June 4, 2009

Pollution and waste management in Dhaka

A study recently conducted by the Institute of Water Modeling, with the support of the World Bank, has revealed that the water being supplied in certain points of Dhaka has “extremely high organic pollution.” The same report also mentions the high concentration of dissolved solidschlorides, sulphates, ammonia, cadmium and the heavy metal chromium. It has also been pointed out that in some localities like Hazaribagh and Tarabo, near the Buriganga, the concentration of some chemicals is higher than elsewhere. The tanneries in these areas have been identified as the polluters.
Some Wasa officials, on condition of anonymity, have admitted that the water in these rivers are so polluted that, even after treatment with required chemicals, it is not completely free of ammonia. The presence of other elements reduces the transparency of the water and sometimes gives it an undesirable smell. Experts have indicated that drinking such polluted water for a long time increases the risk of different diseases, and definitely affects the liver. There is also heightened possibility of jaundice.

Wasa generally meets about 15% of its water needs from surface water sources and the rest is obtained from deep tubewells exploiting underground water aquifers. Due to pollution of surface water, increasing population and industrial growth, Wasa has been forced to sink such tubewells in places like Mirpur, Shyamoli, Khilgaon and Bashabo. This, in turn, is lowering the city water table at a faster rate than the rate of recharge. This is proving to be an emerging threat for the continued sustainability of Dhakawhich is expected to have a population of about 22 million in ten years.
This depressing scenario has been further compounded with reports from scientists that underground aquifers are being recharged from surrounding rivers, and that pollution from such rivers is also finding its way into the aquifers. Industrial irresponsibility of discharging effluents directly into rivers in Tongi, Hazaribagh, Tejgaon, Narayanganj, Savar Ashulia, Gazipur and Ghorasal, without required treatment, is now having disastrous consequences.
A report recently published has pointed out that there are over 7,000 industrial units of different sizes in the greater Dhaka metropolitan area. They include dyeing mills, tanneries, pharmaceutical units, engineering workshops, chemicals and pesticide factories, rubber and plastic units, paper and pulp and cement units. Of these, the dyeing factories and the tanneries are the biggest polluters. Studies have shown that of the discharged untreated liquid waste, 61% are industrial in origin and 39% domestic. It is also clear that the only sewerage treatment plant in Pagla can treat only about 10% of the industrial waste.
Dyeing factories are expected to treat their waste and that the vast majority of these units do not do so, and discharge their waste water directly into the sewerage system and the rivers. As a result, the oxygen level in the Buriganga, the Turag, the Balu and the Sitalakhya, in most parts is less than one in per microgram (unsuitable for aquatic life).
This is an example of deliberate negligence. Relevant government officials know that under the Environment Conservation Rule, 1997, every industry needs to have in-house effluent treatment plants. This requirement is being flouted because of the criminal nexus that exists between greedy factory owners and inspectors. It is strongly recommended that heavy penalties be imposed not only on the guilty factory owners but also on the inspectors who have been recalcitrant in performing their duties. Here is an opportunity for the government and the Anti-Corruption Commission to demonstrate that they are agents of “change” and that they believe in good governance.
The next step should be to re-locate the tanneries away from Dhaka. I understand that there are plans in this regard. This might require two to three years but needs to be undertaken on a priority basis through public-private partnership and in a comprehensive manner. I am sure that development partners would be willing to help out in this task. This is the only way to ensure better health for the people, and that is essential for future economic development.
It has been encouraging to see that our legal community has taken the initiative to persuade the High Court to issue a suo moto rule asking the government to inform the Court within a month about what steps have been taken to prevent environment pollution, as pointed out in the writ petition filed on July 15, 2001. One hopes that the judicial process will establish accountability and lead to some improvement.
At the same time, it is vital that the relevant officials in the Dhaka City Corporation responsible for solid waste management, sewerage, sanitation and hygiene are taken to task for their inefficiency. There is prevalence of corruption in this sector also. There have been many reports in the print media about lack of observance of rules and regulations by clinics in disposing of their used articles. This is leading not only to contamination but also to the spread of diseases. Such conditions are unwanted and should not be tolerated.
The concerned departments of health, LGRD and the environment, in association with the Dhaka City Corporation, should undertake an integrated effort to identify the problem spots and then remove them. One measure could be to create an environmental police force to monitor and assure effective implementation of regulations. The cost of creating and maintaining such an outfit could be met from the municipal yax paid to the Dhaka City Corporation and the sewerage tax paid to Wasa.

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