Massive migrant influxes over time and the growth of over 3,500 RMG (ready-made garments) and leather industries have massively polluted Dhaka's five rivers, some more so than others, but all stained in severe ways. With one of those industries gulping huge chunks of water, for example, 300 liters to wash, dye, and finish (WDF) each kilogram of fabric (as against the global average of 100 liters), not to mention the debilitating chemicals released from dyeing and discharging other highly toxic ingredients, particularly in the Buriganga, Dhaka's acute water crisis cannot but flow south and impact the Bay of Bengal in damaging ways. For those familiar with the dead Bay of Bengal zone linking the Myanmar Arakan peninsula tip with the Indian mainland south of Orissa, the fear that the north Bay portion, along Bangladesh's southern coastline, may also turn dead, leaves a horrifying picture of more humans scrambling north, beyond Dhaka to higher grounds.
How this sordid picture unravelled is less the key story now than what can be done to rescue this piece of land which once gained global fame, before even the tea trade evolved, for producing the finest muslin fabric of the time. With one-fifth of the city's underground water table already depleted, urgent attention shifted to generating new water supplies. One such effort, linking the Buriganga with the Jamuna, a 162-kilometer trek, had to be eventually bypassed: dry-season flows of the Jamuna have reached such low levels given the increasing diversion of Brahmaputra River waters, that we see more chars (sudden land accretion, typically in estuaries), than expanded Dhaka water-supply. Flushing Dhaka's flows and residues cannot rely on such an unstable and unconvincing measure.
From about a decade ago, another approach gained salience. This was by capturing rainwater. Coco Cola and Plan Bangladesh attempted this, successfully at that, from 2008, benefiting a handful of schools, a process that attracted UN Habitat to expand the experiment to about 30 schools. It is likely, for a Monsoon-stricken country like Bangladesh, to extract more mileage out of this measure, and a greater drive is very much recommended, particularly by civil societies and grassroots groups of those owning property. There is an element of self-sufficiency in this approach that we must begin cultivating since public goods, like water supply, is set to become more difficult and expensive in the not-too-distant future.
Repair work could help enhance water-supply significantly. This is an expensive job, meaning that when Dhaka's population began climbing from the late 1980s, very few, if any, though of the commensurate job of expanding water pipelines, especially to the new influxes, many of whom lived by waterways, mostly in slums, until the water died out. Here the Asian Development Bank (ADB) stepped in to put Dhaka on the map, for the most eye-catching of reasons, as a water-conserving global model, touted from one country in the global 'south' to another, actually to many others since rapid urbanisation was not just a Bangladeshi affair. What this model did was to divide the city into a string of 'district metered areas', each fitted with at least one reliable water source and one exterior connection. Nearly 2,500 kilometers of pipes were built, connecting over 109,000 homes, while 200 water disinfectant chlorinator units were also placed.
All of these were built upon innovation: trenchless technology, which, through enhanced tunneling, avoids invasive sub-soil projects. Traffic disruption is minimised in a city with no enforced traffic rules hitherto. Such has been its impact that the ADB collaborators see it as a major 'South to South' contribution, meaning other LDC (least developed country) cities sprouting across Africa and Asia can borrow this method for their own metropolitan building plans.
Although they look impressive on paper, and truly contribute to easing an increasingly stubborn problem, two unfortunate features imperil their future: they touch only the tip of a growing iceberg, which is more likely to be overtaken by the problem expanding faster than the solutions being generated; and their procedural approach to fixing that problem leaves a far more incomplete future trajectory than structural changes. Population-size growth, and with it, slum expansion, in addition to the shrinking underground water table virtually guarantee the remedial efforts will go in vain. Yet, it is the short-term mileage of the second feature that similarly guarantees these efforts may not go the distance.
Structural measures must grapple with eliminating the sources of pollution, that is, the rampant, half-baked, lawless factories clotting Dhaka's rivers. From Tongi westwards, through the Turag River, then south until the Buriganga takes over, too many RMG factories litter the banks; while from across Dhanmondi, epitomised by Hazaribagh, lies the leather centrefold. These have sporadically been dubbed dead rivers, and when not completely so, for example, during the monsoon, remain too toxic for perpetuating life.
Three years ago Dhaka's rivers received a yellow rating, on a scale that begins with blue (water that is drinkable, thus the best), to red (the worst in terms of toxicity), with green (good enough for agriculture), yellow (fit only up to fishing), and brown (typically left only for industrial usages). Since then, Dhaka's rivers have slid towards the brown in spite of all the innovative measures to build Dhaka's water stocks.
Any structured changes must then begin with downsizing and relocating these factrories. Industrial reforms can help, but as the RMG discussion revealed, even reformed RMG factories gulping in more water than is sustainable to permit reforms have the final say. Relocating factories is a must, is already underway, and holds the only ray of future hope.
The critical juncture here is not relocation anywhere, but to a watershed completely disconnected to Dhaka's five rivers: these five belong to the saturated ranks, and whether they can be resuscitated or not represents less a dilemma than a predicament. Just to get them moving in the right direction will take many years, and make complete relocation a pipe dream. Relocating the money-minting RMG factories to other parts of the country would bring the much-needed fresh air Dhaka and other metropolitans need.
Hugging such an initiative is the independent World Bank proposal to decentralise Dhaka. This 2019 report follows another to open up Dhaka's eastern flank and create Purbachal, a satellite town, mostly in rural terrain. Both of these have fuelled Bangladesh's megaproject crusade, particularly to build railroads, highways, and metro-lines.
Thus the infrastructure to shed Dhaka's factories is in the making. It is only for the teeming millions to fit this transformation with lifestyle changes, particularly to make them less plastic-dependent, become more pro-environmental, and follow a more recyclable, if not circular production-consumption approach.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.