DHAKA was made the capital of the Mughal Empire's Bengal province in 1610, on the bank of Buriganga. As we entered the modern era and the city expanded, we realised that, compared to other cities, we were four times as lucky as greater Dhaka was also surrounded by three other rivers – Turag, Balu, and Shitalakkhya, and a fourth one if we include Tongi Khal, making a necklace of five rivers.
It was virtually a "sweet water island" – if not the only one then definitely one of the very few in the world. The city was further replenished by the life-generating annual monsoon rains. Its underground water reservoir almost burst at the seams as its rain-fed recharge was far more than needed.Like the nerves in our body, 200 canals, hundreds of lakes and water bodies, including thousands of ponds, kept Dhaka among the richest cities in the world in terms of its sweet water supply. Few cultures celebrate water, rivers, and rain as we do through our literature, song, poetry, dance, culinary specialities, festivities, and life in general.
All that has changed now. As if in vengeance we have been ferociously and relentlessly destroying this water resource in, what can only be termed as, a suicidal streak. In our so-called development-focused mindset, nothing seems to matter except concrete structures, with practically no concern for our natural resources – the most vital of which is water and which we misuse, overuse, recklessly waste, and mindlessly pollute.
Our Department of Environment (DoE), in a report from as early as 2009, declared these four rivers as Ecologically Critical Areas (ECAs), signalling the need for urgent action to save them. But as if to mock nature and our future, nothing has been done in the last 13 years. In fact, pouring pollutants into them continues with official sanction.
According to the National River Conservation Commission's report of 2021, there are 258 discharge points on the Buriganga, 269 on Turag, and 104 on the Balu river. These "discharge" points are purveyors of the rivers' death as they allow thousands of tonnes of toxic chemicals and household waste daily into them. In addition, the thousands of launches, steamers, and goods-carrying cargo vehicles also pour thousands of tonnes of used engine oil and other waste into the rivers. There is no control and no concern.
As greater Dhaka became Bangladesh's centre for its drive towards growth – 35% of our GDP is produced in and around the capital city – more of its natural ecosystem declined leading to the mindless cutting of trees, filling up of drainage canals, but most importantly, tragically destroying our water resources.
One particular project illustrates successive governments' inexplicable lack of concern, understanding of the depth of the problem, and foresight in handling one of our most precious resources – our rivers.
The project is the relocation of our tanneries from Hazaribagh to Savar. What was meant to be an attempt to restore a semblance of ecological balance in Buriganga became one of passing a "death sentence" on the life-enriching Dhaleshwari river in Savar. Nothing has been done to restore the ecological balance of the former and everything is being done to destroy the latter.
The first tannery was established in Dhaka, during the British Raj, in 1940. By the time we became independent in 1971, after 23 years of Pakistani rule, we had 270 tanneries in the vicinity of Dhaka, nearly all located in a place called Hazaribagh on the bank of the Buriganga, with all the tanneries' toxic waste being dumped into the river.
By the year 2000, the pollution became so extensive and protests of the public, media, and civic society protest so incessant that the government – goaded into action by a High Court verdict – undertook a project titled Savar Tannery Industrial Estate (STIE), for which it promptly acquired 200 acres of land. Not unsurprisingly, that's where the promptness stopped.
Starting with a budget of Tk 175 crore in 2003, it ended up spending Tk 1,078 crore by 2016 with the project's most important element – the Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) – remaining unfinished. Since 2017, when 154 tanneries were finally relocated via a court order and punitive measures, the Dhaleshwari is now being polluted, with toxic and chemical discharge greatly damaging the ecology of the river. Meanwhile, the local residents faced all sorts of health hazards, not to mention the destruction of the livelihood of the local fishermen and others dependent on it.
According to the World Bank, there are four types of river pollutants in and around Dhaka: domestic waste water (including sewage), industrial effluents (over 10,000 industries discharge huge amounts of untreated effluents into rivers daily), biochemical waste (from hospitals, laboratories, and healthcare facilities), and pollutants related to river encroachment.
The countrywide picture is not too dissimilar, either. Once we had 700 rivers, all with regular flow. Now, according to the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB), we have 230 rivers that flow round the year and another 310-405 with only seasonal flow. While those with seasonal flow are increasingly being eaten up by private land grabbers and official projects, even those with regular flow are being significantly encroached upon, with the connivance of local administration.
According to a report published in 2016 about the state of our rivers by the DoE, 29 rivers in the country have been heavily polluted, with hardly any aquatic life left in them. The National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) published, in 2021, a list of 63,000 river grabbers in the country.
As we pollute the rivers and make surface water unusable, we turn more and more to underground water for cultivation and for human and industrial use. Here, the picture is just as dangerous.
Momoko Tada, a senior urban specialist with the ADB, in an article in 2021, warned that, "The groundwater depletion could potentially lead to widespread land subsidence, which, combined with climate change, could lead to floods in wider areas. To add to this, there is a severe shortfall in safe drinking water for the people of Dhaka."
Just to gauge the danger in Dhaka in comparative terms, the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) reported in December 2022 that the depth of groundwater in Khulna is 1.56 metres and that in Barisal is 2.9 metres while for Dhaka – in Tejgaon area, for example – the average depth of the water level is 65.92 metres, comparable to the height of a 20-storey building. That is how much we have abstracted groundwater in Dhaka, and this continues unabated. Today, 67% of Wasa's water supply comes from underground water, just to consider one figure.
The above picture was only of Dhaka city. According to a World Bank report from 2021, countrywide abstraction of groundwater by farmers is about 32 cubic kilometres in the three months of the dry season. With this volume of water, a three-storey "water building" could be built spanning the entirety of Bangladesh.
In the early 1970s and 1980s, the logic behind massive abstraction of underground water was the need to produce more food and also to prevent diarrhoea, which was a major cause of child mortality. We used groundwater as if there was no tomorrow and polluted the surface water by giving a free hand – totally unmonitored – to the industries for their unfettered growth.
According to the World Bank Country Environmental Analysis 2018, we lose US$2.83bil annually due to river pollution. This will amount to US$51bil in the next 20 years. The time has come for us to take a serious look at the usage of both groundwater and surface water.
The time has come for us to take a serious look at the usage of both groundwater and surface water in Bangladesh.
Why are we neglecting – in fact, destroying – our precious reservoir of surface water? Rivers are not only sources of water, but of life in general.
The over-extraction of our groundwater, that has taken millions of years to accumulate, is nothing short of stealing water from our future generations. No development is worth even the paper it is written on if we destroy for it the very element on which life depends.
Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, while epitomising greatness in many fields, committed the fatal error of building Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory) as his capital (in 1571-73) which he had to abandon within 10 years because it had run out of water. Modern cities like Dhaka need not be abandoned because technology helps us to transport water from afar. But do we need to destroy what we have? After all, water is a finite resource and we already suffer from its acute shortage in many cities, in many areas, and not only during the dry season. With climate change, things will only become worse. – The Daily Star/Asia News Network
Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.