Save the river Buriganga

FROM a sleepy river port and a university town, Dhaka has become the capital of one of the most densely populated countries of the world, and is itself reaching the ten million mark in population. This has taken its toll on a city desperately short of city life amenities. One of the first casualties has been the river Buriganga--the Old Ganga--which once maintained commerce by water and the ecological balance of the environs of Dhaka, as well as providing a place to travel leisurely by boat or promenade on the strand, the Buckland Bund. In my very young days there are memories of picnics on the other side of the river at Jinjira and the villages around. The river is being turned into a narrow channel by land grabbers and illegal occupants, and the river itself has become polluted with industrial effluents and sewage.Over the years, Buriganga has become a place to defecate, and empty sewage and effluents. As the population and congestion of Dhaka rises with nightmarish speed, it is easy to envisage a time, not far off, when approaching the river would be a noisome experience. A few years hence, one can imagine gazing at the river which no longer remains it river due to the activities of land-grabbers, and illegal occupants, and the increasing discharge of toxic elements and sewage into the river. Even as I write, a highly esteemed organisation like Sena Kalyan Sangstha, according to newspaper reports, has encroached on the river in building a cement godown. Last Wednesday various environmental organisations and NGOs staged a march to save the river. As the river withers away, many who depend on it for their livelihood are finding their way of life changing, and often in peril. The polluted river allows the bacteria feeding on the waste to have increased to over 100 times the safe levels. Skin diseases are flourishing, and the contaminated river water is also blamed for the rising incidence of water-borne diseases like dysentery and jaundice in the habitations near the river banks. Fish have died, and fishing villages along the river depopulated of fishermen. The fishermen and their descendants have taken to paddling rickshaws in towns. The water of this river laced with industrial toxins, now irrigating farmland, has dangerous effects on the food. Some of the toxic elements are cancer-causing dioxins and organochlorines. Urban aquifers (underground reservoirs) that are recharged by the river are now filling with sewage. And that's the water pumped up by the deep tubewells for domestic water. Deforestation along the banks of the river has sent in sediment and silt blocking up the river. The land-grabbers and encroachers are further blocking up river with landfill.A phenomenal increase in cargo and passenger traffic on the river has been endangered by the shoals and unauthorised land-filling. As the incident of the reported encroachment for construction work shows, even public agencies are now in the business of gaining property at the cost of the river. All of this indicates that there has to be an agenda for change. And not only for the river Buriganga, but for all the river basins and canal systems in the country. The construction of barrages, dams and irrigation canals has drastically cut down on the waters that originally flowed in the Bangladesh rivers, with disastrous consequences all over the country. In India the National River Action Plan formulated in India in 1995 has touched only one aspect of the problem, that of setting up sewage treatment plants in 95 towns and cities in 10 states of India. This is to be completed in 2005, and halfway through the programme there are problems. We still do not have such an action plan for the Buriganga, let alone other rivers and their basins.An UN report in 1998 warned that large areas of the globe will start running critically short of water in the next quarter of a century unless there is a revolution in the way people use this most basic resource. Countries in the high water stress' category include India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There has to be, as I mentioned before, an immediate Agenda of Change. The first requirement is strong and enlightened cirtzen concern. Environmental protection produces no immediate economic return, for it to gain support and achieve its goals, there must be alert and persistent public and political expression and action. Here, the present situation is not entirely discouraging; environmental issues, as we have seen now and in the recent past, inspire a widespread and often effective public interest. This is vitally important. The economic and political situation must also be clearly understood. Environmental concerns, both those which are contemporary and those affecting future generations, especially the latter, are inherently in conflict with the motivating force of the market economy, which is immediate, foreseeable return to the producing firm. This in turn, commands the energy and intelligence that empower the economic system both physically and mentally. Any intrusion on this system and its motivation is seen as socially and economically damaging, and especially so by those who experience it. The conflict is not lessened by the fact that government--the state--is the principal instrument for protecting both the present and the longer-run environmental interests.As part of the National Water Policy, each river and its related ecosystem has to be regulated by its own river basin authority who can decide on water flows, necessary for the dilution of pollutants and sediment. There has to be a no-development zone along river banks, starting with the river Buriganga to crack down on polluters, land-grabbers and encroachers. Dhaka and other cities must look at innovative methods of treating sewage without costly machinery that needs power which is already scarce. In Calcutta, for example, much of its sewage is treated by green plants. Waste water courses through the eastern wetlands, where special plants first degrade the sewage; fish teem and vegetables are gown further down. Rising tides of sewage threaten to overwhelm the system, but the sewage does not further foul the murky Hooghly. Annual maintenance costs are Rs. 100,000 against and average of Rs. 10 lakh for mechanical plants. Power breakdowns don't matter. A bonus is 10,000 tonnes of fish every year and 200 tonnes of vegetables.We must have a strongly motivated constituency endowed by its members with the necessary financial resources. There must be presumption in its favour in public discussion and political action. Public balance requires that there must be those who champion effectively and cogently the contemporary and long-run case. Let the river Buriganga be saved by a coalition of private agencies, including NGOs and government action. With effective action in this field, other environmental problems and the attendant regulations required will fall in line, and be effectively solved.


Source : The Daily Independent, Dhaka, July 10, 2000

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