Water of strife
The polluted Buri Ganga that
flows through Dhaka holds the key to life
and death for 10m people in Bangladesh. And Azhurul Haq is the expert
who has to balance competing demands.
The Buri Ganga river in the centre of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, is a most extraordinary sight. It swirls through the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world, a heaving, bustling, thrillingly chaotic mega-city of 10 million people, of whom almost a quarter live in slums.
Thirty years ago Dhaka had just 250,000 people and its waters were relatively
clean. Now the Buri Ganga is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Boatbuilders,
charcoal factories, brickworks, tanneries, mosques, rubbish dumps, sewers, swimmers,
ferries, animals, children, fishermen, huge freighters and commuter boats —
all vie for its space and water. Its embankments are made of rubbish bags, houses
regularly collapse into it, boats regularly sink. It is a giant public lavatory
and a huge wash-house, a playground, a bazaar, a building site, a market place
and a commuter route rolled into one.
Above all, the Buri Ganga is an open sewer and is of great concern to Dr Azhurul Haq, who must have the most difficult job in the sub-continent.
With 2,500 employees and next to no money, the head of the Dhaka Water and Sewerage
Authority must each day provide healthy water and sanitation for the city.
If Dhaka were an ordinary city simply without any money it would be hard enough to provide water and sewage. But being built on a giant floodplain near the confluence of many large rivers, it regularly floods — sometimes so badly that millions of people must live knee-deep in polluted water.
Dr Haq is sanguine. "The problem here is serious that it is hard to understand,”
he says. “The city has grown beyond belief. It has been built on human waste
and rubbish. It's how the land is filled, to raise the soil level. The whole
place is a landfill site and a cesspit."
Providing water, he says, is a nightmare. "We need a minimum of 1.6 billion
litres of water a day, At the moment, our theoretical capacity is 1.3 bn litres
a day and our actual production is 1.26 bn litres, which means that a lot of
people cannot have water. We have 370 wells but, because of severe electrical
problems, only 60 per cent of them work. We also need to replace 600 km of water
pipe out of the 2,000 km we have. Some are pipes made of asbestos cement, which
is very dangerous. We also get 97 per cent of our water from deep underground,
which is lowering the water table and is not sustainable."
Dr Haq must deal with a problem that few other water company chiefs have faced.
His workers openly steal and divert the water. "They manipulate the valves to
provide more water to certain areas,” he says. "But they are on very, very low
salaries, so I cannot expect them to be legal always. A pump operator is on
the lowest wages, about $1.50 a day. How can he survive on that? So they harass
consumers for money. Some even have small businesses, turning the water on and
off. If one of my workers is idle for just one minute, then 30 households do
not get water.”
Legally he is not allowed to supply water and provide sanitation to the slums
because the residents are not landowners, As a public servant, it irks him.
"So we are working with NGOs like Wateraid and Tear-fund. It's a major breakthrough.
They have set up water points in the city slums, most of which have little or
no sanitation and water."
If the supply of water is difficult, dealing with the waste of 10 million people and some very polluting industries is even harder. "It is getting worse by the minute, not the day," he says. “About 70 per cent of the city does not have a sewerage system at all, and the waste finds its way to the rivers and lagoons. I am very worried. Only 30 per cent of the city is covered by the sewerage system, and 90 per cent of that is untreated."
It gets worse: Dhaka's sewerage pipes are in bad shape, "Our sewers are supposed
to carry only human waste, but industry has connected waste pipes into them
illegally, so they are now loaded with heavy metals, which means the waste is
toxic and we cannot use it as manure.
“We have 16 lagoons where the waste goes, but people are cultivating fish in
them, and so the fish are loaded with heavy metals, too. We will have to kill
all the fish" says Dr Haq. He will not be popular.Dhaka's capacity to process
human waste is 120,000 cubic metres a day. In fact, only 50,000 cubic metres
actually reaches the plant daily because the main sewer pipe is broken, "Hydrologically
the whole system is underloaded, but biologically it is overloaded," Dr Haq
says. "There is a desperately serious problem of waterborne diseases here."
Wateraid and Tear Fund say tens of thousands of children die each year in the
city because of diseases and polluted water.
"We have serious water contamination 365 days a year," Dr Haq says. "In April
each year the hospitals are over-loaded with people with waterborne diseases.
Nobody understands why. We know that 30 per cent of the contamination comes
from our own distribution network, but 70 per cent comes via consumers' own
premises, because they store water in underground tanks and then pump this to
rooftop reservoirs which are never cleaned."
But Dr Haq is not despondent. "Till 1998 we did not even have a master plan.
Now we know that we need $500m over the next 15 years. But I do not think the
World Bank can help." It loaned the city $80m for water treatment works, but
devaluation means that it may never be fully paid back. So now Dr Haq is seeking
bilateral loans — especially with the Chinese — to build treatment works.
Sometimes, he admits, it is all too much. “I sometimes want to run away, I cannot
sleep at night thinking about the problems. Up to 1996, I was never ill, now
I have heart attacks... A few weeks ago one community which did not have any
water because of a breakdown kidnapped three of my workers and tied them up.
They told me that if I did not supply water to them within 24 hours then they
would slaughter them as sacrificial animals. What can I do?"
The Guardian Weekly