Photo: Provided by the writer.
Photo: Provided by the writer.

The coronavirus outbreak has shut down our schools, offices, factories, transportation, development work and forced people to stay home. Despite being the mostly populated country of the world, Bangladesh has managed to enforce lockdown for the last 40 days.

The pandemic had made most countries keep their economic activities on hold and that has brought a visible change to nature and the environment. China, the highest carbon producer, has reduced 25 to 30 per cent of its carbon production. The transport lockdown has reduced fossil fuel consumption resulting visible air quality improvement there. Dhaka, which had the second highest ranking air pollution status, has significantly improved its AQI ranking. The citizens of Delhi, Wuhan and other mega cities are breathing comparatively fresh air nowadays.

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Along with the changes in air pollution in some countries like India and China, there is also news that the water quality of rivers has improved. Following the lockdown, turtles, dolphins and other aquatic animals have returned in their habitats in the rivers and on the beaches. This indicates nature is healing to some extent. We want this wildlife and environment will heal, but not in this way, with humans locked down in their homes.

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In India, Ganges’ water is now becoming clean. The absence of industrial pollution and lack of human activity is resulting in this river’s clean appearance in Delhi and Uttarakhand.

In Bangladesh the urban rivers are also heavily contaminated by industrial and municipal sewage waste. When the sewage is mixed with industrial effluents, it gets difficult for the river to assimilate pollution. The four rivers of Dhaka -Buriganga, Turag, Balu, and Sitalakhya - suffer from massive industrial and sewage waste pollution. In the dry season, that is, November to mid-April, the water flow from the off-take is less and suffers pollution more. Every day the capital churns out up to 1.5 million cubic metres of sewage. Of the waste material, only 18 per cent go to a treatment plant at Pagla. The remaining 1.16+ million cubic metres flow into the rivers untreated, polluting the four rivers. WASA is unable to supply pure water due to this river pollution.

In addition to this, the citizens of this mega city produce 7,000 tonnes to 8,000 tonnes of waste daily and 30 per cent of this hard waste cannot be managed by the two city corporations. The plastic and solid waste is disposed through 557 open dumping spots which are located on these four rivers.

The key industrial water pollution sources are from Gazipur and upstream areas of Turag, Balu, Sitalakhya, Tongi khal. Government organisations, as well as corporate stakeholders, are the key river polluters. Rivers and water bodies are treated as free-riding assets to government agencies and corporate factories. The economic concept of free rider problem is actually encouraging the polluters to over exploit public property, especially wetlands and rivers.

Some parts of the four rivers are looking partially cleaner than before as factories from upstream from Gazipur, EPZ, Tongi areas and particularly tanneries from Hemayetpur, Savar are shut. This is because the flow of pollutants is not taking place in the river now. This proves that the newly shifted tanneries in Hemayetpur, Savar and their CETP are not functioning properly and river Dhaleswari is being polluted by the tannery industries on regular days.

During this lockdown, some parts of the four rivers are looking partially cleaner than before as factories from upstream from Gazipur, EPZ, Tongi areas and particularly tanneries from Hemayetpur, Savar are shut. This is because the flow of pollutants is not taking place in the river now. This proves that the newly shifted tanneries in Hemayetpur, Savar and their CETP are not functioning properly and river Dhaleswari is being polluted by the tannery industries on regular days. Today, if you go to the river Dhaleswari where the tanneries are located, you will find comparatively cleaner water. Water upstream of Turag and Balu and downstream of Sitalakhya is still black, but less smelly. The water of Buriganga is still black with had a bad odour. Water transport is shutdown from Sadarghat to other districts and the over 30,000 daily passengers are not using this river. This absence of passengers has had little impact on Buriganga pollution, especially because of launch and engine boat oil pollution and plastic pollution.

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However, this shutdown and silence over rivers could not protect our rivers from toxic pollution at a significant level where it is visible as in the instance of the Ganges or Jamuna in India.

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This healing failed because the level of pollution has been high for long. In the name of economic growth, these factories from Gazipur, Savar, Tongi and EPZ areas are not following any standards of the department of environment and as a result, most of our rivers and streams have turned into sewage canals and are getting difficult to treat. Along with this, Dhaka city corporations and WASA are discharging over 1.16 million cubic metres of untreated sewage water into the rivers per day. This untreated sewage water is discharged by 513 sources of sewage connections, canals, and channels from the capital and 557 hot spots of open dumping on Dhaka rivers. The four rivers are being used as a dump yard for this sewage and solid waste and this does not comply with any discharge norms. Industrial waste, however, has partially stopped entering in the rivers now.

During the lockdown, domestic sewage would have increased owing to increased demand for water and hand-washing hygiene. Considering the existing population of Dhaka city and per-capita soap consumption, every day 221.36 tonnes of soap are discharged directly in to these four rivers along with 53 crore litres of soap water additionally polluting Dhaka rivers and streams.

COVID-19 has increased the use of gloves and masks by the citizens significantly. During the lockdown, the solid waste management of the city corporation has become ill-efficient. Most of this used masks and gloves are dumped in open spaces. As the rainy season starts, all this waste with virus are eventually going through the canals and the ultimate destination is to Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Sitalakhya. This waste may have coronavirus and these disposable plastic or micro plastic products will have severe impact on rivers and streams.

Relatively clean water in the rivers and streams has been found not because of the COVID-19 lock down. We should remember the present seasonal pattern and weather of the country. The rainy season started already. From the beginning of April rainfall has been started.

Relatively clean water in the rivers and streams has been found not because of the COVID-19 lock down. We should remember the present seasonal pattern and weather of the country. The rainy season started already. From the beginning of April rainfall has been started. In Bangladesh, the rivers are born in mid- April and are young during July-August. Rivers mature during August to October and start aging from late October. Their lean season is from December to April. This is the life cycle of rivers and streams in Bangladesh.

The rain from Baishakh has given a new life to these four rivers and their tributary channels and wetlands. New biodiversity and ecology will start from now. Many species in the rivers will be born and start moving along. The level of pollution will fall. New life of fish and other aquatic animals will start along with the increase of new water flow into the rivers with decreasing pollution. This is a seasonal pattern and dynamics of river system. If there would be no lockdown, this weather’s rainfall and new water still would come to the rivers. Dhaka’s rivers will start their new life. Our lockdown and silence will not make any significant influence on healing rivers unless we discontinue polluting river at the household-level.

*Mohammad Azaz is an independent researcher. He can be reached at ezazbd@gmail.com

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