Our Rivers, Our Dreams
Morshed Ali Khan reproves the callousness of the authorities towards our rivers and suggests solutions
Art Work by Arif Haque
On the wall of the Dhaka WASA’s Drainage Circle at Topkhana hung an artist's impression of the Dhaka Flood Protection Embankment. Drawn just after the great deluge of 1988, the image depicted the embankment in the most civilised manner.
The unnamed artist took great care in giving the future beri bandh all the components that we might deem necessary for aesthetics -- a wide walk-way, lush green grass, trees, street-lights, and a tinge of blue in the nearby water of the river Buriganga.
The dyke today, more than twenty years later bears the testimony of utter negligence and mindless planning. From Tongi by the Turag up to Postogola on the bank of the river Buriganga, the 30-kilometre long dyke that should have been a great facilitator to Dhaka's road communication system and to people's leisure, cries loud for help. Instead of being a lovely drive bypassing dozens of places with an unhindered view of the river, it offers instant dismay for obvious reasons.
Locals know why the bank of the river is so neglected and left to rot. These areas by the river are hardly used by the affluent section of the city population.
The whole stretch of the embankment is thus left outside the purview of city development. After all, none from those impoverished areas are going to complain. Their commissioners and the members of parliament are too busy to look into their day-to-day problems.
The mayor of Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) Sadek Hossain Khoka, who during his eight-year-long tenure persuaded banks, real estate developers, and top business houses to take up beautification programs at city intersections, meridians, and roadside spaces, has an idea about the embankment's development which is vital for the protection of the river.
"You see, the problem with the embankment is that it is owned by several departments of the government," suggests Khoka. "If my office is given the sole responsibility of its beautification and maintenance, we will chalk out some ways to do so."
But whatever the plans are, the embankment needs urgent attention without which the campaign for saving the rivers around the city looks grossly incomplete.
A young man stands at the intersection of Kamrangir Char Steel Bridge and Lalbagh Fort Road on the bank of the Buriganga recently. He watches closely as some DCC cleaners unload a rubbish truck onto the slope of the embankment that rolled into the river. Suddenly he approaches the truck driver and shouts: "Why are you dumping this rubbish here?"
"That is not your business," replies the driver, waving to his workers to continue unloading.
The young man replies that he lives nearby and the rubbish was causing serious stench in the area.
"I won't let you unload here," says the young man in rage and grabs the shovel from a worker.
The driver jumps out of his seat with an iron bar and threatens to get the young man arrested for obstructing "government job."
"Get out of here you rascal or I will break your leg," he shouts.
Soon a dozen locals joins the young man and charge at the driver. Sensing public wrath, the driver leaves his truck and runs towards Showarighat. The two workers swiftly surrender to the public and says that they have to obey orders. They say that someone called Lal Mia, a relative of the local commissioner had asked them to unload rubbish into the water.
"There is a plot in the water that belongs to Lal Mia. We have to fill it up," says one of the terrified labourers.
Half an hour later, the driver of the rubbish truck returns to the spot in an expensive private car, accompanied by a man in his late 50s wearing a snow-white panjabi. Over fifty local people now hold the two workers.
"What's the problem? Why are you holding those men?" asks the man softly, identifying himself as Lal Mia.
As the young man tries to explain, Lal Mia suddenly grows agitated. He announces to the crowd that he owns the land in the water and has to fill it up.
"If anyone opposes the move he should come forward now," he says sternly.
The crowd suddenly grows silent as if an unknown fear has gripped them. Lal Mia rushes back to his car and comes out with a set of documents and holds the bundle up with his right hand.
"These are my ownership records, shall I now call the police?" he asks.
By now most of the people have silently dispersed and the young man stands there helplessly alone. The story of this young man standing alone against the might of Lal Mia and the sarkari bin-men ends that day with Lal Mia leaving the area victoriously.
Along the 17-kilometre stretch of the river Buriganga, hundreds of similar cases are sprouting every day. The sheer helplessness of the young man who rose to stop a river gobbler is reflected among many people in the old part of the city.
Mohammad Ghias Uddin Chowdhury Johnny is a civil engineer and lives in Shaheed Nagar by the river Buriganga. He says he is frustrated over the speed in which the river is being grabbed and polluted.
"The only way to stop such theft is to create a strong vigilance immediately and enforce the wetland protection law. These people may somehow own the river, but we should never allow them to fill it up, no matter how strong they are."
Johnny is a young professional who feels deeply for the river that has served the people for generations.
"You see most industries which are polluting our rivers are doing it not because they cannot afford to install effluent treatment plants but because they are taking total advantage of our lawlessness year after year," Johnny says.
Land is a very sensitive issue in this metropolis. Every police station in the capital has been instructed by headquarters to handle each land-related claim very cautiously. The reason behind such instructions was simple.
According to top police officers, in the past, powerful land-grabbers used the police so rampantly that the incidents of police getting involved in land-related deals became known nationally through media reports.
"Now if you walk into a police station and complain about someone filling up the river, the usual reaction is: please give us a written complaint we shall investigate the matter," says Johnny's friend Ferdous, who works for an NGO in the city.
"The only follow up you hear of within a day or two following your complaint is when you receive a call from none other than the river grabber, who invites you to visit his place and check the documents," Ferdous continues. "By now you realise you have invited enough trouble for yourself. The police have asked the offender to settle the matter with the complainant."
