Dubbed as a “basket case” in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state of the US, Bangladesh has miraculously transformed itself in the last 48 years. For years, it has been able to maintain a GDP growth between 6-7% and in 2018, it recorded 7.3%, leaving behind many countries. However, the benefits of growth have been uneven, and the decades of higher growth also witnessed a rise in the number of undernourished people in the country.
For example, the number of undernourished in the country has risen from 23.85 million between 2004-06 to 24.2 million in 2018. This has been disclosed in the recently published report titled ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ prepared by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the UN Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation.
Moreover, growth has been achieved at the cost of the health of the country’s rivers. According to Azad Majumder, Bangladesh has about 230 small and large rivers on which about 140 million people depend for living and transportation. But most of them are highly polluted and their beds are being encroached upon by powerful groups and even by common people.
One of the main polluters of the rivers and water bodies is the country’s flourishing textile sector which contributes about 82% to the country’s total export revenue. In their study ‘Water Pollution and the Textile Industry in Bangladesh: Flawed Corporate Practices or Restrictive Opportunities?’ Maiko Sakamoto et al finds that, if the textile industries continue using conventional dyeing practices, by 2021 wastewater released by this industry will be around 349 million cubic metres. This will further jeopardise the health of the rivers in Bangladesh.
Buriganga, one of the major rivers of Bangladesh, has faced the brunt of pollution and encroachment. Photojournalist Allison Joyce discovered the pathetic state of this river in 2015. The river is so polluted that it has come to resemble black gel. The leather processing units of Hazaribagh area in Dhaka, that dump untreated toxic wastes into the river, are chiefly responsible for the state of the Buriganga river in the city.
The river also receives many other forms of wastes thrown into it by the city dwellers. Other major rivers near Dhaka-Shitalakhya – Turag and Balu – also are in similar conditions. According to a study by the World Bank, mentioned by Azad Majumder, all the four rivers together receive about 1.5 million cubic metres of wastewater every day from 7,000 industrial units in surrounding areas and another 0.5 million cubic meters from other sources.
Several environmentally conscious people have raised the issue of cleaning up the river and have even filed petitions in the high court for it. Even Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina made a request in April 2019 to the public to stop discharging wastes into rivers. She also said that “every industrial unit will have to have a waste management system so that it doesn’t pollute rivers“. Unfortunately, not much has changed.
Growth in Bangladesh has prompted many people to move to cities; it has also increased the amount of waste produced in the country. Internal migrants need houses to live in. To provide them with a house and other facilities, in many cities across Bangladesh, river beds have been encroached upon.
In May 2019, the Dhaka high court found that several powerful individuals, businesses and, even, government offices were engaged in such encroachment activities. As reported in the Bangladeshi and Indian media, months before the court’s observation, officials from the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority had started a massive eviction drive along the banks of the rivers around Dhaka. In that drive, around 4,000 illegal establishments were demolished and 77 hectares of land had been recovered.
In its July 2, 2019 judgement, the high court division of the Supreme Court granted rights and the status of “legal person” or “living entity” to the river Turag. Delivering the judgement, the Court said that “Killing a river is virtually a collective suicide of all”.
It called on the National River Conservation Commission to be the legal guardian of water bodies in the country. The Court directed the Election Commission of Bangladesh to, upon encroachment, disqualify the people responsible for river grabbing and pollution from running in elections to union parishads (council), upazila parishads (sub-district councils), municipalities, city corporations and parliament.
It also said that the river grabbers and polluters would also not be able to get bank loans. To create public awareness about the necessity of rivers, the court asked Bangladesh’s education ministry to initiate a program such as hour-long classes every two months at all public and private academic institutions, including schools, madrasas, colleges, and universities.
In the coming years, if things continue the business-as-usual approach, with the increase in population the amount of waste discharged in the rivers is likely to increase. If wastewater is not treated, the rivers will be more polluted, and by 2050, as Maryna Strokal observes, the situation will be unbearable.
Also, the death of rivers by polluting or encroaching its bed will reduce the country’s growth. Hence, the rivers must be protected to maintain even its non-inclusive growth rate.
Amit Ranjan is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.