Photos: Zahedul I Khan
Long lines of parched residents waiting with buckets or other containers in front of a Wasa truck has become an all too familiar scene for Dhaka dwellers and all indicators suggest that the situation will get worse before it gets better, if it ever does.
"It's well known to all that every year we suffer a lot due to the acute water crisis. But what does Wasa do to resolve it?" asks an agitated Nazmul Haque, a resident of Senpara Parbata, Mirpur who has to wait at least for two hours in a long queue to collect water from the Wasa lorry. "For the last few years," he adds, "we have been reading in the newspapers about Wasa's plans to solve the crisis. But so far no change is evident."
The government seems to agree with this pessimistic view. At a recent seminar where he was the chief guest, Advocate Rahmat Ali, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives (LGRD) ministry said it was unlikely that the water supply problem would be solved any time soon but the government had taken 'effective plans' to tackle the crisis. He said the government would solve the water problem in the city in phases by 2013 and water would be brought from the bay, if necessary, by setting up desalination plants. For a poor country like Bangladesh, say scientists, such outlandish plans are hardly realistic.
The government, however, has a history of touting the most impractical plant such as for the last few decades it had plans to supply water to the city dwellers through augmenting water from the Padma River, a plan that has never been implemented. Instead of developing a master plan, Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa), under the Ministry of LGRD, has always taken the short cut approach of installing deep-water pumps to meet the immediate crisis. Such initiatives have been proved ineffective.
Thus during every dry season from (March to June) Dhaka City dwellers suffer from an acute water crisis. In many parts of the city people get sticky and straw coloured water from the Wasa supply line. Such contaminated water, which causes many water-born diseases, is a public health disaster.
The city's northern parts are the most affected. People living in Gulshan, Niketan, Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Shyamoli, Dhanmondi, Jhigatola, Panthopath and others are facing an acute water crisis. Meanwhile, apart from the actual shortage of water that everyone is facing, people living in the middle part of Dhaka and in Old Dhaka such as Rampura, Madhubagh, Paltan, Karwan Bazar, Malibagh, Wari, Lalbagh and others have to bear with an added menace - water that is sticky and foul smelling. It's not that Wasa isn't trying to ease the crisis but so far all it has been able to achieve is the fury of most of Dhaka's 12 million residents who have to live day after day with little or no water.
It's not just the middle income groups and poor who are suffering; an acute water crisis is making life in the poshest areas a living hell.
Senjuti Khan, a resident of Niketan, Gulshan, says, "For the last two months residents of our apartment building have been collectively buying water from Wasa. The share of water that we get each day is too little to lead normal household activities. After completing our daily chores we have to go to some relatives' house to take a shower.” The situation deteriorates further when Wasa officials of Zone Five sometimes refuse to sell emergency water.
Similar ordeals occur in most parts of the city. Zahidul Khan, a resident of Dhanmondi, says, "We get a little water only for 15 to 20 minutes after midnight. But my neighbours, mostly the residents of the apartments store their huge reserves with powerful illegal lift pumps. As a result we don't get water normally. We even spend sleepless nights collecting a little water from the supply line to be used the following day."
Badrul Ahsan, who lives in Adabor, Shyamoli remarks: "The little water that we get in the supply line is straw coloured," he adds.
In neighbourhoods of Old Dhaka or the central parts of the city, residents have resorted to collecting water from nearby water pumps, as the water they get from the main line is sticky and stinky. In Old Dhaka particularly, the water stays sticky all year round. The Member of Parliament of Dhaka 7 constituency has applied for an exclusive connection to his house and neighbours from the local pump house to avoid the smelly water from the Wasa pipelines.
Dr. Mostafa Jalal Mohiuddin MP, says, "Over the last few years we have been getting malodorous water in the supply line. I'm keeping contact with the concerned ministries to solve the problem, since we are long-time victims of the crisis."
Professor Kazi Matin U Ahmed
Commenting on the ongoing situation, Professor Muntasir Mamoon, an eminent historian says, "The root of every crisis in the city is that everything is done on an ad hoc basis. Every government blames the lack of co-ordination between the utility agencies for most of the crises, however, no government has gone for any specific planning. If this continues, what can we expect from a government that has been committed to so called 'change'. Instead of making irresponsible comments each and everybody should work with some specific agendas. If the ongoing water crisis in Dhaka is not addressed properly it's not unlikely that the fate of the city would be similar to Mohenjo-daro, an Ancient Indus Valley civilization.”
