Water of strife

Posted: 16 April 2002

Author: John Vidal

The heavily polluted river that flows through Bangladesh's capital city, Dhaka, holds the key to life or death for 10 million people. John Vidal meets the expert who can claim to have the most difficult job in the Indian sub-continent

The Buri Ganga river in the centre of Dhaka, Bangladesh, is to western eyes a most extra-ordinary sight. A little wider than the Thames, it swills 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 indescribably squalid slums.

Thirty years ago, Dhaka had just 250,000 people and its waters were relatively clean. Whereas the Thames now teems with fish but has little human traffic on it, the Buri Ganga is the opposite. One of the most polluted rivers in the world, it pulses with activity.

Boatbuilders, charcoal factories, brickworks, tanneries, mosques, rubbish dumps, sewers, swimmers, ferries, animals, children, fishers, 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's 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. You are as likely to find men praying knee deep in the water as to see sheep, cattle and goats grazing on its beaches.

Open sewer

But, above all, the Buri Ganga is an open sewer and, as such, is of great concern to Dr Azhurul Haq, who must have the most difficult job in the sub-continent. Haq's task is both Sisyphean and Herculean. 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 it with water and sewage. But being built on a giant flood plain near the confluence of many large rivers, it regularly floods, sometimes so badly that millions of people must live knee-deep in foul, polluted water.

Haq is sanguine. "The problem here is serious - so 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. In some places, the waste is eight metres deep."

Providing water, he says, is a nightmare. "We need a minimum of 1.6bn litres of water a day. At the moment, our theoretical capacity is 1.35bn litres a day and our actual production is 1.26bn litres, which means that a lot of people cannot have water.

Empty wells

"We have 370 wells, but, because of severe electrical problems, only 60% of them work. We also need to replace 600km of water pipe out of the 2,000km we have. Some are pipes made of asbestos cement, which is very dangerous. We also get 97% of our water from deep underground, which is lowering the water table and is not sustainable."

Haq must deal with problems that few other water company chiefs have ever faced. His workers openly steal and divert the water. He understands their predicament, but recognises that it makes water provision harder.

"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, for instance, is on the lowest wages, about £1 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 connect the slums to the water and sanitation because they are not landowners. It is something that, as a public servant, irks him greatly. "So now we are working with NGOs like Wateraid and Tearfund. It's a major breakthrough. They have set up 111 water points in the city slums, most of which have little or no sanitation and water. Statistically, there are 2.5m people now in the slums, but Dhaka's population is growing 6% a year, of which 40% end up in the slums.

Polluted water

If the water supply problem 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. Some 70% of people have no sewerage system at all and their waste collects and rots and finds its way to the rivers and lagoons as it will. "I am very worried. Only 30% of the city is covered by the sewerage system, and 90% of it 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 industrial 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 because they are a threat to public health," says 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 irredeemably broken. "Hydrologically, the whole system is underloaded, but biologically it is overloaded," Haq says. "There is a desperately serious problem of waterborne diseases here." That is an understatement. Groups like Wateraid and Tearfund say that tens of thousands of children die each year in the city because of waterborne diseases and polluted water.

Waterborne diseases

"We have serious water contamination 365 days a year," Haq says. "In April each year, the hospitals are overloaded with people with waterborne diseases. Nobody understands exactly why. We know that 30% of the contamination comes from our own distribution network, but 70% comes via consumers' own premises, because they store water in underground tanks and this is then pumped to roof-top reservoirs, which are never cleaned.

But Haq is not despondent. "Up to 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." They lent the city $80m for weater treatment works, but devaluation means that it may never be fully paid back. Besides, he says, the government committed itself to certain "reforms" but have not been able to live up to them, which means that the World Bank has suspended credit to the country for six months. So now Haq is seeking bilateral loans - especially with the Chinese - to build water treatment works. "The trouble is you have to buy at international prices, and sewerage is very expensive", he says.

Sometimes, he admits, it's all too much. "My first priority sometimes is to run away. I cannot sleep at night now 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 hadn't supplied water to them within 24 hours then they would slaughter them as sacrificial animals. What can I do?"

Copyright © The Guardian 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from Guardian Unlimited.Related link:Wateraid