From untreated human waste, pollution from tanneries and factories to encroachment, problems abound for the rivers surrounding the capital. This daily has extensively reported on these issues that continue to plague the water.
While pinpointing one cause of river pollution perhaps represents the symptom, we take a comprehensive look at the disease responsible for the current state of the rivers.
The Business Standard interviewed Dr Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury, Chairman of the National River Conservation Commission to discuss the underlying causes of this age-old, relentless problem and how the responsible parties can correct their ways.
What is the current state of our rivers?
Rivers in some areas have been horribly polluted and then some rivers have experienced encroachment. Although almost 90% of rivers around Dhaka have been retrieved from encroachment, what we couldn't do was reduce the pollution level of these rivers.
Starting from Bhaluka [in] Mymensingh, pollution of rivers like Turag, Bongshai, Sutai, Chirai etc has dangerously accelerated.
And the reason behind this is that we have a number of laws to protect the rivers but these laws are not enforced properly. When I joined as the chairman of the National River Conservation Commission, I organised a programme on 16 March this year by the malodorous Turag river. We had invited journalists, representatives from different organisations [and] the government. I had announced in front of the audience that we would have the rivers cleaned by the time of Bangabandhu's birthday on 17 March 2023.
We have travelled to a number of districts and upazilas to make people aware of river pollution [and] suggested to them not to pollute. But the reality is, it's not just the common people that pollute the rivers, it's the factories, industries and government workers that are the main culprits here.
Take solid waste pollution for example. It's the municipalities that throw such waste in the rivers. They justify themselves by saying that they don't have enough landfills to dump, which is not a proper explanation.
You said 90% of the rivers around Dhaka have already been retrieved from encroachment. So who were the people who encroached on these rivers? And I travel over the river embankment every day. It was supposed to be the river on one side of the dam and the cityscape on the other side. But that is not the case here. In fact, the riverside is also getting filled very fast. There are recreational clubs also, which seems to be a big investment behind this. When asked, they say that they have legal documents to build such establishments. My question is, how is that possible? How can they build concrete establishments there?
It's the rest of the 10% that could not be retrieved. There are boat clubs and other establishments that we could not get rid of yet. And don't take the figure 90% to be literal, it's more like a phrase. I meant a big portion by that.
And then there are some disputed properties in these lands. Many have filed writs in the high court to retrieve these and then the high court has ordered us to dispose of these establishments. So we can say that we have succeeded in retrieving some of the river lands.
But from whom have you retrieved these lands? Who are these people?
If we generalise, it's mainly some industries, people who have constructed residential buildings etc.
What do you plan to do now about the remaining 10%?
We are still working on this.
For example, Dhaka North City Corporation has taken a step to retrieve the Old Buriganga channel and they have already retrieved some of the land. This channel was alive once. We are encouraged to retrieve these connecting channels [and] canals.
In 2009, the High Court passed rule 3503, according to which the border of a river will start from the cadastral survey [cadastral surveys document the boundaries of land ownership attested by documents, diagrams, sketches, plans, charts and maps]. But then rivers change their courses over time, for example, Buriganga has changed its course and it doesn't flow the way it used to in 1778. There are a number of reasons behind this, like the movements of tectonic plates.
The river has a right to flow on its own course, to remain free from pollution, from human encroachments [and] to be abundant in biodiversity. All these river rights have been recognised by the High Court. So we cannot stop its flow.
But what about the lands where the river used to flow once? These are public properties now. And being public property, the government is the caretaker of these lands now and the ministry of land takes care of these on behalf of the government.
And national river conservation commission takes care of the wetlands - rivers, canals etc. And whenever the rights of any river are violated, we take action. This may include informing the local administration (DC, UNO, water development board etc).
The country's deputy commissioners have put up river boundary pillars. The government has clear instructions on how to use a specific piece of land. Still, they allow concrete structures to be built on the riverland. Why is that?
It's not the DCs that do these. Take the Maisha power plant dispute for example. [The Awami League lawmaker from Dhaka-14 seat Aslmaul Haque has built the power plant and Arisha Private Economic Zone by encroaching on the river banks and floodplain of Buriganga and Turag in Savar's Shyamlapur, Keraniganj's Washpur and Ghatarchar.]
