Poisoning of city lakes portends an ecological disaster.

Md. Asadullah Khan

What keeps our cities so dirty? It's a combination of slothful utility organisations who are reluctant to change outdated disposal practices that can no longer keep up with population growth, new kinds of trash like plastics and a near total apathy of citizens. Protest and rallies must hammer out the problems of inaction on such issues that pose a direct threat to citizens' life.

It may have happened some years before. Timing is immaterial but the consequences are far reaching and colossal. Recent reports of poisoning of lake in Gulshan-Baridhara is forcing people and industries to take a look at what the callous DCC and RAJUK administration and complacent WASA authorities have wrought. Dead fishes float in the lakes and most of these might have gone to market without anybody's knowledge. Small wonder, we might have consumed it. It is not a pretty sight: poisoned lakes, fouled river, murky air and denuded lands. Thwarted by successive apathetic governments people in even the posh area of the city do now have to pay the price of the carelessness of the city administrators. Quite pathetically, the city is sliding into a morass of problems ranging from unparalleled crime, bureaucratic inefficiency, administrative breakdowns and growing human misery.

The precise timing of the disaster affecting people matters less than the colossal effects it has posed. Spurred by poverty and rural restlessness new arrivals from the countryside and even small towns are invading Dhaka city at a pace unlike any ever in the past and unlike other city in the country. Each immigrant from any other rural village or small town is bursting with ambition. Each harbours a plan a better life. More by default than by design, Dhaka has emerging as a dream city of Bangladesh a city that might provide people with job and home! Between 1990 and 2000 Dhaka's population has swelled by 40 percent - faster than in any other city and is now close to 10 million.

So Dhaka city works for life. Precisely true, as life and work become more intertwined with the opening up of communication technology people are flocking to cities that cater to both. On that yardstick, the surging waves of immigrants to Dhaka are an indication of its problems filth generation water pollution and garbage problem. This stems from the fact that nobody planned Dhaka's growth. For years Dhaka's fabric has been built, broken rebuilt and knocked down again not according to the blueprint of any government.

What has triggered problems here in this city is that much of the business is done without paying user charges for power, water or waste disposal. About 80 percent of the effluents, mostly untreated, drain into the river Buriganga, Shitalakhya and much of it in the lakes and wetlands that stand by the even posh areas. Buriganga and Shitalakhya that serve as the crucible of life for the denizens of Dhaka and Narayanganj are now threatened by the unceasing flows of sewage, industrial wastes and toxic effluents containing cadmium and chromium. As Dhaka city grows apace, its trash mainly hazardous wastes including plastics, metals and packaging is growing exponentially. Right now, Dhaka city, it is learnt, generates about 3500 tonnes of garbage daily. About 70 percent of Dhaka city's population has no access to sanitation services. Result: this large chunk of population sends its wastes including human excreta into the river Buriganga and Shitalakhya and small lakes, and other water bodies in the periphery of the city. In consequence of indiscriminately population, huge piles of garbage remain unattended, festering and stinking and becomes breeding grounds for diseases. That means these rivers and lakes and also the streets today are foul receptacles of raw sewage and toxic waste. Small wonder, people who live amidst this rotting garbage and raw sewage fall easy victims to dysentery, jaundice, malaria and a raft of other diseases. Inevitably true, in such a situation the city's crumbling sewer network with seas of waste accumulating in the open surface drains portend an ecological disaster.

The most enigmatic planner now sees contours of Dhaka's endangered dream in about 60 percent of its population that lives in slums and shanties. The stark reality is that the most glittering Baridhara, Gulshan and Dhanmondi areas are equally gloomy and frightening. Behind the blinding glitter of the new millionaires, the city is failing the bulk of its citizens. Even the basic rudiments of a civic life and civil behaviour seem to be evaporating from the city. It is now evident that DCC-WASA-RAJUK triumvirate will continue to gloss over the city's problems for short term gains. The disaster causing death to entire fish population in Gulshan-Baridhara lake has resulted because Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) has installed a vast network of sewer lines keeping the lake as the only discharge point for a vast array of drain outlets. The disaster is compounded by the criminal action of allowing industries to live cheek-by-jowl with residential quarters and large apartment blocks. Alarmed citizens do know that they are being slowly poisoned by hazardous wastes leaking out from smelters, tanneries and dyeing units and a host of other industrial units large or small. Residents and workers are exposed to serious health threats and even death as hundreds of industries and shanty units in the city produce and reprocess the by products -- a class of toxic metals and chemicals called hazardous wastes. The health impacts of these wastes are wide ranging and seriously damaging. Shockingly, the poisoned waters from these lakes and rivers now symbolise not life but death. By hazardous wastes we mean a class of toxic chemicals -- cyanide, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium and slag from industrial processes, and even certain kinds of plastics. They are produced during the manufacture of a range of products from fertilizers, dyeing and tanning agents to car batteries.

