WASA says it needs nine more years to clean up Buriganga water. Experts doubt it

Taking a walk along a river should be a pleasant experience, but that is not the case for the residents of Dhaka when they need to visit a place near or cross the rivers surrounding the city.

No scientific experiment is required; the foul odour is enough for anyone to cringe and realise how polluted the rivers are.

A battle is ongoing to save them. But the wait is getting longer by the day.

Now Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority or WASA says it will take at least nine more years to make the dark water of the Buriganga sparkle by stopping the sewage from directly flowing into the river.

Urban planners have their doubts about the utility’s projection. They say such a deadline is “unrealistic” while activists argue the authorities lack the goodwill to save the rivers.

According to data gathered by the Bangladesh Institute of Planners or BIP in 2019, the residents of Dhaka create 1.5 cubic metre of sewage daily. As much as 20 percent of the wastewater remains at the source and 40,500 cubic metres are cleaned at Pagla Sewage Treatment Plant in Narayanganj.

The remaining 1.16 cubic metres of unfiltered sewage flow into the rivers Buriganga, Balu, Turag and Shitalakkhya.

Criticised for a long time for its failure to make arrangements to filter the wastewater, WASA says the things will change once it finishes setting up five new sewage treatment plants in 2030.

It is planning to install the plants in Uttara, Mirpur, Rayerbazar, Dasherkandi and Narayanganj’s Fatullah. The work to construct the plant in Dasherkandi is ongoing. The initial tasks to set up the plants in Uttara, Mirpur and Fatullah are also under way. I will take time to begin the work in Dasherkandi. WASA will build the plants with grants and government funds.    

Until the plants are operational, waste water from Dhaka will continue to flow into the rivers.

“The plants will cut the pollution of the rivers,” said AKM Shahid Uddin, the technical director of WASA.

He hopes they will be able to finish the projects by 2027.

Adil Mohammed Khan, general secretary of BIP, is not convinced.

“Setting such a deadline is unrealistic. WASA is always talking about plants. But the main challenge is to connect the sewerage lines with the plants in a densely populated city like Dhaka,” he said, pointing out that the capital has no central sewerage system.

INDUSTRIAL WASTE

According to study on urban river pollution in Bangladesh in the last four decades, wastes from around 7,000 small and large factories in Hazaribagh, Tejgaon and Dhaka-Narayanganj-Demra dam areas are dumped in the Buriganga river.

From there, the wastewater flows to the Turag, Balu, shitalakkhya, Dhaleshwari and Tongi canal.

Md Jamal Uddin of Barishal University’s Department of Soil and Environmental Sciences, and Yeon-Koo Jeong of  South Korean Kumoh National Institute of Technology’s Department of Environmental Engineering conducted the research.

According to the association of owners of more than 100 washing plants in Keranigaqnj, each of those discharges up to 30,000 litres of wastewater to the Buriganga every day. It means the river takes 1.8 litres of wastewater with poisonous dyeing chemicals daily from these plants.

Over 30,000 cubic metre of unfiltered wastewater from more than 100 other printing, knitting and dyeing factories in Shyampur flows into the Buriganga daily as well.

The tanneries have been relocated from Hazaribagh to Savar, but they are polluting the Dhaleswari there.

Researchers say that the central effluent treatment plant there and in the Export Processing Zone cannot properly filter the wastes. In Tongi, the dyeing and washing factories are polluting the Turag.

The High Court in January ordered the Department of Environment or DoE to start cases against the individuals, organisations and factories, including 30 washing plants in Keraniganj for polluting the Buriganga.

After hearing a writ petition in March, the court asked Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company and Rural Electrification Board why they gave gas and water connections to the washing plants.

Manzill Murshid, who stood for the petitioner, said Titas and REB submitted their explanations to the court, but the hearing did not proceed due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The DoE started cases against as per the court order, according to the lawyer.

State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury said the government has a task force to stop river pollution. It comprises representatives of the DoE, city corporations, the ministry, WASA and other agencies.

“They are working with their own components,” he said, and added that the ministry will soon buy water treatment vessels following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s orders.

“But it’s not possible to stop the pollution overnight. We have the goodwill. I believe the residents of Dhaka will see clean water by 2025.”

Shuman Shams, president of Nongor Bangladesh which works as a social organisation to preserve the rivers, said people are sufficiently aware about the pollution and government agencies know well the sources of pollution. 

“The government must work sincerely. We don’t see much work to stop pollution.”

ASM Ali Kabir, chairman of National River Conservation Commission or NRCC, seeks powers to save the rivers.

“Those working to stop pollution must work seriously. There is no shortcut. We have everything we need organisationally. What we need is to prioritise the job.”

“We will have to enact a law if we need it. But that law must give the commission executive and enforcement authority. We are only making recommendations, but cannot enforce these,” said Kabir.