The government is implementing two projects to produce conflicting outcomes; one to treat water from the Meghna River before supplying it to residences in the capital and the other to build a sewerage network to dispose of untreated liquid waste into the same river.
The former one is funded by the Asian Development Bank.
As the river waters surrounding Dhaka are becoming untreatable and the groundwater is depleting, the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) has been working to meet the city's demand with treated water from the Padma and Meghna.
"The Dhaka Environmentally Sustainable Water Supply Project" under which Wasa will treat 50 crore litres of water from the Meghna every day was launched in 2013.
On the other hand, a World Bank-funded project taken up by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) has been polluting the river through the drainage of wastewater into it without treatment.
While the ADB is providing $250 million in loan for the water supply project, the International Development Association (a member of the World Bank Group) is funding the $410 million Municipal Governance and Services Project, a part of which is causing the river pollution.
The MGSP is being implemented in 28 Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). Among other activities, about 238 kilometres of a 369km drainage network has already been constructed or repaired under the LGED project to carry both greywater – water coming from kitchen and bathrooms – and blackwater that contains human excreta to canals and rivers, including the Meghna.
In rural and semi-urban areas, families still use a common pit in the back of their homes for domestic wastewater and other solid waste to go into. This way the waste is contained and water eventually recharges the groundwater table through natural filtration. People take care of such pits themselves.
As drains have replaced these pits without having treatment facilities, liquid waste directly flows into rivers and canals.
The 1997 Environment Conservation Rules made it compulsory to chlorinate sewage water before the final discharge, which is being violated in the Municipal Services Project.
Shedding off of the responsibility
The project director, Shaikh Muzzakka Zaher, told The Business Standard that the drains were meant for stormwater, not sewage.
Field-level staff, however, said the drains were also designed to carry wastewater from kitchens and bathrooms, which did not have human excreta.
In field visits, drains were seen to be attached to pre-made inlets to allow pipelines to carry household wastewater. As grey and black waters are not separated at source, they get mixed together to water bodies.
On the monitoring mechanism to check the quality of discharged water, Zaher said the responsibility lay with the respective local government bodies.
There is no measure by local administrations to ensure that the waste disposal system does not pollute the surface water resources.
According to the World Bank's Environmental and Social Framework, the global lender is committed to ensuring environmental and social sustainability of the projects that it supports. In compliance with its policy, it is supposed to "undertake its own due diligence of proposed projects".
The World Bank's country office did not respond to email requests for a comment on the issue.
Users and environmentalists questioned if the drains were meant for storm water only, how households would dispose of wastewater.
"Proper sewage treatment is the job of respective municipalities. When they fail to do so, people like you and me discharge wastewater into the water bodies using these drains," said Sayeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.
It is illegal to discharge untreated wastewater into water bodies, she said.
River conservationists pointed out the absence of a treatment facility.
"We need to have the will to protect rivers from pollution. It is the mindset that needs to be changed. I do not think it is a matter of money," said Seikh Rokon, secretary general of Riverine People.
Storm lines and sewerage lines should be separated at source, so the volume of liquid waste to be treated is less and the treatment gets easier, he added.
Wasa feels the heat
The cost of the project to supply water from the Meghna river is Tk5,248 crore, nearly 70% of which is funded by the ADB and two European development partners.
Although it was supposed to be completed by July of 2019, only around 43% work was finished by the end of 2020.
An ADB study titled "Protecting the Meghna river: A sustainable water resource for Dhaka" published in 2019 says an additional $175.2 million, equivalent to Tk1,480 crore, will be required per year to clean the water.
The report warns that Meghna waters could become highly polluted to be treated for drinking within the next five years. The river is being polluted by industrial waste coming from numerous small and medium-sized textile factories, as well as domestic wastewater.
The ADB in its report suggested that the factories in the area surrounding the river must have effluent treatment plants and that municipal solid waste and wastewater should not be directly discharged into the river.
Project Director of the water supply project Md Mahmudul Islam said it would be extended up to 2023.
"Municipal wastewater is a source of water contamination. Government agencies are often responsible for river pollution."
On the lack of coordination among agencies that has led to the implementation of the conflicting projects, Mahmudul said a technical committee was working on a masterplan to stop river pollution.