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     Volume 8 Issue 75 | June 26, 2009 |

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Special Feature

Great challenges ahead

Ershad Kamol
Untreated effluents discharged from edible oil mills pollute the Shitalakkhya. Millions of cubic metres of untreated industrial and domestic wastes from the centre of the city are disposed in the rivers.

The government has taken a holistic approach to save the rivers surrounding Dhaka, after a massive campaign against river pollution initiated by the civil society, human rights organisations, environmentalists and mass media. To begin with, the government has already started evictions at different points in Gazipur and Naranganj to pull out the illegal encroachers, who grabbed a part of the Turag and the Shitalakkhya. The Prime Minister has already instructed the concerned agencies to start dredging the rivers and check environmental degradation caused by industries and domestic sources. Reflection of her instructions is evident even in the budget allocation. Moreover, the parliamentary bodies are also concerned about the issue. Recently the parliamentary sub-committee on the Ministry of Environment has asked the representatives of DCC, Wasa and Rajuk to discuss how to tackle river pollution. The sub-committee also asked owners of industries located in the city and its adjacent areas to attend the meeting as industrial waste greatly pollutes rivers. Earlier a high court bench also ordered the government to take necessary steps to save the rivers from encroachment and pollution.

But hydrologists and senior citizens are quite pessimistic about the effectiveness of such steps, no matter how well intentioned they may be. The drive against encroachment is only at the initial stage and already the government agency Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), which is carrying out the drive, is facing problems due to legal loopholes, fund constraints and lack of equipments.

Not following the Cadastral Survey (CS) demarcation, the government agency is following a Revisional Survey (RS) to evict the encroachers considering the latter as the latest survey. Even the RS survey demarcation (which has already made major compromises with the encroachers) for the rivers and canals is not followed properly in the current eviction drive, informs the concerned sources.

Pitch black river water caused by effluents indicates the high rate of pollution. Photo: Zahedul i khan Small industries on riverbanks are also causing river pollution. Photo: Zahedul i khan

Many agencies such as Deputy Commissioner's office, Paurashovas and even BIWTA have allotted lease of the foreshores of the rivers to the public. Which is why BIWTA is facing legal loopholes to evict the lease allotters following the Port Rules and the Port Acts, says a BIWTA official. The BIWTA officials who are doing the eviction drives are also avoiding structures built apparently for religious purposes such as mosques considering it may lead to negative responses from the religious-minded. From a purely technical point of view the government agency does not even have the hardwire to pull out the foundation of the structures. At present, it is just demolishing the super structures of the buildings.

Concerned sources observe that the government might face even greater challenges later when they have to evict structures owned by the politically backed big shots who are occupying many areas of the Buriganga, the Shitalakkhya and the Turag.

"Using religious sentiments the encroachers usually construct illegal structures on the shore of the rivers,” comments eminent historian Professor Muntasir Mamoon, "When no religion allows anybody to take any kind of illegal advantage, how come they construct mosques through illegal occupation? They do it just for their own interest. After constructing mosques they build other structures to be used for commercial purposes."

"I've read the high court verdict to save the rivers. Without any compromise the government must follow the verdict and demolish any kind of illegal structures on the foreshore. I believe BIWTA is not competent to demolish the illegal structures. In fact, the concerned ministry should initiate the drive collecting the required equipment to pull out all the illegal structures."

Photo: Zahedul i khan

According to Professor Mamoon previous governments have initiated such drives but have always failed to complete them. Because of half done evictions, the encroachers invariably made quick comebacks and continued their illegal activities, he observes. An optimistic Professor Mamoon suggests that the government should form a separate body to monitor eviction and control environmental degradation including government representatives, civil society members and experts.

"The body on controlling the river pollution will monitor demarcation and will plan the necessary measures to be taken,” says the historian. Demolishing the structures a beautification programme should be initiated. It will save the river from the encroachment, at the same time people will get place for amusement, which is very important for urban dwellers.”

On the other hand, the government has done nothing to punish the polluters; all it has done is instruct the concerned agencies to control pollution. Being instructed by the government some ministries and government agencies are initiating plans without thinking much about the consequences, observes the environmentalists. The Ministry of Environment has announced that the government will install Common Effluent Treatment Plants for the industrial zones. Moreover, Dhaka Wasa MD has already announced that the agency is doing a feasibility test on installing small treatment plants at the ending points of the canals.

The environmentalists, however, are critical about the inactiveness of the government to control pollution. Some of them consider that the government will have to face the greatest challenge to take necessary steps against the polluters.

Calling Wasa's plan 'absurd', Professor M Mujibur Rahman, a teacher of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, says, "Wasa's plan of setting small treatment plants at the ending points of canals is not based on reality. While the government agency cannot provide the required sewage facilities for the city dwellers, how come they plan to install treatment plants in 11 points of the city?"

BIWTA is demolishing structures at few points on the Turag and the Shitalakkhya. Photo: Shawkat Jamil

Professor Rahman is also critical about the inactiveness of the government agency such as the Department of Environment. "Why are the government agencies inactive regarding taking any action against the industrial pollution? Seeing what is happenning it seems as if the government is trying to minimise the ongoing campaign for saving the rivers,” says a frustrated Professor Rahman.

According to Professor Rahman, addressing the sources of pollution, the government must immediately take a comprehensive action plan to control it including the experts. "The government must realise that in terms of economic benefit natural resources of these rivers are more important than the industries that are polluting the rivers. Without any compromise we demand the government takes immediate action," he adds.

In fact, it is the call of the time that the current government takes meaningful actions to save the rivers from pollution and encroachment. Even the Speaker and members of parliament (MPs) attending the 'Save Rivers Save Dhaka' campaign jointly organised by The Daily Star and Channel-i made strong commitments to take every measure necessary to stop illegal grabbing and pollution of the rivers flowing through the country including those around the capital. The Prime Minister is committed to initiate such actions. It is expected that the government will keep its word.


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