Abul Hashem a sexagenarian man pours a thick, black, foul smelling liquid from a pot. The stinky liquid is nothing but a sample of water from the river Buriganga. While showing the disgusting state of the water of Buriganga Hashem says, “Once this river had clear water with lots of fish in it. Many people could live on this river. But now the river has turned into a massive sewerage line.” Hashem seems grief-stricken.
The scenario is quite similar to two other vital water sources near Dhaka. The waters of Shitalakshya and Balu rivers, surrounding the city from two sides, could quench the thirst of a huge portion of the city dwellers. But according to the Water and Sewerage Authority, the concentration of microorganism and ammonia particles in the Shitalakshya is so high that in the near future it will be completely unsuitable for domestic purposes. Meanwhile Balu River is one of the main victims of river encroachment by land grabbers. So despite being surrounded by rivers and water bodies, the Dhakaites have a parched future ahead.
In fact already the scenario is quite harsh. Abdul Kalam, a resident of old Dhaka's Dhalkanagar area says, “We have no water supply for more than 5 days. Last night I opened the tap and found black, stinking, foul water. Each night a tank lorry from WASA comes to this locality and we have to wait for hours at night only for a bucket full of water.”
A similar crisis has been hampering lives in densely populated parts of Dhaka such as the old part of the city, Madartek, Indira road, Rajabajr, Rajarbagh etc. Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority (DWASA) which is responsible for the city's water supply, has perpetually failed to fulfil the populace's demand. One of the reasons is Dhaka's ever increasing population. A recent survey shows that each day one thousand and eighteen heads are being added to Dhaka. The city is also being expanded in all directions without any proper planning. But the main reason of this crisis is DWASA's dependence on ground water. Eighty-seven percent of its water comes from ground water abstraction by 618 deep tube-wells around the city. Thus the water table is falling fast without any chances of being replenished. To run these tube wells DWASA depends on electricity which has been undergoing similar production crisis for ages. Power shortage and irregular electricity also weakens DWASA's production capability.
The result of all these shortages is inhuman suffering for the city dwellers. Salma Khatun, a resident of Tejgaon area says, “My two daughters aged 8 and 10 have been admitted to ICDDR,B with chronic diarrhoea. My skin looks diseased. Foul water from the supply is the main reason for this.” Salma is no exception as waterborne diseases take epidemic form in every summer because of water contamination. Why in this riverine country do people have to suffer so much because of scarcity of clean water? Is the government thinking of any solution to this overwhelming problem?
The government has already signed a 250 million US$ project with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to tap surface water for Dhaka city. Under this huge project, the implementing agency WASA will establish a treatment plant to draw water from Meghna River. The project aims to reduce the use of groundwater up to 30 percent.
Regarding this huge and expensive project, Dr M A Matin, professor of Water Resource Engineering Department of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) says, “The project is very expensive and the question is what shall we do when the Meghna too, will get polluted. That is why I have always urged the authority to minimise the river pollution. To minimise river pollution first we have to decentralise the industries from Dhaka city. Waste water treatment plants have to be set up in the factories that discharge contaminated water. We have every law to prevent the pollution. All we need is the implementation of these laws. If river pollution can be controlled and minimized only one or two rainy seasons will be enough to wash out all the contaminated waters from the river.”
In fact, the government's initiative to control river pollution is not particularly promising. The government's promise to replace the tannery industry which is largely responsible for the current pollution of Buriganga has remained still a pipedream. The ongoing pollution of Shitalakshya River and filling up the Balu River by illegal brick kilns are hardly indicative of the government's initiative for rescuing the rivers from their death bed.
Recently Dhaka has been declared as the worst city to live in this world. One of the major reasons for earning this shame is the city's crumbling water supply. Without sensitising people and preventing river pollution, billion dollar projects to ensure safe drinking water will go in vain and the city will remain parched forever.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org