Photo: Fahad Kaizar-Driknews

Protect environment, save the nation

Morshed Ali Khan

The Assistant Commissioner (AC Land) of the Dhaka district administration went to the Mohammadpur beribandh (polder) area on a fact finding mission on December 23.

The AC Land, Khurshid Shahriar's initiative did not arise out of the administrator's eagerness to save the Haikkar Khal, a natural canal currently under the wrath of land grabbers. Shahriar was there because the High Court on December 8 had directed the authorities to take measures to save the canals.

Accompanying Shahriar was the Senior Deputy Director of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), Afzal Hossain and Dhaka WASA's Sub divisional engineer Amirul Islam.

Shahriar soon fell into an impasse over who would maintain the canals in the area outside the embankment. Afzal told the AC Land that his office, the BIWTA, is mandated to maintain the rivers designated as navigational channels -- not the canals. Islam joined Afzal by refusing the responsibility. “My office maintains the canals within the flood protection embankment -- not canals outside the beribandh (polder) area.

A dejected Shahriar returned home that day promising to raise the matter with his bosses. The Haikkar Khal, till today, remains an orphan left to the mercy of the mindless perpetrators.

Raj Anikat/ Driknews

A week later Afzal was still insistent that the responsibility of all the canals around the city should be vested on WASA. He went on saying, “WASA, after all, is the custodian of 46 canals in the city, these canals outside the embankment should serve as feeders to the city canals,” he continued, “Why should the head of a canal go to one organisation and the tail to another for preservation?”

The visit of the squabbling custodians of canals was probably little too late for the proper preservation of the canals. The fantastic network of canals beyond the embankment is gone. Whatever is left now are small trickles amid huge desert-like areas with swirling sand on it.

And that too are in the process of vanishing for ever. Relentless pumping of sand on the adjacent low lying areas is fast filling up everything. The water that is pumped through the pipes to fill up a low-lying area is mixed with a high concentration of sand and as it rolls on the impending plot, it rolls further back. And in the back our canals and rivers take the thick watery residue.

When this type of technology is used for filling up a low lying area, it unmistakably fills up the river or the canal beside it. To the convenience of the plunderer there is no policy about such land filling. For the last fifteen years, since this improvised pump technology was introduced for land filling, hundreds of natural canals have been systematically wiped out of the maps throughout the country.

The land-hungry developers take every opportunity to grab rivers and canals and fill them up overnight. There aren't many in the administrations who take the pain of intercepting such projects, for the persons involved in it are bit too big and the administrative attitude goes,“ why disturb and get noticed?”

The outcome of Shahriar's delegated visit to the Mohammadpur beribandh (polder) for protecting the natural canals is a glaring instance of how we are dealing with our environmental governance.

The following is a story of a beautiful waterway called the Atir Khal. This canal, between 200 - 300 feet wide, originated from the river Buriganga at Waaspur and wound its way for ten kilometres through dozens of villages before joining the same river again at Kholamora. For over a century the canal served farmers, traders, commuters and brought joy to million others who bathed, washed, fished and irrigated their farmlands. A boat ride on it on a moonlit night was an immense source of pleasure probably matched to nothing.

Alas, none could appreciate her beauty or unrelenting services for so many years and to so many people. About five years ago, The Daily Star first reported about an initiative by a group of local men to fill up the Atir Khal. The group immediately went low profile. It was only a year ago that the final blow to the Atir Khal was unleashed. The developer claimed that he had all the documents dating back to the British era that show that the “land” belonged to them. “The canal was never there! It is all public land.”

As soon as the vessel-mounted pump machines moored at Waaspur, this paper immediately reported about it. It was impossible to find the custodian of the canal and save it.

Every time the Dhaka Deputy Commissioner's office was alerted about it, officials there expressed their ignorance about the waterway but said they would look into the matter very soon. When the local Land Office in Kalatia was alerted, the officials there said they were desperately short of Land Inspectors.

Days later as the pump machines started pumping sand, this paper ran another story. A group of environmentalists under the banner of Poribesh Bachao Andolon (POBA) staged a protest rally at the site of Atir Khal. Nothing could deter the developers. There was never any initiative by the administration to stop the people from filling up the Atir Khal.

Today Atir Khal has been cut off from the river Buriganga. On its bed a sandy stretch of land generates flurry of dusts. Walls have been erected to build boundaries for residential plots. A wide road has been built right through the canal's heart in the so called project area.

The picture of environmental governance in the country is grim --- at least that is the impression one can derive analysing the two cases of canals. But things may be changing.

On January 6, 2010 the government launched a hyped up campaign to free the Buriganga of solid wastes, which the authorities had estimated covered more than ten feet of the riverbed. It was a start that raised hopes among the population for a river that has been subjected to severe pollution and mindless encroachments.

On a stern directive from the High Court in June 2009 The Deputy Commissioners of Dhaka, Narayanganj, Gazipur and Munshiganj despatched their land surveyors along the Buriganga, Sitalakhya, Balu, Turag and the Dhaleshwari to enlist all encroachers and evict them. Having identified thousands of acres of encroached river area, the authorities of the Bangladesh inland water transport are now conducting sporadic eviction drives.

The plan is to solidly demarcate the rivers and build a walkway along them. Crores of taka has already been allocated for the job but its slow progress worries many.

Photo: Wahid Adnan/ Driknews

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. That too has been addressed. The government has recently launched the Buriganga Restoration project that envisages to restore flow to the entire river system around the capital. The inspiring news came with the launching of Tk 945 crore project, in which about 62 kilometres of New Dhaleshwari, Pungli, Bangshi and Turag rivers in the upstream would be dredged to restore the ceaseless flow with the Jamuna.

A stretch of 162.5 kilometres between Dhaka and New Dhaleshwari off take, almost half a kilometre downstream of the Bangabandhu Bridge, would be restored to maintain flow in the river system of the capital round the year.

But the biggest problem for the government is to address the pollution problem of the river. By the time you have finished reading this story, thousands of gallons of toxic wastes would have flown into the rivers around us from the uncountable industries. Tons of solid wastes have been dumped into the rivers too. May be it is not far away when we would be forced to protect our lifelines. It is already a necessity for all.

The author is a Special Correspondent, The Daily Star.