The High Court ordered that NRCC will conduct the demarcation of this power plant. According to that order, NRCC consulted with eight organisations like Dhaka DC office, DLRS, SPARSO, Bangladesh Water Development Board, Ministry of shipping etc. They conducted a survey and demarcated the land. So it was not the DC office that planted the pillars there, it was BIWTA [Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority]. And we still don't have a clear idea where they planted the pillars, although we have sent official letters to them to give us the information.
And then we cannot target random pillars because there are residential lands of the common people as well. So we must follow the cadastral survey (CS) line.
River lands cannot be leased to individuals or any industrial purposes so that the floodplain does not get destroyed so that [in effect] the flood can flow without any barrier. We have to take care of that but at the same time, we need to pay attention so that we do not end up evicting common people from their land.
Because the public trust property means either everyone will benefit from this land, or no one will. Our responsibility is to ensure everyone's rights – be it the river or the people residing beside it.
You mentioned that the municipalities or the city corporations are the major polluters. How do they manage human waste or city pollution?
Dhaka is surrounded by several rivers- Buriganaga, Turag, Balu, Dhaleshwari, etc. Let's assume the population of this city is 1 crore (although it's more than that). Every day this 1 crore people produce 45 lakh kg stool (per person 450 grams on average) and 1.5 crore litre urine on average. Where do you think this human waste goes?
It was supposed to pass through the sewerage canals to the sewage treatment plants in Narayanganj's Pagla and Dasherkandi. But no sewerage connection has yet been built in Dasherkandi.
According to the news, we know that a stand-alone organisation is working there, purifying a small amount of water for themselves. And as we are informed that the STP [sewerage treatment plant] in Pagla treats 20% of human waste, it's not correct. Because while there should have several thousand kilometres of sewerage lines, there are only a few hundred of them that's connecting the city to the STPs. And these few hundred don't function properly.
According to experts, only 6% of human waste is cured. When monitoring the treated water, we found that the wastage was not treated properly. And the remaining 94% of this waste travels through the drains towards the 27 functional canals in the city and eventually to the rivers Buriganga, Turag, Balu etc.
And this is polluting our rivers.
We recently tested the monsoon water of the Balu river in Buet's laboratory and we found that the amount of faecal bacteria in this river is too numerous to count, which is unsafe for any use. And every river around Dhaka city is similarly polluted.
And during the dry seasons, the situation is even worse, where the dissolved oxygen level is only 0.1 mg per litre, where the optimum amount should have been 4 or 5 mg per litre.
No fish can survive in this environment. Only suckerfish can survive in this, and exactly that is what has happened there. Though it's assumed that sucker fish can survive in a lower oxygen situation but in reality it's a surface breather fish, taking oxygen from the air. The rivers are getting full of sucker fish and people are eating them as well, which is unhealthy.
These rivers are ecologically dead.
According to the 2009 rule of the High Court, the department of environment has declared these rivers to be ecologically critical areas. And when an area is ecologically critical, there are some restrictions that are imposed. But unfortunately, the department of the environment doesn't work in these areas.
Then there are industries in Savar, relocated tanneries from Dhaka - these are polluting the Dhaleshwari, which is eventually going to the river Buriganga, polluting both rivers.
When we questioned the industries, they justify [their actions] by saying that they treat and test the water regularly, and release river-quality water into the river. Then we went into their ETP laboratory, it was outrageous- the lab had no chemists and the equipment was not adequate. So basically they provide fabricated information.
The central ETPs don't work properly because their capacity is to treat 25 lakh litre of waste per day, but in reality, it's more than that, almost 45 lakh litre of waste is produced in the industries.
And the chromium separation and the chromium recovery unit also don't work properly. As a solution, the standing committee of the government suggested shutting down the factories, [and] accordingly 27 factories have been shut.
Here at NRCC, we don't support shutting down any factories or industries because it doesn't solve anything except creating unemployment. What is needed here is proper enforcement of laws. These factories don't run the ETPs properly. The management is responsible here. Punish the management and the owner of the factories.
As punishment, they are fined a certain amount of money and then they continue whatever they were doing. Our suggestion here is those repeat offenders should be jailed.
Are you recommending steps and actions that the city corporations should take because saving the rivers is your mandate?
I have talked to the city mayor and repeatedly asked why he is allowing the floating debris to flow into the rivers. He has no right to pollute the rivers. If necessary, he will be jailed for six months. But still, he didn't come up with any solutions. I hope the state will take action against him.
We have suggested that linear treatment plants can be planted on the canals. But it was not paid any heed by the mayor.