Dhaka on verge of environmental disaster

Dhaka and its suburban areas with an estimated population of 15 million stand on the verge of environmental catastrophe due to unabated pollution of its air and waterways. Environmentalists and scientists fear that unless the present rate of pollution is stopped without delay, the burgeoning metropolis, rated as one of the dirtiest cities in the world, will become an unlivable place within twenty years from now. As many as seven thousand industries, including tanneries, in and around Dhaka discharge about sixty thousand cubic metres of wastewater in violation of the laws of the land. Of this huge waste,4500 tons of solid waste and 200 tons of hospital waste pose serious threat to human health and pollute the river system.

Although the law clearly makes treatment plants mandatory for every industry, it is observed more in its breach, as most industries do not have any with the result that wastewater go into the river system polluting its water. Hospitals with the exception of a couple, do not have incarcerators to burn waste, which if left in the open or thrown into river, become a serious health hazard. As a result of heavy pollution of four rivers of the metropolitan area—Buriganga, Sitalakhya, Turag and Balu- the oxygen level of these rivers have decreased to below four milligram a litre.

After years of protests by environmentalists and other conscious citizens, the authorities seem to have woken up, belatedly though, to the need for urgent affirmative action to save the four rivers from gradual extinction due to deepening pollution and land grabbing. A one year-old Canadian funded Environmental Management Project has recommended the formation of a organisation called Dhaka Urban Authority ( DUA ) to improve the environmental situation of the capital and save the four rivers from the grabbers as well as to stop pollution. A draft report on Dhaka Environment Programme, a one-generation strategy to save the city from environmental catastrophe, has already been examined by the Ministry of Environment and sent to the Prime Minister for approval.

Environment Minister Tariqul Islam told The Independent that the government would form the proposed urban authority after getting the PM’s approval. " If we do not form the authority, we shall not be able to save Dhaka and its rivers from pollution," said the minister.

Director of the project Molla Waheeduzzaman said that the government would implement the project over a period of twenty years at a cost of US$ 8 bn. But if the government failed to do it now, the cost would escalate. The proposed authority, if established, would have sole responsibility for physical environment, land use planning and all water bodies over a defined area. According to the report, augmentation of water from the River Jamuna through the New Dhaleswari-Pungli-Bangshi-Turag-Buriganga rivers routes can save the rivers from drying up. The route, originating two kilometres downstream from the Jamuna Bridge, would be the best possible way to bring water into the river during the dry season.

The water quality of the four rivers would improve as a result of augmentation of water and increase above the dissolved oxygen level of 4 milligram a litre except at one location on the Balu, which is highly polluted due to untreated industrial wastes, sewage and solid wastes through the Begunbari canal.

It may be mentioned that there was concern about the pollution of the Thames river in London as far back as Medieval times when an Act of Parliament in 1383 ordered that anyone with latrines over the Wallbrook Stream (a small tributary of the Thames in central London) would have to pay 2 shillings a year towards the cost of cleaning up the river. There was another Act in 1388 making it illegal to pollute ditches, rivers, water and the air of London. In 1535, at the time of Henry VIII, a further Act was passed prohibiting the casting of rubbish and pollution into the Thames. However, with no means of enforcement and a growing population with no means of disposing of its waste, the Acts were rather ineffectual.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, was established on the banks of the river Buriganga in early 17th century. The total population in Dhaka City grew from 0.1 million in 1906 to 15 million in 2006. Dhaka city is projected to be one of the four largest mega cities in the world by the next 10 years. In spite of development of communication infrastructure on land, the river Buriganga still remains the main gateway between Dhaka and the southern part of Bangladesh.

Source: The Independent, May 05, 2006

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