Political will is the key to save Dhaka rivers: Mohammad Azaz

Researcher Mohammad Azaz during his field work. Photo: Collected

Researcher Mohammad Azaz during his field work. Photo: Collected
Independent researcher Mohammad Azaz is conducting a baseline survey on rivers of Dhaka division. Committed to this cause, he works on a voluntary basis. He recently talked to Prothom Alo on his current activities and related issues.
“Rivers were never a priority for any of the governments. There is no unified river management for rivers in Dhaka. This is a big impediment to saving rivers in Dhaka. The rivers give us everything, but we have failed to develop effective management policies for rivers.”

Prothom Alo: You are currently working on a voluntary project for Dhaka rivers. You have already visited many rivers to conduct a baseline survey. What did you see?

Mohammad Azaz: Dhaka has 13 districts. Firstly, we are developing a list of the actual number of rivers in Dhaka division. We have found at least 150 rivers and the number may go up to 200, but the government documents (of Bangladesh Water Development Board) have listed of just 63 rivers. If we include the tributaries, the number will cross 200. We tend to think that the Sundarbans and the Sylhet-Sunamganj areas are the most riverine regions of the country. This is partially correct. But Dhaka is also a division with many rivers. We have so far found 11 rivers and five offshoots of the rivers in Dhaka district alone. I think we certainly can call Dhaka a river-dependent district.

Prothom Alo: In brief, what are the main threats to the rivers in Dhaka?

Liberation War-time river map of Dhaka division. Illustration: Collected

Liberation War-time river map of Dhaka division. Illustration: Collected

Mohammad Azaz: The threats are enormous. Some of the rivers in Dhaka can be called urban rivers as we see some rivers have been urbanised in a bid to build the city. Dhaka division has some semi-urban and rural rivers as well. The characteristics of the rivers vary. Encroachment tops the list of threats. Another big problem arises from use of the river. Industrial pollution is massive. The remaining rivers lack healthy ecosystems.

By 2050, 70 per cent of the people of Bangladesh will be living in cities. If we do not have any appropriate plan to supply water to the large number of urban people from surface water, there will be a serious crisis. Along with Dhaka, Gazipur, and Narayanganj, the other district towns will also face the same problem. Currently groundwater meets more than 80 per cent of our demand. This is not a sustainable way of using water as groundwater is depleting rapidly. The government is planning to bring water from river Meghna, but Asian Development Bank says as the water has been polluted so much, its operation costs will increase many fold.

This massive urbanisation and potential demand for water supply will have no option other than sourcing from surface water. But, we can’t get that because of industrial pollution. Water is there, but we can’t afford to purify it. Some experts advised bringing water from Brahmaputra to Dhaka city. Though that can be an option but it would be highly costly and we cannot afford to subsidise water in the long run. If we really want to use the surface water, we need stricter implementation of policies to stop industrial and municipal sewage pollution.

Prothom Alo: What did you find new?

Mohammad Azaz: Rivers were never a priority for any of the governments. There is no unified river management for rivers in Dhaka. This is a big impediment to saving rivers in Dhaka. The rivers give us everything, but we have failed to develop effective management policies for rivers.

Prothom Alo: We often blame industrialists for killing rivers. That is true, but at the same time we need development and clean rivers. Is it possible to strike a balance?

Mohammad Azaz: Yes, balancing is possible. During the post MFA period there was a rhetoric that our industries cannot afford global competition and thousands of employees will lose their jobs, but that did not happen. Our garment industries competed well and emerged as one of the top nations in the world in the sector. When an industry prepares their project, the cost of ETP and other compliance is included in their CBA (cost benefit analysis). And based on that they get loans and investment. As their venture is professional and profitable they get formal investment. But during the operation some factories do not use ETP and try to reduce some of their costs. This is illegal and unethical. If imposition of fines and environment compliance is undertaken, definitely rivers and trade can both be saved. This malpractice exists because of excessive greed.