Demolition and BIWTA
For the last ten years BIWTA (Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority) has been evicting settlers and demolishing hundreds of structures from the shores, foreshores, and channels of the rivers Buriganga, Turag, Balu and the Sitalakhya. The authority, mandated under the Port Act has done so to protect its port area, which stretches over an area of 84 kilometres, including both banks of the rivers Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Sitalakhya.
BIWTA has been doing this arduous job in the most rudimentary way, using anything from a hammer to rope, every time leaving piles of blasts either in the river water or on their shores.
BIWTA's top officials admitted the drawbacks. An official, requesting customary anonymity said that the persistent media campaigns forced the policymakers to launch eviction drives "without even asking if the BIWTA has the equipment to conduct such drives."
"We demolished the structures but failed to reclaim our rivers as we left the debris where they belonged encouraging the encroachers to return," said the top official.
Another senior official of the BIWTA eviction team said the half-done job was worse than not doing anything to save the rivers: "The eviction drive is futile if the river is not reclaimed and demarcated immediately after eviction to deter future encroachments," he pointed out.
Flow of the river
The rivers and canals around the capital become totally stagnant with the onset of dry season when their flow is cut off at the confluence of Jamuna in the south of Dhaka. For seven months the slight movement in the river waters occurs when high and low tides from the downstream rivers take place. The Buriganga, the Turag, the Balu, and the Sitalakhya during the lean period become pits for millions of gallons of solid and liquid waste, emitting unbearable stench.
According to experts at the Institute of Water Modelling, the only way to keep the city rivers flowing during lean period is to dredge the confluences open. The Ghior Khal in Manikganj, the Pungli in Tangail, and the Old Brahmaputra in Jamalpur are the main water conduits for the rivers around Dhaka.
The IWM, which did a study for augmentation of water in city rivers during the lean period found that the river Pungli could be dredged up and trained to provide round-the-year supply of water. Nearly a Tk 1,000 crore project envisages diverting of 245 cubic metres of water per second from the Jamuna into all rivers and canals around the city through the Pungli. Experts say this diversion is unlikely to impact flow of Jamuna, which during the lean period has an average flow of 2,000 cubic metres of water per second.
"This project is vital for rejuvenating the rivers Buriganga, Turag, Tongi Khal, Balu and Sitalakhya," says SM Mahbubur Rahman, principal specialist and head of the Water Resources Planning Division of IWM.
Restoring flow to the rivers alone would not help. Rahman says that the diverted flow would keep flushing the huge pollution into the downstream and further pollute the Dhaleswari and Meghna.
"At the same time we think about restoring flow to the rivers, we have to compel industries and other polluters to install effluent treatment plants," Rahman adds.
Unanimous support to save rivers
Millions living in the metropolis and its surrounding areas are today united on the issue of saving the rivers. The on-going campaign jointly organised by The Daily Star and Channel-i to save the rivers has drawn a wide range of public support. During the series of photo exhibitions, depicting pollution and encroachments of our rivers at different parts of the city, men, women and children expressed their horror at the present condition of the rivers.
"I was in Kolkata recently and I really appreciate how the river there is neatly demarcated and provides recreation to millions," says Mujibar Rahman, a primary school teacher.
"We really hope that the government will come forward immediately to save these rivers from extinction," Mujibar adds.
Imagine a one-stop office under the jurisdiction of a powerful 'Commission' to deal with anything involving the rivers around the city -- their flow, cleanliness, navigation, dredging, embankments and walkways, banks, resources, security and development. The Commission is constitutionally empowered and technically equipped to deal with anything to keep these rivers safe, unlike current situation when at least ten different departments stagger to keep these rivers protected (or else). The Commission is under a single roof that takes decision and implements those within the sharpest possible time and skill.
Imagine a four-lane highway on either banks of the rivers, encircling the capital with vast walkways. The streets are well-lit with solar panels and the elite River Police patrol the area with their walkie-talkies to update each other regularly. The clean water of the rivers flows without the slightest hindrance where laden vessels, river buses, floating restaurants, traditional fishermen and boatmen pursue their everyday businesses. Children walking with their parents along the broad walkway stop and gaze in wonder at half a dozen rowers speeding past in their kayaks. A group of gardeners water the plants and mow the lush green slopes. Elderly men play garden chess at a piazza beautifully created along the walkway where scores of onlookers watch patiently. The party partially dissolves with the setting sun and the concurrent sound of azan from loud speakers atop hundreds of mosques for which the capital Dhaka is so famous.
The silver lining
The silver lining in the clouds is already emerging. The High Court on June 25 issued a set of directives for the government to save the rivers around the capital from encroachment and pollution. The HC orders come at a time when The Daily Star and Channel-i jointly conducted an intensive campaign to save the rivers. The historic directives were termed by legal experts as 'comprehensive' and hailed for clarity and understanding.
The directives are as follows:
- Demarcate Buriganga, Sitalakhya, Turag and Balu rivers by November 30.
- Declare the four rivers as ecologically critical areas till then
-Officials involved with river demarcation cannot be transferred till completion of the task
- Complete demarcation without any discrimination and influence
- Provide sufficient security to officials during the work
-Install pillars by May 30, 2010 to protect demarca-ted river boundaries
-Remove all garbage and illegal structures from the rivers by November 30, 2010
-Construct walkways and plant trees on the river banks by May 31, 2011
-Continue on-going eviction drive
-Dredge the source areas of the dying rivers within five years
-Government officials will be held responsible if court directives are not followed duly.
Morshed Ali Khan is special correspondent of The Daily Star.