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Cover Story

Dying Lakes

Mustafa Zaman

The area in and around Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara has always been Dhaka's most exclusive residential haven mainly because of the pristine lake that used to encircle these neighbourhoods. But the curse of encroachment has led to the disappearance of large portions of the lake. Whatever is left is also being threatened by land-grabbing and rampant pollution, killing the aquatic life in the lake and endangering its ecological balance. The bad news does not end here. Large-scale encroachment has also led to the lowering of the ground level of surrounding land and have adversely affected ground water. With so much at stake, saving the Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara Lake should be the most crucial task for the government and the residents of this area. SWM gives a glimpse of how vulnerable this vital water body has become and explores possible ways to save it.

Dhaka once used to be referred to as the Venice of the East. It was a city known by its canals and lakes, which were connected to the three main rivers that encircled it. The interconnected canals and lakes were once a part of its natural drainage system; in the not so distant past they formed a convenient network of communication. However, in the frenzy of urbanisation, Dhaka, in the last 30 years or so, has seen a drastic reduction of its lakes and canals as well as wetlands. However, it was not until the 1980s that wholesale encroachment on Dhaka's water bodies began . Starting from the early eighties, canals that lined many areas of Dhaka have been transformed into an underground sewer system and roads have been built upon them without considering the fact that a drainage system can never function like a network of canals.

Dhaka's lakes were interconnected through canals. Though the links have been severed the lake are still an integral part of the eco-system. They act as water retention basins during the Monsoon; and besides being the sources of biodiversity of the area, they are an important part of the scenic beauty. Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani Lake is one of the last remaining water bodies of the city. Not only is its presence important for the sustenance of the eco-system, as the largest remaining water body, it is a major source of the recharge of the ground water.

Its existence, however, is in grave danger. Encroachers have already reduced its size, pollution has affected its biodiversity. Scientists say that water bodies should constitute about 10 percent of a city for it to function properly, as the presence of water bodies ensure reduction of sound and air pollution. The diminishing water bodies of Dhaka forebodes a bleak future. Unless the inhabitants of this rapidly growing city realise the importance of the presence of these water bodies and do their bit to maintain them, Dhaka will plunge into an urban nightmare in the near future.

Architect Iqbal Habib, a member secretary of Urbanisation and Good- Governance Committee of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan, feels that Dhakaites have failed to realise that lakes are an integral part of the environment.

“If only we could consider our lakes and canals as resources... Even if the Gulshan Lake is considered an environmental resource, its contribution to the bio-diversity of the area as well as environmental balance must be recognised. If every part of the city becomes hard surface then there would be a drastic change in the macro-climate,” says Habib. “Even if we had considered the lakes as a part of the city's and canals of Dhaka as communication and drainage system, it would have been a blessing for the city,” adds Habib, who has a presentation ready in his laptop to enlighten anyone interested in knowing the state of the water bodies in Dhaka. What his presentation makes clear is that Dhaka's lakes and canals used to be a continuous water body.

Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani Lake is one of the last remaining water bodies of the city

“If you consider the invert of the canals and water bodies, the closer they are to the river the deeper they get. During the rainy season they used to make flushing possible. However, now that we have truncated the continued water body, its adverse effect is evident in regular water logging in the city during the rainy season,” says Habib who says that as part of the natural drainage system the Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani Lake still play, an important part.

But this vital water body is on the verge of extinction thanks to intolerable levels of pollution that have put its aquatic life at stake . “You would be astonished to hear that Badda and Baridhara areas are devoid of any sewer system,” says Habib. “Domestic waste is being dumped into the lake on a regular basis. And there is this problem of extremely high-level of BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) and low level of DO (dissolved oxygen). It mainly happens in the winter as the links with the other water bodies gets severed in that season. The pipe drainages that connect the water bodies only work in the rainy season,” explains Habib.

According to Iqbal another major problem is acidification. “Industrial wastes are being dumped into the lake. Even there are household wastes that are liable to cause acidification. Discarded batteries can cause acidification of water,” says Habib. He also points out that there is a natural process of pollution, which is called eutrophication. “Eutrophication happens when the lake is overtaken by weeds. The Banani portion of the lake near Arong is going through such a process,” Iqbal clarifies. And finally, he points out the most pressing issue of all, sedimentation. “Interventional sedimentation has reduced the lake drastically,” says Habib.

According to Habib, Rajuk (Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha) itself has encroached on the lake in the last three years and sold more than 55 plots which used to be practically on the water. Sadly, this systematic sedimentation is going on in the name of development of the lake. “It is in the pretext of making a walkway that Rajuk is encroaching on the lake. In many places the walkway is being planned at least 50 feet away from the bank, in some areas the walkway has been moved towards the water thrice to acquire more and more land each time,” says Habib. “The Manarat School was on the bank of the lake, after a steady effort of encroachment, plots have been created in between the school and the lake,” says Habib.