Industrialisation and environment conservation can go hand in hand. From my field research, I found that small and informal factories do not follow any compliance at all. And they are the key polluters. The government can take action against these and put a sustainable management frame in place. If the government really wants, it can bring them into line. I’m really hopeful about reviving the rivers.

Prothom Alo: When it comes to saving our rivers, where do we start?

Mohammad Azaz: I would put political will at the top of the list. Without political will, rivers cannot be salvaged. Secondly, our perception. We should change our perception towards rivers. The lens through which we see rivers is very important. If we consider rivers just a flow of water, it would be a big disaster. In our country, we treat rivers mostly as drains, water channels or a place to catch fish and for transportation. But rivers are more than that. Rivers are the lifeline of our habitat. They facilitate our culture, food, economy, ecology, transportation and communication as well as our civilisation and daily life. If we consider all these things while planning for rivers, only then rivers can be conserved.

Prothom Alo: About your current project, you use the hashtag #DhakaRivers. What does that mean?

Mohammad Azaz: I’m an activist, now working with Riverine People. We have undertaken a lot of activities for rivers. During our river campaigns we went to schools, universities and riverine communities. We felt there was huge lack of data and information about rivers. Neither the government nor the public has proper and sufficient data about rivers. I thought that a baseline survey on rivers is extremely important.

The government is going for a 100-year delta plan. For the plan to succeed, we need details of each and every river of the country. For example, the Buriganga is the heart of Dhaka. If I ask anyone about how many channels and canals the Buriganga has and how much water the river holds in monsoon or in dry season, no one has any answers. Nobody knows how many drains are connected directly to the river and how many spots are just being used as open dumping zones. How many industries have been erected in one-kilometre radius of Buriganga and how many boat terminals are there along the river? This is very vital information for any decision making, but no one knows anything about it. If we do not have this information, we would neither be able to identify or predict the real changes of a river. We have so many rivers, yet no river has a proper baseline survey. We are trying to meet the answers of these questions through our survey.

River map of Dhaka division. Illustration: Collected

River map of Dhaka division. Illustration: Collected

My team and I are physically going to each of the 150 rivers and we are travelling by boat from the source to the mouth of the rivers with the technological device, GPS, to record everything connected to the rivers. We are makings video and taking still pictures. We are storing real time data on satellite. Under this project, we will analyse changes of each of the rivers in 243 years since 1776 when James Rennell developed the first map of this region. In addition to the map analysis, this survey will cover active and inactive channels, encroachment, industrialisation, housing and settlement on the banks of rivers, sand extraction spots, IWT, small jetties, river-based bazaars, physical structures on rivers like bridges, sluice gates and dams, erosion spots, draggers, dockyards, point and nonpoint sources of pollution, municipality sewage connections, ports and landing stations and socio-economic profiling of river bank population from each river. After this survey, every river will have all the data stated above and this will be a public document for further research and policy making.

Prothom Alo: Who are on your team?
Mohammad Azaz: We are surveying four factors – morphology and GIS, socio-economic and culture, and digital multimedia mapping. For each section I have experts in my team as well as professionals and some students. As it is self-funded, I have been managing the team myself so far.

Prothom Alo: You said that it’s self-funded. What inspires you carry out this project?

Mohammad Azaz: I was born and brought up in this city, but now the city is dying. I love my country and this is my moral duty. This pushes me to carry out this initiative.

Prothom Alo: Your team has made a map of Dhaka rivers which existed during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. This may be unique. Will you share something about that?

Mohammad Azaz: Yes, we have already developed a watercourse map of Dhaka division in the time Libation War. We used USGS declassified CORONA imagery. This map is helping us to find out the changes of rivers/water courses from 1971 to present time. When I was planning to map the rivers of Dhaka, I was a bit confused about the starting point. Then I discussed the matter with one of my friends, Sheikh Rokon, and he he advised me to start from the War of Independence as we, as a nation, emerged through the war. In the map, the analysis section is being used along with the Rennell and British Topography map. I hope the public will get a good historic analysis of our rivers.

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