Water courses have long been synonymous with much of what makes Bangladesh what it is. Its history, culture, economy and much of its daily existence is entwined with water and the blessings that that brings. In recent decades this relationship has been soured by the fact that rather than treasuring this precious life giver, that attitude has largely been one of neglect and abandonment. Rivers and lakes now speak volumes of this neglect and many are now sterile channels of little ecological or social value. Waterways that were once abundant with flora and fauna are biologically moribund and degraded to such an extent that they are to all intents and purpose little more than open sewers. Dhaka as the capital manifests this degradation worse than elsewhere, the Buriganga (the Old Ganges), the Balu, Turag and Sitalakhya are all a pale shadow of what they once were. These rivers no longer inspired poets or musicians instead they are stinking conduits of toxicity. This is an environmental tragedy whose cost is immeasurable.
With some 230 large and small rivers Bangladesh needs to develop a more respectful relationship with water. There are of course complications caused by access and flow caused by external factors such as activity upstream, in neighbouring lands or due to controversial structures such as the Tipaimukh Dam. Sadly, most of the problems are self inflicted; the routine dumping of untreated industrial and human waste has contaminated rivers to such an extent that it has been calculated that some 18 million people are drinking arsenic poisoned water daily, with the likelihood that a staggering 80 million Bangladeshis drinking water that contains dangerously high levels of carcinogenic chemicals. The country’s rivers and lakes have become a hazardous toxic soup, with these poisons in turn being used to irrigate land or be allowed to discharge untreated into the Bay of Bengal. What is certain is that these pollutants are entering the food chain and coming back to haunt us. The situation is parlous and no one has yet to get a grip in a co-ordinated manner.
Mahfujur Rahman of the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) in an article entitled: Capital Dhaka – Towards an environmental jeopardy? (The Daily Star April 25, 2009) summed up the cause of problem thus:
“River pollution occurs due to three reasons. Two main causes are discharge of municipal sewage and industrial effluent: 277 tanneries at Hazaribagh are discharging waste water into Buriganga without any treatment. Third cause is waste water thrown by water craft. The effect of pollution on the aquatic ecosystem cannot be expressed in words. The rivers around the city are so polluted that Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (DWASA) has to depend mostly on ground water to continue municipal water supply for the cost of treatment of river water goes beyond its bearable limit.”
In recent years the Institute of Water modelling (IWM) and the World Bank have conducted a a joint study that revealed that there are in excess of 300 effluent discharge outlets from major industrial areas in and around Dhaka: Ashulia, Hazaribagh, Gazipur, Ghorashal, Narayanganj, Tarabo, Tejgaon and Tongi. Furthermore ground water levels have begun to plummet and this has put a further strain on urban and peri-urban areas. Years of Governmental and Municipal inertia has exacerbated the problem.
There are now signs that Bangladesh very belatedly is beginning to wake up to the seriousness of the situation. The current Government has to its credit successfully steered through the Bangladesh Water Act 2013 but it is clear that there urgently needs to be far greater co-ordination between the likes of the Ministry of Water Resources and the Bangladesh Water Development Board. Far more robust action is required, especially in regard to tackling and punishing persistent pollution from industrial plants. It is clear that there needs to be a concerted push to work towards the creation of the following:
Attractive, safe and accessible green spaces
A wide range of natural habitats and landscapes to benefit both wildlife and people
The improvement of water quality and security via an holistic approach to managing both water resources and flood risk
Greater integration in regards to the provision of power and the supply of clean water
Other great cities continue to wrestle with such challenges and it is important to draw upon best practise elsewhere. London in the Nineteenth century endured an event known as ‘The Great Stink’ and witnessed thousands of deaths due to cholera, thus spurred the British Government into addressing the issue of sewage being discharged untreated into the River Thames. Remarkable feats of engineering were undertaken and the situation was radically improved. Further clean-ups of the Thames and its tributaries in the late Twentieth century have resulted in the river becoming one of the cleanest in Europe. It might surprise some to hear that the river is deemed so clean now that salmon have been caught in it.
Obviously every situation is different and we have to accept that resources in Bangladesh are limited. Whilst there are some good intentions, it is regrettable that still so much remains to be done. The private sector also needs to take ownership of this problem and accept responsibility for its actions. The dyeing, washing and textile sectors are very much in the spotlight and must not be allowed to abdicate themselves of their responsibilities. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not just a line in management manuals it is a concept that should be at the epicentre of all that companies seek to do. Citizens too need to change their attitudes to water and waste. For too long there has been a sense that it is some else’s problem, well it is a problem that can only be solved by a united effort. We need to be far more responsible and determined to recycle and start to view solid and other waste as an asset that can be process rather than dumped in rivers or in landfill. We need solutions that are fit for purpose, ones that are not just for the short term, but will work for years to come.