It is not hard to find out how this pollution scenario of lakes and rivers has exploded on the face of the citizenry. Some few hundreds of industrial units, many of them illegal, operating in Tejgaon industrial area, Badda, Rampura, other than Hazaribagh, Lalbagh, Islambagh and Zinzira on the western side of the city generate thousands of tons of toxic wastes. These are either pumped into drains, lakes and rivers or dumped on open ground that leach into ground water -- every day. Shockingly, till now, we don't have any scientifically built dumping grounds. Besides, hundreds of tons of toxic materials are imported from abroad every year but hardly there is any control on the disposal of toxins. With no such curbs, recycling industries are using these wastes causing serious health hazards. Other than this, in the teeming city that now accommodates 10 million people, about 10 lakh cubic metre of human wastes stagnates in the choked drains and ultimately find its way into lakes and rivers. It is now learnt that about 30 such drains are connected to Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara lake. Clearly, this hazardous waste problem has been ignored for too long. More so, this still water body without having any connection with any big river could hardly handle this pollution load and now it has gone completely out of hand. As industrialisation grows and as exodus of people continue to the city unabated, so too has grown all types of its pollution load, including human excreta. Experts believe that toxic waste flowing into the lake has wrought havoc on the fish population by reducing the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in this water. Most of the effluents flowing into the lakes and rivers remain untreated.

As against 10 lakh cubic meter liquid wastes generated in the city, Pagla plant can treat only 50,000 cubic metres of wastes with its 25 pumping stations. According to WASA sources till now only 30 percent of the city areas enjoy the facilities of sewerage system. It is shocking that throughout these long years new township grew up in Gulshan, Banani, Baridhara and Uttara under governmental control and even private apartment complexes were allowed to grow in Banashree, Mohammadia Housing Society, Chhayaneer etc. without least thought about the sewerage system that now unfolds a recipe for disaster. With neither the government nor RAJUK ever investing in new sewer systems in recent time the existing systems are breaking down under mounting pressure of population growth in the city. Experts are afraid if the situation goes like that the whole city would come to a halt. Moreover, as the practice goes in our cities water pipelines run next to sewer lines. In such a situation threat of contaminated water and disease is eternal. People wonder if the proposed plan for the construction of sewer system for Gulshan-Baridhara along with liquid waste treatment plant that envisages a cost of 2090 crore take in foreign exchange equivalent can ever be implemented without donor assistance when the country is facing dire economic breakdowns. Precisely true, with the system to check the imports as well as domestic production of hazardous wastes the courts are the last best hope on earth. So it was done in India. "The country cannot be made a dumping ground for toxic wastes generated in other countries", declared Justice Anil Dev Singh of Delhi High Court in 1997. In another case, Supreme Court of India went further ahead and ordered giving a time limit by which every state was supposed to tell the Court how much waste was generated and a list of sites where those were dumped. The order further said, "State government must explain why they have not closed illegal units that handle hazards wastes".

What keeps our cities so dirty? It's a combination of slothful utility organisations who are reluctant to change outdated disposal practices that can no longer keep up with population growth, new kinds of trash like plastics and a near total apathy of citizens. Protest and rallies must hammer out the problems of inaction on such issues that pose a direct threat to citizens' life. These so-called authorities must be made to realize that the sewer lines lead to drains, which take the sewage - all of it untreated - directly into the rivers, lakes or other water bodies, killing virtually all aquatic life. As it now appears, Baridhara-Banani-Gulshan lake and also Dhanmondi lake have turned into a giant sewer.

Encouragingly true, sewage treatment can also raise money. In Delhi's Okhla Works, which treats nearly half of Delhi's sewage, the waste gases generated are piped to kitchens in 6000 homes at a cost of about Rs. 60.00 a month. With a third of the country's population slated to live in urban areas by the year 2004, the sewage and garbage crisis threatens to get out of hand. Our DCC, RAJUK and WASA authorities can take first inspiration from Ahmedabad and Surat, once considered two of India's filthiest cities. Inspired municipal commissioners have shown how to motivate staff, monitor finances and raise money and involve citizens using incentives and punishments. Precisely true, the government cannot do it alone: citizens must join in the big clean up.

Md. Asadullah Khan is Controller of Examinations, BUET.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, December 7, 2001