Bridging the Padma River, that last leg of the Ganges "before it converts into a mush of foam and mud at the mouth of the sea," in the words of the architect Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, was always going to present the great challenge of nation-building for any state occupying the lands that comprise today's Bangladesh.

Sir Charles Lyell, one of the leading geologists of the 19th century, designated it as an "oceanic river", and it is true of course - millions of Bangladeshis can attest to this - that the Padma's banks can often be so far apart that you have to be reminded you are on a river, and not adrift on the open sea.

The transport network that Bangladesh inherited at independence had related to that existing prior to the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947, and accordingly successive governments set as one of their priorities the integration of the country through newly developed transport and energy links between the major sectors of the country. The Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge, completed in 1998, effected that first major link, namely that between the North West of the country and the Eastern region.

A bridge over the Padma River, below the confluence of the Jamuna

and Ganges rivers, to connect the South West region to Dhaka and the Eastern Zone, then remained as the other, vital missing link

The project that we see reach fruition today, was by no means the first attempt. International engineering firm Rendel, has been working in these lands since the time of the British Raj, and is familiar with some of these earlier attempts and eventual assessments. Rendel provided management support consultancy for the Bangladesh Bridge Authority, in association with BCL Associates Ltd (Bangladesh), Padeco Co. Ltd (Japan) and Katahira and Engineers International (Japan), during the course of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project's duration.

The Main Bridge contract was awarded to China Major Bridge Engineering Company which has an extensive record domestically in China, but Padma marks one of its biggest projects overseas. Another major Chinese contractor SinoHydro Corporation took care of the River Training Works.

Rendel has been involved in Bangladesh since the early days of the Eastern Bengal Railway Company (now Bangladesh Railway), formed in 1857. One of the larger projects Rendel undertook over the years in Bangladesh, or East Bengal as it was known administratively under the British, was the Hardinge Bridge, which is also on the Padma but further upstream. Having opened to traffic in 1915, it is considered an engineering marvel for the era.

In a paper by Rendel engineers to mark the 100th anniversary of the Hardinge Bridge in 2015, they wrote: "On first encountering a river such as the Jamuna or the Padma, it is inevitable that, as an engineer, one must feel a sense of humility."

B L Harvey, a civil engineer who worked on issues of the right guide bank of the Hardinge Bridge for Rendel in 1933, came away saying: "It is impossible to be prophetic in dealing with the problems of the river Ganges and of rivers in the alluvial plains of Bengal."

The paper also states that following the completion of the Jamuna Bridge, as early as 1999, the government appointed Rendel as part of a consortium to undertake a study of "a Multipurpose Bridge crossing of the Padma River, below the confluence of the Jamuna and Ganges rivers, to connect the South West region to Dhaka and the Eastern Zone."

It was always acknowledged that as the Padma is one of the mightiest rivers in the world with the conjoined flow of the two major rivers of the Ganges and the Jamuna, such a crossing would present exceptional engineering challenges.

And that's all before we even get to the politics.

A feat of engineering

Dr Robin Sham, one of the world's great civil engineers, was the lead designer of the Padma Bridge, in his role as the head of the Long Span Bridge Group at AECOM, a multinational engineering firm. Dr Sham, a British citizen, worked out of its Hong Kong office.

He wrote about his design for the Padma Bridge in an article for STRUCTURE magazine some years ago, explaining the complexities unique to the project and how he devised ways to overcome them.

"One of the greatest challenges to long-span bridge engineering is the forces of nature. Recent catastrophic events around the world reinforce the fact that nature can be destructive to infrastructure," he wrote. "At the Padma Bridge site in Bangladesh, AECOM used state-of-the-art technology and innovative disaster prevention and mitigation solutions to tackle some severe challenges."

Of particular relevance is the way he chose to get around the issue of deep-bad scouring that the pillars of the bridge would have to endure, given the enormous sediment load that the river is known to carry, by the time we reach the point where it is located.

"At 6.15 kilometres (3.8 miles) in length, the Padma Bridge is a landmark structure and one of the longest river crossings in the world. The Padma River is the third largest river in the world, and has the largest volume of sediment transport," Dr Sham writes.

He says during the monsoon seasons, the Padma River becomes fast flowing and is "susceptible to deep scour", requiring deep-pile foundations for bridge stability. The Padma Bridge site is also in an area of considerable seismic activity, resulting in significant earthquake forces being exerted on the bridge. This combination, together with other forces of nature, posed a unique challenge for the designers.

In order to make the bridge structure capable of enduring seismic activity, Dr Sham describes measures employed by his team, and what sort of assurances they were able to provide:

"A detailed study of seismic hazard at the site was performed to determine suitable seismic parameters for use in the design. Two levels of seismic hazard were adopted: Operating Level Earthquake and Contingency Level Earthquake. Operating Level Earthquake has a return period of 100 years with a 65 percent probability of being exceeded during that period. Contingency Level Earthquake has a return period of 475 years with a 20 percent probability of being exceeded during a 100-year bridge life period. Any damage sustained from such an earthquake would be easily detectable and capable of repair without demolition or component replacement."

