Can we save Dhaka city? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 05, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 05, 2011

Bitter Truth

Can we save Dhaka city?

Once again Dhaka has attained the dubious distinction of being the second-worst polluted and unlivable city in the world by a survey conducted over 140 cities by the London-based Economist Intelligent Unit. Dhaka, once the hub of dream and optimism has descended into a nightmarish metropolis.
The people in the under-developed countries find themselves at a crucial turning point: the actions of those living now will determine the future. We do not have generations, we have only years, in which to attempt to turn things around.
Poverty, over-population, over-exploitation of the scanty natural resources, noxious emissions, and toxic effluents from the industries and smoke-belching vehicles coupled with natural disasters are the main major causes of environmental degradation in Bangladesh. The other factors responsible for deterioration of the quality of life are, lack of adequate environmental considerations in the development processes, poor management of waste, consumption of both renewable and non-renewable resources without substitution strategy, and inability to adopt cleaner technology and processes.
Once sources of sweet and pure water for Dhaka and Narayanganj, the Buriganga and Shitalakhya rivers are now lifeless receptacles of human waste and toxic industrial effluents. Reports show that in Dhaka, an average of 15,000 metric tons of human waste is generated daily, but only one-third of it is treated by Pagla waste treatment plant. About 80% of Dhaka is out of the Wasa sewerage network, which leads to dumping of untreated wastes into rivers and water bodies in and around the city.
When the Mughals came to India, they chose Delhi as the seat of their power because it had the Yamuna river on one side and forests on the other two. Ironically, despite the fact that we have such an example about the need of water bodies near a city before us, we are abandoning the two big riversBuriganga and Shutalakhyaalong Dhaka and Narayanganj.
The people in India are trying to recover the water bodies lost either by human greed or callous actions. Alas! Buriganga and some big lakes like Gulshan-Banani and Uttara lake could have been a big source of surface water if our policy makers had given proper thought to the matter.
Shockingly, Buriganga's poisoned waters now symbolise not life but death. With installed treatment capacity of I lakh 20 thousand ton per day, the Pagla sewage treatment plant can at best treat 45,000 cubic metres of liquid waste.
A filthy grey haze of mist, auto exhausts and chemicals hangs over Dhaka, making it one of the world's most polluted cities. It makes your eyes water, coats your lungs with layers of microscopic noxious soot and covers you with black grime. With the population growing in the city the number of motorised vehicles is on the rise. Diesel-run vehicles account for more than 80% of the air pollution as most of them do not comply with the emission standards.
Traffic is the latest nightmare of Dhaka, with collapsing infrastructure and the growing number of vehicles causing enormous loss of work and business hours other than deaths and escalating health costs, as revealed in a round table organised on October 24 by The Daily Star-Grameenphone public awareness initiative. It seems imperative for the government to restrict sale of smaller vehicles and introduce Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) to come out of this colossal economic loss. The government must think about imposing a hefty congestion tax and parking fees.
As the capital city grows, population pressure increases, and industries expand, its trashmainly hazardous plastics, medical waste, metals and packaginggrows exponentially. With the failure to reprocess waste, Dhaka city is running out of space to dump the growing mountains of garbage. If the mayor visited some of the market places, he would be shocked to see that excreta, both human and animal, and other rotten wastes piled up on pathways close to residential areas and eateries. The people are being forced to buy, and consume disease carrying bugs.
With rivers and lakes polluted, roads potholed, air fouled, parks encroached upon and unhindered unauthorised and illegal construction of malls and apartment blocks going apace, the city now presents a dismal look.
Apart from people with jobs in government and private agencies, about 20 lakh people including construction workers, hawkers and those working in garment factories and other industries in and around the city, live in shanty houses with no water, electricity, cooking gas and toilet facilities. The slum and squatter population has been increasing at more than double the general growth rate of urban population.
After the liberation of Bangladesh, our policy makers should have evolved a clear urban vision. Unfortunately, those at the helm did not show any ingenuity, competence and commitment. They became more imitative than creative. The Dickensian blight and haze that hang over the city today are nothing but a fallout of foggy vision.
If the Buriganga water had once again been made crystal clear, if a green vista had developed along the water front, and if the industries had been relocated, Dhaka would not only have regained its past glory but also emerged as a thriving and a dynamic centre of modern civic life.
In the absence of a vision, Dhaka has lapsed into a beehive of filth, congestion and urban blight. With things going so awry, it boils down to the fact that most of the big cities, especially Dhaka, have suffered at the hands of he policy makers. The development of the city should not have been entirely left with either Rajuk or DCC. There should have been a monitoring committee invested with proper authority to investigate, coordinate, adjust, and correct lapses and loopholes and check fraudulence, starting from plot allotment to erecting unauthorised buildings.

The writer is a Columnist of The Daily Star.
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