Rajuk's chief engineer Imdadul Islam summarily denies the agency's role in recent encroachment. “After the enactment of Wetland Protection Act in 2000, not a single inch of the lake has been touched. What we are building is a walkway along the bank to save the lake from further encroachment,”

Habib sticks to his allegation of how plots are being created along the banks of the lake. He feels that to save the lake, no plan or programme will provide a lasting solution. “You need to involve the community in the process of implementation of the plans. Their participation is a must. And the most important issue is the co-ordination of all the relevant agencies like DCC, WASA, Rajuk,” says Habib.

It is WASA who has been given the charge of retrieving the encroached land of the Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani Lake. It has and failed to do so and new areas have been lost to encroachers in the last three years. Habib feels that the Jolashoi Ain, the Wetland Protection Act, promulgated in 2000, is enough to retrieve the lake from the clutch of the encroachers. “However, it is the process of demarcation of the water bodies that must precede every other action. In the absence of demarcation, encroachers are having a field day,” Habib concludes. He proposes that “there must be an authority solely for lakes and canals that would look after them.” Without a separate regulatory body, Habib believes, the lakes and canals of Dhaka cannot be saved.

On June 19, 2002, after being informed of the appalling condition of the Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani Lake Prime Minister Khaleda Zia came up with a series of recommendations. The most important one was the “immediate demarcation of lake and lakeside area and declare the same as 'Urban Natural Reserve Project'.” She also stressed the need for conducting a survey “to understand how to restore the lake and to ensure public participation. Her recommendations also included short-term and long-term strategies and implementation, as well as eco-friendly activity based projects and appropriate management policy. But the sad thing is that these recommendations have not been followed; The PM's wishes have yet to be translated into actions. No steps have yet been taken even to demarcate the Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani lake, let alone introduce projects to restore its lost glory. Imdadul Islam mentions the walkway that Rajuk has built along the lake's banks and also a Project Proposal lying in the relevant ministry for the maintenance of the lake. “Only if it given the green light, Rajuk would be able to contribute to the maintenance of the lake,” says Islam.

It may be noted that Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani Lake was declared an ecologically critical area and the Department of Environment (DoE) was given the charge of monitoring the cleanliness of the lake. Rajuk owns the lake and leased it out to Bangladesh Fisheries Development Corporation (BFDC) for five years. BFDC was in charge of introducing land and aquatic organisms as well as fish through appropriate and sustainable technology. However, they have failed in their endeavour. “Rajuk stopped leasing the lake out to BFDC, as it failed to maintain the lake,” says Rajuk's chief engineer Islam.

Frequent truncating of the interconnecting canals has hampered the lake's normal function as natural drainage during rainy season

Vitti, an architectural firm, of which Habib is a partner, has been a consultant of Rajuk from 2001 to 2003. It is their initiative that spurred the PM to issue the recommendations. Alongside the set of recommendations, there were directives that no one actually followed. The PM asked to take steps “to remove all kinds of encroachment from the lake and lakeside area;” and demanded “immediate implementation of the Jolashoi Ain.” However, the government agencies that were to carry out the orders utterly failed in their effort. In fact the continuous process of encroachment only shows that not only did Rajuk and WASA fail to retrieve the encroached areas, but actions of the former, according to Habib, are contributing to more encroachment.

In the beginning of the 2003, Vitti was told that their support was no longer needed, and since then, Rajuk decided to implement their plans on its own.

Iqbal believes that the implementation of the Wetland Protection Act is crucial factor in saving the lakes of Dhaka. “Relevant agencies say that to implement the Jolashoi Ain you need an acquisition of land, which isn't true. This law can be enforced without making any acquisition. What should be monitored is that the landowners, whoever are made to follow the rules and regulations that are applicable to the wetlands that,” says Iqbal. Unfortunately the agencies involved are not ready to lend their ears.

When the lake is being gradually reduced as the encroachers are continuing with their unscrupulous acts, the quality of the water is another factor that may raise alarm in any concerned Dhakaite.

Syed Tamjid ur Rahman, chief executive officer of ChangeMaker, a local NGO, feels that cleaning up of the water must be top on the list. “This cannot be seen as an isolated phenomenon. The purification of lake water is concerned with the water in the entire aquifer, it is also linked with subsidence of land (causing the soil to sink lower into the ground) as the Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani Lake is a major contributor to recharging the ground water,” says Rahman.

While the government has utterly failed to stop the encroachment process, response to the issue of purification of water has been positive.

Four Amateur Fishermen Committees (AFCs) are also involved in cleaning of the lake water. They do what they can to keep the lake clean of weed and uncontrolled hyacinth. The BFDC is also involved in the process, though they have failed so far in making headway in cleaning the water.

The width of the lake is getting narrower as more and more portions are filled in for construction

Rahman is optimistic about the project of purification where they are going to use the Hydroponic method. A hyacinth bed is built with one layer of hyacinth and another layer of compost of hyacinth to be used as a bed for plantation.