The wait is nearly over

It is a moment eagerly awaited, especially since the last 150-metre span was locked into place in December 2020. The Padma Multipurpose Bridge has been the flagship infrastructure/development project of the country for over a decade now. The construction work on the 6.15-km bridge started in November, 2014 and the mega structure was expected to be open to traffic in 2022. This Saturday, June 25, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be leading a grand inauguration of the cherished bridge. It will officially open to traffic the next day.

Once in operation, the Padma Bridge, Bangladesh's largest infrastructure project till date, will connect 21 southern districts with its capital Dhaka and boost the GDP by 1 percent.

The steel material bridge's length is 6.15 km, viaduct 3.148 km (road), 532 m (rail), approach road: 12.117 km, span: 41 (with each span being 150 metres long).

The project was first approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) with an estimated cost of Tk 10,161 crore in 2007. The final bill has been more than thrice that amount. Following irreconcilable differences with the World Bank arising out of the issue of financing, in 2012 the government decided to go for it alone.

The second revision of the project was approved by Ecnec on January 5, 2016 with an estimated cost of Tk 28,794 to be implemented by 2018. Without changing the project proposal, the costs were increased again to Tk 30,193 crore in June 2018.

In October 2020, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened the construction work on the rail link between Dhaka and Jashore under the 'Padma Bridge Rail Link Construction Project.'

The first phase of the 'Padma Bridge Rail Link Construction Project' will establish a rail link between Mawa and Bhanga via Janjira and Shibchar through the Padma Multipurpose Bridge. This will connect Dhaka, Narayanganj, Munshiganj, Shariatpur, Madaripur, Faridpur, Gopalganj, Narail and Jashore.

China Railway Group Limited, a Chinese government-nominated contractor, is implementing the project under the China G2G system. Once constructed and in operation, economists say, the greater road connectivity will play a significant role in trade and commerce with Bangladesh's entire southern region. Once fully operational, It is expected to change the fate of upto 40 million people in addition to accelerating the GDP growth.

Gains to come

Some economists estimate an overall boost to the country's gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of upto 5 percent in future, if the 'right plan' can be taken up and implemented.

They are urging the government to quickly identify the sectors that stand to benefit most, and match them with districts in the south-west that correspond with the best conditions for each particular industry, for inclusive growth towards attaining the developed country status by 2041.

Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) told UNB the Padma Bridge is definitely an achievement for Bangladesh as it's being constructed by the country's own money.

"Bangladesh will overcome its last barrier and become an integrated country through the bridge. It's definitely an achievement for us. Good communication links between the southern part of the country and other regions will be ensured through the road and rail line. Fair price of goods for producers and consumers would also be ensured," the economist said.

Mustafizur added that the bridge will play a significant role in employment in the southern districts. Besides, a connection may be built with India, Nepal and Bhutan by it.

"So, now we have to take proper strategy to get the advantages of the Padma Bridge. There is no benefit in just building a bridge if we can't reap its advantages. We have to emphasise on economy- based industry there now. The initiative has to be taken soon," he said.

He also said after completing the bridge, a demand for employment will be created in the districts. The government should emphasise creating skilled manpower to meet the demand.

"Now, the government has to think about providing quality electricity and gas services in the districts where economic zones are expected to grow there," he added.

The noted economist further said considering the country's existing economic structure, the Padma Bridge would help to increase Bangladesh's GDP growth 1.3 percent. "However, the GDP growth may rise by up to 5 percent if "proper strategy" can be taken now in the regions," he also expected.

Dr Masrur Reaz, chairman of Policy Exchange Bangladesh (PEB), said some temporary employment has already been created during the construction period of the bridge. But it's time to take up a proper plan to create more employment in the southern part of the country as it's a big region.

"If we want to get early benefit, we have to take proper plan early as well. The government with private partnership should give emphasis on agro-based industries in the districts. The right location is also important for industries," he added.

The economist said small businesses have to be given more priority in the southern part's economic zones to create more employment and the government should purchase products from small businesses too.

Dr Masrur said now the government has to find out what are the economic advantages in the southern part of the country. After completing the construction of the bridge, a quick communication will be implemented with all regions.

"Now, zones can be selected for export-oriented and value-added agro-based goods in the regions. There is no proper cold storage house for agricultural products in the country. So, the sites can be chosen to gain control over the essentials market by taking various initiatives," he added.

He said the government should analyse the market properly and address the gaps. The northern regions of the country couldn't be industrialised even after constructing the Jamuna Bridge due to lack of proper plan and strategy. "So, now we have to think about the southern part to utilise the bridge properly," the economist suggested.

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