The first water supply system was introduced in Dhaka by the British in 1888 under the jurisdiction of the district civil surgeon at Chandighat. The Chandnighat plant treating water from the Buriganga River has the capacity of supplying 3.9 crore litres of treated water to supply mainly in the localities under Lalbagh Police Station and Kotwali Police Station. However, after so many years the treatment plant is unable to produce according to its normal capacity. Moreover, the source of water for the plant, the Buriganga River, has become biologically dead because of ongoing water pollution caused by industrial and domestic sources. The conventional treatment plant, which uses only lime and chlorine for treatment, cannot neutralise the existing pollutants in river water, many of which may cause serious health hazards. That is why people get sticky straw-coloured water in the areas where water from the Chandnighat is supplied.
The first deep-water pump was installed in Dhaka in 1949. Till the end of 1960s the water supply in Dhaka was almost surface-water system based. Dhaka Wasa was formed in 1963, being separated from the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), with the aim of giving better service to its city dwellers. It inherited only 33 deep pumps from DPHE. But, to meet the ever increasing demand of the city dwellers of one of the fastest growing mega-cities in the world, Dhaka Wasa without having any long-term vision, kept on installing deep-water pumps on a crisis by crisis basis.
The dependence on groundwater for domestic, industrial, and commercial water supply in the city area was more than 95 per cent prior to the commissioning of a surface water treatment plant (Sayedabad Surface Water Treatment Plant) in 2002.
Each day, the treatment plant at Saidabad supplies 22.5 crore litres of treated water to the capital's north-south pipeline that runs from Postogola Bridge to Farm Gate, and to the east-west pipeline which supplies water to the vast area from Goran through Old Dhaka to Dhanmondi.
Graphs: Courtesy Professor Kazi Matin U Ahmed.
Though the treatment plant is well designed, at present it is inadequate for treating the dangerously high concentration of domestic and industrial wastes in the Shitalakkhya River, the source water of the treatment plant. The high concentration of ammonia in the supplied water as well as excessive use of chlorine to treat the polluted river water in the plant creates a bad smell in the supply line. Which is why the consumers who get water from the Saidabad Water treatment plant get sticky straw coloured water in the supply line.
There is every possibility of toxic heavy metals in supplied water, despite claims by Wasa that they test the water before supplying it.
Through 514 deep-water pumps, Wasa 'abstracts' (pumps out water from the river and other sources) more than 160 crore litres of water from underground. The figure is about 88 per cent of the total water supply by Dhaka Wasa. Apart from the Wasa pumps, the private sector abstracts an estimated 20 crore litres of underground water through 1200 legal and an estimated 1000 illegal pumps, according to the Chief Engineer of Dhaka Wasa Mohammad Nurul Haque.
Excessive use of underground water (180 crore litres a day) through deep tube wells without any adequate replenishing mechanism has lead to an alarming drop in the underground water level. People living in the areas such as Mirpur, Shyamoli, Gulshan and Dhanmodi are going through the same water crisis as most of the existing pumps in these areas cannot abstract water properly from the ever-decreasing underground water layer, especially in the dry season when the water level naturally decreases further.
The ground water layer in the city, in fact, is dropping by around three metres a year on an average. But without considering this, Wasa has been abstracting water from the underground, which is causing the water in the aquifer layer to disappear altogether. Each year, the rate of pumping water from underground through deep-water pumps is increasing at a frightening rate of 15 per cent.
According to hydrogeologists, this not only exacerbates the already sever water crisis but will in the future, cause land to subside. Already most of the available water of the upper aquifer layer has been used up. Now Wasa is installing deep aquifer pumps to abstract water from the second layer. But even this is becoming difficult in many areas of Dhanmondi, Mirpur, Niketan, Nakhalpara, Ibrahimpur and Manipur.
Waiting with containers in front of a Wasa lorry - a familiar scene in many parts of the city.
"Drilling to a deeper aquifer layer is not a solution," continues hydrogeologist Kazi Matin U Ahmed, a professor of Department of Geology of University of Dhaka, "Rather it will trigger disasters like subsiding of land. Already we have identified Motijheel, Dhanmondi and Mirpur as areas of the city that might face serious land subsiding, since there is a huge depression in the underground layers of these areas because of excessive use of underground water. Production costs, moreover increases, since Wasa is pumping from deeper layers. Ten years ago water could be abstracted from 140 metres deep, now you need to dig 300 deep for abstraction."
