POST TIME: 2 July, 2019 11:40:56 AM
Air and river pollution getting severe in Dhaka
The water of Buriganga is now so polluted that all of its fishes have died, and increasing filth and human waste have turned it like a black gel
Prof. Sarwar Md. Saifullah Khaled

Air and river pollution getting severe in Dhaka

The country’s capital Dhaka is facing diverse types of hazards. The question of air comes first – life stops if the breathing in of air stops. Yet concern grows over Dhaka's air quality. Experts are of the opinion that the concentration of suspended particles in the air of Dhaka city is many times higher than normal even by Bangladeshi standard. Noise and dust pollution also alarms experts. The air of Dhaka city is rated one of the worst in the world. This air, which the city-dwellers and commuters breathe, contains lead in concentrations reportedly almost ten times higher than the government safety standard set by the Department of Environment (DoE). A study conducted by scientists of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) revealed about 50 tonnes of lead is emitted into Dhaka city's air annually and the emission reaches its highest level in dry season (November-January). The density of lead in the air of Dhaka city in dry season reaches 463 monograms, the highest in the world.
Air pollution has become a matter of great concern for all. Surveys revealed. There are basically two main causes for air pollution in Bangladesh: industrial and vehicular emissions. Diesel-run vehicles account for more than 80 per cent of the air pollution in Dhaka as most of them fail to comply with the approved emission standard. Because of these two reasons, the situation in the city is taking a terrible turn.  But progress in preventing such environmental pollution is not tangible despite campaigns and discursive drives. There are laws in place like the Environment Conservation Act and the Environment Conservation Rules. There is a separate ministry and also are there government departments and agencies. Their efforts prove not much effective so far while the situation keeps going from bad to worse.

       Moreover, everything in the country is becoming Dhaka-centric for highly centralised administration, governance and even politico-electoral arrangements these days. The results are now human jam coupled with traffic jam. With a population boom in the capital, transport of variegated modes chocked up all thoroughfares. To rub salt into the wound, veritable dust cloud from construction sites and dug-up roads add to the human and transport fumes and sounds to create pernicious smog in the air and a brain-tormenting ambience all around. No doubt the pollutants mentioned above are all unavoidable accompaniments of increased economic activity for livelihood in the present state of affairs.

       But how do you imagine of breathing a little fresh air here? Inhaling such air, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) findings and medical investigations, seriously affects the respiratory tract and causes irritation, headache, asthma, high blood pressure, heart ailments and even cancer. If this trend of air pollution continued, those living in major cities, including the capital, will become exposed to these diseases and health complications. So remedy brooks no further delay. Take a lesson from how other cities in Asia, including neighbouring Delhi, did it with the exercise of good governance and coordinated management initiatives.

         In New Delhi, the authorities in an attempt to reduce air pollution prohibited initially 20-year-old vehicles from plying on city streets in late 1990s. They started phasing out 17-year-olds from the end of 1998. Finally the elimination of 15-year-old vehicles in 1999 came. Besides, registration of new auto-rickshaws with front engines was banned from 1996 and registration of old defence service and government-auctioned vehicles was banned from 1998. Traffic management saw more innovations now.

      Thereafter the question of water comes – “the other name of water is life”. Concern grows over Dhaka's surrounding rivers’ water quality. An alarming note is being sounded, for pretty long now, that none of the rivers around Dhaka does contain the minimum level of dissolved oxygen (DO) required for life forms to survive. In other words, they are turning dead. In the death throes are Buriganga Turag, Shitalakkhya, Balu and Bangshi. Specially the first four are considered lifelines of the capital city. Without oxygen water is not possible and without water life gets extinct – the exactitude is evident now in many planets, including the moon.  

      The Department of Environment (DoE) conducted a three-month study between January and March 2013 on the levels of DO in these river waters. The findings were alarming. The chemical analysis of various samples showed that in January 2013, the levels of DO in the Buriganga, Turag and Bangshi were 0.38, 0.59 and 0.0 milligram per litre respectively. As per the Environment Protection Act (Amendment) 2010, the minimum requisite level of DO for any water body to sustain aquatic species, including fishes, is 5 milligram per litre (mg/l). The standard is minimum 6 mg/l for water being eligible for treatment as drinking water.

       The anatomy of the aquatic environs of the city indicates that the water on which life and livelihood here sustain is passing through a vicious transformation, turning it into a veritable liquid like gel. Living beings cannot sustain in this zero-oxygen water and the city-dwellers cannot drink it safely even after treatment. Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) said that due to excessive presence of harmful Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) in the Buriganga River, authorities at the capital's Sayedabad Water Treatment Plant are forced to increase use of chlorine every day to make the water drinkable. However, as yet, the city residents cannot drink water direct from WASA pipelines.

       A World Bank study says that the four major rivers near Dhaka receive 1.5 million cubic metres of waste water every day from 7,000 industrial units in surrounding areas and another 0.5 million cubic metres from other sources. Unabated encroachment that prevents the free flow of water, the dumping of medicinal waste and waste of river passengers have compounded the problem, making the water unusable for humans and livestock even. An eminent campaigner for “Save Buriganga, Save Lives” civil-society movement said "Unfortunately, all these bad things – encroachment, dumping of industrial waste and other abuses – occur in full knowledge of the authorities”.   The water of Buriganga is now so polluted that all of its fishes have died, and increasing filth and human waste have turned it like a black gel. Even rowing across the river is now difficult for it smells so badly. It reminds us of the fate of Dholai Khal of the 1950s that eventually later on was converted into underground drain. Another campaigner says that "The pollutants have eaten up all oxygen in the Buriganga and we call it biologically dead. It is like a septic tank". It is also stated that there is no fish or aquatic life in this river apart from zero-oxygen-survival kind of organisms. This is the scene on the surface-water front of the river.

Groundwater is also being contaminated with seeping toxic substances, such as chemicals like cadmium and chromium and other elements such as mercury carried by the industrial waste. Such contamination of both surface and ground water is posing a serious health crisis for city dwellers. Serious diseases are on the rise. Water creates and sustains life. Scientists say that life perished on many planets as sources of water over there dried up over millions of years. So it is necessary to be alert so that our cities in particular and the country in general if not the planet at large because of our fault become devoid of living species.        

The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General Education Cadre.