Getting dirty for a Cleaner World
By Sabhanaz Rashid Diya
"You will not believe what we collected,“ shouted an exasperated 20-year old Mushfiq while cleaning his hands with Hexisol. “I could not have imagined people dump so many things in the lake - it's unbelievable!” It seemed Mushfiq wasn't the only one who felt that. On 25th March, everyone surrounding the lake (Mohakhali ghat) and wearing extremely dirty white t-shirts resonated his reaction. How could they not when they had spent the past 9-10 hours cleaning one of the most ecologically critical lakes in Dhaka city (as declared by the government in 2001)?
The Baridhara-Gulshan-Banani Lake sits at the crossroad of the posh urban structures and low-lying, crammed slums. Although identified repeatedly as a pothole of illegal activities, particularly haywire garbage dumping and sewage sludge from surrounding residential areas, it has failed to mobilise the government into taking serious actions. Pathways have been built and a recent agreement between DFID and the government is in the picture, yet very little has actually been accomplished in response to the plight of lake ecosystem. Boatmen have often complained how incessant accumulation of solid garbage has made manoeuvring their boats difficult, while the surrounding slum community has bickered about unhealthy living standards. Research conducted through surveys and examining water samples by House of Volunteer (HoV) at BRAC University and Mr. Mahboob Hassan from the Mathematic and Natural Science (MNS) department respectively have shown the highest count of bacteria (more than Buriganga!) from this lake, especially in the portion at Mohakhali opposite to BRAC Inn. Clean lakes have become a necessity, not only to prevent rampant breeding of mosquitoes (leading to diseases), but also to ensure safer living standards and mobilising economic activities.
In response to the call for cleaner lakes, some youth organisations have decided to take matters into their own hands. One of the most remarkable of this lot of endeavours was Project Renewal, organised by House of Volunteer (Hov) at BRAC University (www.houseofvolunteers.org) in partnership with One Degree Initiative (www.1di.org) and Finding Bangladesh (www.findingbangladesh.com). The project offers a comprehensive attempt at understanding the demand of cleaner lakes, coupled with an extensive lake clean up exercise by young volunteers. This is to be followed by workshops on making recycled paper using water hyacinths (kochuripana) and used paper, thus leading to sustainable, income-generating incentives to keep lakes clean - amongst both wealthy and economically challenged population.
In completion of the first phase of surveys and paper making workshops, the teams of volunteers from all three organizations joined strengths on the 25th of March this year to get down into the water and get really dirty. On the much anticipated Friday morning, nearly 150 youngsters were found buzzing around the lake, particularly at the region in Mohakhali that recorded as most toxic and vulnerable. Gloves, white t-shirts, masks and bostas in hand, they were assigned into smaller teams with specific tasks in the more elaborate lake clean-up activity, thus increasing efficiency in the process. From 7am onwards, they picked, shovelled, soaked, rolled, rowed and floated in boats surrounding embankments collecting solid waste and kochuripana. By noon, they have had the experience of a lifetime!
“I have never seen so much garbage in my life,” exclaimed a 20-year old HoV volunteer while busily putting the collected dump inside the bosta. “This experience has taught me so much I'll go home realising how difficult lives are for the communities here, as well as commit to never litter again. I mean, this is unimaginable.”
10-year old Rasel, a local slum-dweller and one of the kids who were thrilled with the bustling of activities in the place they have lived since birth had a more interesting story to share.
“I have four siblings. A year ago, I lost my youngest sister to malaria. The numbers of mosquitoes in our area is uncontrollable. In numerous occasions, people have come to our slum to talk about education or microcredit. Not one has spoken about clean lakes. Even if they had, few had actually gone into the water in boats and spent such a lot of time cleaning it up. Today, when I see this happening, I feel really excited. I know the whole place can't be cleaned in one day, but at least someone is trying.”
“Project Renewal in no way is a one-time initiative to keep our lakes clean,” explains Adnan M. S. Fakir, the inceptor and organiser of the project. “In fact, it is a consistent call for private organisations and lake-surrounding communities to become more aware of the ecosystem of the water bodies, and implement sustainable solutions towards conserving it. During our surveys, we found people irrespective of socioeconomic background willing to pay a decent amount of money to the concerned society or private organisations in order to keep their lakes clean. Our job is not to replace DCC, but mobilise enough demand for cleaner lakes and effective measures. An upcoming publication will explain our efforts more elaborately!”
On that note, a job well done! Areas of the lake were relatively cleaner at the end of the day, and having collected over 600 bostas full of garbage, volunteers knew how important it was to keep our environment clean. While the organisers gear up for another round of paper making workshops and plan towards future phases of the project, today's youth go home with some very important lessons.