Both BFDC and the AFCs are happy to see an NGO taking the initiative to purify the lake water. Rahman is determined to run a full-scale pilot project to introduce this method of hydroponics to purify the water of the lake. And they are expecting government funding. It is for lack of funding that the full-scale work has not yet taken off. “It is only at a preliminary stage, we have floated only a couple of beds on which we are trying to practice sericulture,” says Rahman.

Rahman dreads that there will be a time when pure water will be scarce and he sees the importance of lakes in context of that bleak future. “There used to be 80 deep tube-wells set up by WASA and among these only 40 are now operational. The rest had to be shut down as underground water level has dropped drastically. The only recharge of that underground water is taking place in areas near the lakes of Dhaka city,” says Rahman. He is keen on the fact that to keep the regular supply of drinking water, care should be taken of the surface water of the lakes, from where the aquifer is being recharged. “If the lakes become polluted, the entire aquifer will become polluted, and that would spell a environmental disaster for us citizens,” Rahman points out.

The land subsidence that took place in Uttara, Gulshan and Motijheel, occured because of shortage of water in the aquifer. “Land subsidence, where large areas cave in, may harm the high-rise buildings. When we tamper with the water reservoir like lakes, we do so at our peril, as the reduction of the lakes might translate into drying up of the aquifer, which will lead to subsidence,” adds Rahman.

Rahman feels that for an organisation like ChangeMaker, to attempt to purify the lake water, is a gargantuan task. What Rahman is trying is to tie up the entire community in the process of saving the lake. “We are trying to rope in corporate giants, who, as part of their corporate responsibility might want to join hands with local people, who also become involved as it is their lives which will be improved if the quality of the lake water is improved,” says Rahman.

Architect Habib feels that hydroponics is only one way of reducing the pollution. He is in favour of a multi-pronged solution. “With biological treatment one way is to use the hydroponics method and the other is to go for fish firming. There are types of fish that cleanse the water, farming of such fishes will improve the quality of the water,” says Habib.

There are other methods like chemical treatment and mechanical treatment. Rahman readily dismisses these options as they are very expensive. But Habib feels that all the methods should be tried out to solve the problems at hand. He argues that the solar aquatic treatment has proved effective in improving the quality of water of the river that flows by the Salt Lake City of Kolkata. “Hydroponics is a part of that treatment, we may resort to similar methods that have proved to be effective in the neighbouring country,” says Habib.

Although there are differences of opinion among the two men regarding application of methods of water purification, both agree on one thing, that immediate actions must be taken to save the Gulshan-Baridhara-Banani Lake. And to do that the most important step would be to put a stop to the sources of pollution.

“There are laws to prevent industrial waste dumping in water bodies, but they are never applied,” says Rahman. ChangeMaker's proposal suggests industrial waste treatment before dumping. Rahman heavily relies on hydroponics. He and his associates at ChangeMaker believe that they can effectively turn water hyacinth into an effective means of treating the water. “Normally it is a nuisance, causing water logging; it breeds mosquitoes and if left as it is it is unmanageable. But we want to turn it into a solution,” argues Rahman.

Why this vital water body has been choked from both sides is a mystery yet to be solved

Changemakers has experience in hydroponics. In Satkhira they have introduced moveable beds for cultivating vegetables as well as growing seedlings during the Monsoon when land remains under water. However, Rahman, feels that the hydroponics project is not aimed at merely cleansing of water of the lake. He sees it as a step to make sure that ground water remains unpolluted as the lake considerably contributes to the recharge of the ground water.

Shabbir Ahmed Agha, a resident of Gulshan, feels that prevention of pollution as well as encroachment should precede an effective effort to clean the water. “As residents of the area we are oblivious of the consequence of dumping our toilet waste into the lake water. So, to keep the lake clean, prevention should be our first priority. And whatever purification programme is undertaken, it should be sustainable,” Agha points out.

About the involvement of the locals in the drive to prevent pollution, Agha says that it is important for the residents of the area to get involved in the drive to save the lake. “But it is more important that a society or a citizen's body with environmentalists in it should take the initiative”, he says. His contention is that if a group of residents come together to save the lake they may not have the power to enforce any rules or regulations. “There must be a specialised body that would inspire the locals to contribute to an organised effort. And it is also important that this body should work alongside a government agency like the municipal corporation,” says Agha. He feels that if a particular household is responsible for dumping household waste in the water it is only a government agency that would be able fine the owner of that household. “A group of residents will not have that power,” Agha clarifies.

In the end, it can safely be said that what is needed to save the lake is a co-ordinated effort. The scenario is such that without the intervention of either an environmentalist group or conscientious residents' platform the government agencies will not do what they are supposed to do. But a citizens' campaign can only point out the lacking and discrepancies of the government agencies and, to some degree, can increase the awareness level of the locals, but it cannot give directives to take positive action. That is why the government must wake up from its slumber and enforce its agencies to put their act together.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006