On Sunday, perhaps for the first time, the National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) Chairman made a bold statement. Manjur A Chowdhury urged the authorities concerned to take disciplinary action against Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) MD Taksim A Khan and Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Mayor Atiqul Islam for their ineffectiveness in dealing with the city's waste.
Currently, the four rivers surrounding Dhaka city – Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Tongi canal – are being polluted with household sewage and industrial wastes at 693 points (where waste water meets river water), according to a student recently revealed by NRCC.
To put things more into perspective, National River Conservation Commission Deputy Chief (Morphology) MM Mohiuddin said that about 45 lakh kg of human excreta and solid waste of about one crore people of Dhaka is dumped into canals and water bodies without any treatment.
So what gives? Most of the waste water comes from drain water and overflowing safety tanks; there is some industrial waste as well, said architect and urban planner Abu Hasnat Md. Maqsood Sinha, adding, "This water originates from the city and majority of it is faecal sludge. We need to stop it from the source, because we cannot cover all the points."
Over the last decade, the dire state of Dhaka's waste management exacerbated further due to the increase in number of factories and increase in population density, according to experts. And failure of concerned authorities to make amends to the flawed waste management system certainly did not help matters.
"All of our waste water does not go into the sewage system. Some of them naturally end up in our water bodies. In one survey we found around 1,200 points where people illegally dump solid waste into water bodies," added Sinha.
The flawed waste management system hinges on WASA dumping untreated human waste into rivers, unregulated chemical waste dumping from factories, ineffective shift of tanneries (for instance, the relocation of Hazaribagh tanneries to Savar on the banks of Dhaleshwari, ultimately, brings back the waste to Buriganga), illegal encroachment of rivers, and inadequate techniques used to prevent waste reaching rivers - to name just a few.
One technique in place to prevent waste water reaching the rivers is putting nets over entrances to the city canals as a means to filter out the garbage and prevent it from being dumped into rivers. However, one expert pointed out the flaw in the technique. "The waste should not reach the canals in the first place. If you block the waste in the canals through nets to save the rivers, you are treating the symptom instead of the disease," said Sheikh Rokon, Founding Secretary General of Riverine People who visited over 400 rivers in the last 15 years.
Instead of taking on similar solutions to tackle the problem - such as the failure of nets to filter out the garbage - the authorities need to work "to arrest the problem at the source," he added.
Dhaka dwellers are used to the strong stench of water bodies and lakes. For example, Hatirjheel smells so bad because untreated sewage mixes with this water. "If the water could be treated before reaching Hatirjheel things would not have been so bad," explained Sinha, Co-founder and Executive Director of Waste Concern.
There is a sewerage treatment plant of the Dhaka Metropolitan, known as Pagla Sewage Treatment Plant (PSTP), but less than 2% of the faecal sludge goes into the plant, when the minimum amount should have been 20%, added Sinha.
Have the rivers been freed of encroachment?
Almost 90% of river encroachment space has been freed by the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), recently claimed State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury.
However, one should make distinctions between encroachment and eviction drives. River and Delta Research Centre (RDRC) Chairman Mohammad Azaz said, "to encroach a river, first, you have to fill the river with earth. Government has [for sure] evicted the buildings but the river is not encroachment free," because the rivers remain filled up with soil. And so, encroachers will again return.
Another point to be noted is how it is also the poor who are easily evicted. "But the 'rich' factories' still remain. Among the rich, we have only evicted [Lawmaker] Haji [Mohammad] Selim. The industry nexus remains untouched. So what the minister said was half true," said Azaz.
On 6 December 2020, MP Haji Mohammad Selim's men removed parts of his illegal structure constructed by encroaching on the bank of the Buriganga river in Old Dhaka, before the BIWTA workers came to conduct a demolition drive.
Rokon feels differently. He said that in the case of the four rivers (Buriganga, Shitalakhwa, Balu and Turag), there are two types of crisis: pollution and encroachment.
"The banks of the rivers have been freed of encroachment. There are some deviations, there has been some re-encroachment, but overall, [Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury] claim is true.
However, he points out that freeing the river from encroachment means freeing it physically, sure, "but it has to be done biologically as well, which means it needs to be pollution free," which has not happened yet.
Ways forward: 'It's all about the political will'
It is clear that the city corporations, WASA and the concerned authorities have to effectively take steps to amend the problems and strengthen the waste management system in the city. For a start, reducing the number of waste dumping points along the rivers in Dhaka and untreated sewerage connections to rivers.
"We need to go to the points and work our way backwards to where the waste originates from. We need to identify neighbourhoods, divide them into zones and then we need to go for the Decentralised Wastewater Treatment System (DEWATS)," explained Sinha, adding, "The main benefit of this system is it decentralises the pollution level and minimises the pollution before sending the water back into the environment."
Low income areas and some areas of the old town where there is not a proper sewage system, DEWATS could be a great solution for such areas, added Sinha.
One solution offered by Azaz is installing filtration in all of Dhaka's sewage connections to the four rivers surrounding Dhaka. "Installing such filtration with all of Dhaka's sewage connection would cost around Tk400 crore - that is all the small ones of course - and our rivers will be pollution free," said Azaz, adding that the centre can provide technical support if the local government wants, "it's all about political will."
The city corporations can also take on approaches of advancing waste management in the city. For instance, the household waste collected can be divided into three parts (metal, polythene and biodegradable waste) like it's done in European countries, "even Kolkata started this practice. It is quite possible as the city corporation knows the holding number of each house, as they collect taxes from every house," said Rokon.
This resolves the issue of piling all the garbage in one place and then sorting it out, "which is difficult to manage and environmentally unfriendly," he said.
Additionally, not one drop of untreated chemicals from industries should be allowed to go into the water.
"It is possible because it does not come down like rain or flood. It comes from a source, a pipe. Therefore, if you can ensure factories are purifying their waste water through Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP), which they are bound by law to do, you can stop this pollution," explained Rokon, "to get an industrial licence first you will have to get a clearance certificate from the Department of Environment. The law is there, we just have to implement it."
We reached out to the managing director of WASA Taqsem A. Khan for his comment, but he did not respond, as of this writing.