populous city, as well as the country's industrial and commercial center, is divided by the Huangpu, a tributary of the Changjiang river that is linked by underwater tunnels. Similar to Shanghai, which today possesses the busiest and one of the largest seaports in the world, Chattogram port city and Anwara Upazila are situated geographically across the Karnafuli river.

The Chattogram metropolis is significant in terms of trade and commerce due to the country’s primary seaport, although it has only spread to one side of the Karnafuli. The port was unable to extend across the Karnafuli river due to lack of road links. Becuase of decline in economic activities, such as trade and transport, Anwara on the other side of the river remained relatively underdeveloped. Opening of the tunnel would resolve the problem and the port city won't be limited to just one bank of the river. Chittagong port's economic importance will exponentially increase as commercial opportunities expand.

The south bank of the Karnafuli river is situated in the Anwara Upazila, where a 760-acre industrial zone is being constructed. The economic zone has already attracted several overseas firms on the south bank; businesses have undertaken initiatives to build at least 100 large industrial units in various sectors – apparel, shipbuilding, edible oil, fish processing, steel, and cement, among others. Some of them have already begun production. Construction of some hospitals, restaurants and hotel-motel complexes are also underway. As a result, a sizable section of the local population is now able to obtain employment. New business opportunities have surfaced not only in Anwara or Karnafuli but also in the entire swathe from Chattogram to Cox's Bazar.

Moreover, vehicles will reach Cox's Bazar and South Chattogram without entering the port city. Travelers will be able to reach Cox's Bazar and Bandarban swiftly through the tunnel using Outer Ring Road. Currently, vehicles must cross Chattogram city to travel over three bridges, including Shah Amanat Bridge over the Karnafuli river. However, as the tunnel is located outside the metropolis, Chattogram city will no longer need to be crossed. As a result, the density of Chattogram city traffic will lessen. The tunnel will reduce the distance between Dhaka-Chattogram and Chattogram-Cox's Bazar. Moreover, the tunnel will facilitate road communication between the deep seaport under construction at Matarbari and the rest of the country.

The tunnel will link the Asian Highway network. Through this route, goods can be moved directly across the border between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Besides improving Chattogram port's efficiency, the tunnel will considerably improve cross-border trade by road.

Furthermore, the Marine Drive Road from Chittagong to Cox's Bazar will not be efficient without first passing through the Bangabandhu Tunnel. This would open up a window of opportunities for tourism in South Chattogram and Cox's Bazar. The tunnel would make it simple to reach Parki Beach, which is located in Chattogram's Anwara. The city's residents will take just 15 minutes to travel to Parki Beach if the tunnel is opened.

Why a bridge and not a tunnel

The 3.4 km long tunnel costs more than a bridge. Therefore, it could seem wasteful to spend more money on tunnels rather than bridges. However, given its geographic location, there are many reasons for building a tunnel and not the traditional bridge.

The location of the Bangabandhu Tunnel on the Karnafuli, known as the lifeline of Chattogram, is practically at the river's mouth where it falls into the sea. Today, there are three bridges over the river and all of these are situated significantly higher upstream, where the water velocity is lower than the estuary. A bridge at the site of the Bangabandhu Tunnel was needed for a long time to connect with South Chattogram. Although various attempts have been made, none of those were effective because of the topographical features of the area.

The river's stream could shift as a result of sediment buildup if its navigability is decreased due to a bridge or any other natural cause. In order to build underground piles for bridge building, piles must be inserted into rivers. But, according to experts, there is a chance that the ground could move out from under the pillars of the bridge because of the Karnafuli river's intense currents. Additionally, Chittagong port will be seriously threatened by river siltation brought on by the bridge. To avoid these problems, the tunnel was the only solution to connect Chittagong port with the south bank of the river.

The longest tunnel in Asia, Bangabandhu Tunnel is another iconic piece of architecture after the Padma Bridge. The government must take the necessary steps to expand trade and business by leveraging it. If the project fails to facilitate a business-friendly environment, including attracting investors and having adequate management, it will be nothing more than a China-funded white elephant.

(The author is a Dhaka-based independent researcher and analyst. Views are personal. He can be reached at masfiul.ashfaq@gmail.com)

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