According to Professor Matin, Dhaka is perhaps the only mega city in the world, which is totally dependent on underground sources for supplying water to the city dwellers. "With the existing system, the natural recharge is not sufficient to meet the demand of excessive rate of abstraction. The rate of natural recharge through rainwater has decreased since the concrete structures are replacing the water bodies. Moreover, the unplanned urbanisation is facing a huge environmental threat. Because of inappropriate disposal of domestic and industrial wastes, there is every possibility of filling up the underground vacuums with hazardous effluents. This might cause a serious health crisis in the city. Geologists have addressed these issues to the government, however, nothing has been considered", says Professor Matin.
Wasa officials also blame the ongoing power cuts as one of the major causes for the decrease in the production of Wasa. The Chief Engineer of Dhaka Wasa claims, "Because of load shedding we cannot operate 540 deep pumps for an average of three hours a day. As a result, most of the time we supply 20 crore litres less than our capacity."
Only 274 pumps of Dhaka Wasa are equipped with generators and it does not have enough funds to buy fuel to run all these generators whenever needed. Dhaka Wasa also blames the public for creating the shortage and decreasing the quality of the water.
A high official of the agency says, "Huge volume of the supplied water in the city is being misused simply because of lack of awareness of the users. The city dwellers consciously or unconsciously misuse the supply water. Moreover, they create holes in the pipeline for connecting illegal lines. Sewage water enters into Wasa supply line through these holes which contaminates water quality.”
So far Wasa does not seem to have any concrete plan to solve the crisis despite the fact that over the years many donor agencies have urged it to shift to surface water sources instead of its current dependence on groundwater extraction. Surface water pollution has affected the ability of Wasa to draw and treat surface water at Sarulia and Chandnighat.
These images indicate how rain is harvested in individual houses in Delhi to recharge the underground water. Courtesy Professor Kazi Matin U Ahmed.
Danish International Development Agency (Danida) has come up with technology to control the foul smell in water treated at the Saidabad Water Treatment Plant to a minimum level. This 'pre-treatment technology' will be installed as part of the Second Phase project of the plant, which is expected to be functional from 2012.
"The second phase of the treatment plant will supply 22.5 crore litres of additional water daily, which will improve the existing situation. But at the same time the government should take steps to control the ongoing pollution in the Shitalakkhya River. Otherwise, it will be difficult to implement the third phase of the plant, which is expected to produce additional 45 crore litre water a day," says an important Wasa official.
Wasa hopes to solve the water problem in the next four years. To meet the water crisis in the Mirpur area a well field in Singair Upazila, Manikganj district has been identified. A total of 30 crore litres of water is expected to be abstracted from the field. "After getting approval from the Planning Commission, we expect to go to production in three years," says a high official of Wasa.
In order to meet the growing water demand in Uttara, North Badda and Gulshan, a surface water treatment plant is under consideration at Khilkhet area, which would add another 50 crore litres of water in a day to the supply line. The intake of this treatment plant would be the Meghna River. In fact this is a part of the Asian Development Bank (ADB)'s proposed 'Water Supply and Sector Development Project,' informs the Wasa official. "This treatment will also create opportunity to improve the existing water quality at the intake point of SWTP at Sarulia," he says.
People are flocking to collect water wherever available.
The ADB's proposal includes replacement of leaky pipelines, installation of water overheads, capacity building and institutional development of the government agency.
Wasa has already sent a proposal to the government to purchase 200 generators, so that power cuts do not hamper the production of the agency.
But the hydrogeologists suggest that the government takes immediate steps for artificial recharging engineering to control the ongoing depletion of water in the underground layer. Rainwater harvesting might be a solution to the crisis. "Many parts of the world even in Delhi, rain harvesting has proved to be effective for artificial recharging in the urban areas," informs Professor Matin.
Annual rainfall, he says, is over 2,000 mm in Bangladesh which can be used to recharge the underground water through dug wells, ponds and abandoned wells of Wasa. The professor also says that the low-lying areas near Dhaka can be used as surface water reservoirs using the water of the monsoon. It will help recharging and at the same time can be used for surface water source."
A holistic approach is needed to ensure adequate supply of potable water to the citizens, one that would increase Wasa's capacity as well as promote private sector involvement in the supply of water given that Wasa only caters to part of the water demand. Above all, it is vital that the sources of surface water are not themselves polluted through sewer and effluent dumps.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009