Untreated faecal matters threaten public health in Bangladesh

Daily 1,450 million litres of sewage go into rivers, lakes

Rashad Ahamad | Published: 00:07, Nov 01,2019 | Updated: 19:54, Nov 02,2019


Untreated sewage generated by Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, regularly pollutes its rivers and lakes. The photo shows a sewerage line ending into the River Buriganga near Shyambazar. — Ali Hossain Mintu

Inability to manage sewage poses serious health hazard for the Dhaka population. An overpopulated urban centre, which is almost bursting at the seams, is now faced with the crucial question of human waste management. Public health is in danger as daily over 1,450 million litre of sewage is dumped directly into the rivers and canals for the lack of treatment facility.

Experts say that for untreated human wastes, Dhaka was facing dangers similar to that linked with open defecation. Dhaka’s lifeline — Buriganga, Turag, Balu, Shitalakkha and other water bodies — were now facing acute pollution, they added.

In the light of the new methods that are being applied around the globe to turn faecal matters into compost as well as electricity, experts observed that Dhaka’s unmanageable human wastes could easily be turned into wealth since the technologies were now available. 

Talking to New Age, experts also said that due to indifference of the authority, sewerage treatment facility was not developed in Dhaka and this fact is directly responsible for waterborne diseases of its citizen.

Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority managing director Taqsem A Khan said that total sewerage generation in Dhaka WASA area was 1,500 million litres per day and the lone treatment plant at Pagla have the capacity to treat only 50 million litre per day.

He said that sewerage was being dumped through drainage system that ends into the rivers as there in this urban jungle houses lack septic tanks.

Though, experts said that sewerage generation in Dhaka was much higher than the estimate given by WASA since the official number of population in the WASA area stood at 17 million.

The 1984 building construction rules dictate that each owner should set up septic tanks or soak pits and manage the sewage on their own. But to avoid cleaning costs, most people connect the pits to the storm drains. Some do not even bother setting up tanks or pits and dump the faeces directly to the storm drains.

Taqsem said that the water supply and sewerage authority now adopted a master plan to take the whole area under a pipeline network and to build four new sewerage treatment plants and upgrading the one at Pagla to address the crisis.

He said that although about 20 per cent of the city area was connected to piped sewerage system, due to damages to infrastructure, the system was not fully functioning.

Urban specialist architect Mubasshar Hussain said that sewerage system of the city lied neglected for decades for the lack of political will of the government and this ultimately resulted in the untold pollution of the rivers over the last few decades.

According to a government study, the government agencies were responsible for 70 per cent of the total pollution in Dhaka while WASA was the biggest polluter of them all, he said.

Dhaka WASA covers 360 square kilometres area with a population of about 17 million of Dhaka and Narayanganj and is assigned to supply safe drinking water and to manage sewerage of the city since 1963.

WASA’s activities had been reorganised by the Dhaka WASA Act, 1996 that transformed Dhaka WASA or DWASA into a service-oriented commercial organisation, which was serving 85 lakhs household with pipelines for water connection.

Experts said that it was Dhaka WASA’s responsibility to treat sewerage of the household but the agency was not doing its duty for their indifference.

Poribesh Bachao Andolan chairman Abu Naser Khan said that after industrial pollution, Dhaka WASA was the main polluter of Dhaka lifeline, the rivers.

He said that when Dhaka WASA continued pollution, the department of environment was doing nothing.

By way of an explanation, department of environment director general AKM Rafique Ahammed recently told New Age that the problem was not sudden and it was not possible to solve things overnight by the concerned government agency.

‘It is not that we are silent since Dhaka WASA is a government agency, but we are considering them on practical ground,’ he said, adding that Dhaka WASA was not fined but it was repeatedly been asked to install the facility immediately.

He said that once the Department of Environment suspended sewerage discharging into Gulshan Lake but that created more public nuisances.

He said that the Department of Environment gave the opportunity to Dhaka WASA for stopping the pollution immediately.

Experts said that river water pollution now reached an acute stage that Dhaka WASA could not treat the water for household supply as WASA was collecting water from the River Padma.

The government has undertaken very expensive projects like Jasaldia (Mawa) and Gandhabpur (Narayanganj) water treatment plants to fetch water from the Padma and Meghna, from a distance of 33 km and 23 km to supply surface water to the city.

Architect Mubasshar Hussain was critical of Dhaka WASA for collecting water from the Padma and Meghna for treatment while leaving the Buriganga out of its ambit and not making any attempt to make it pollution-free.

‘Government was collecting water from the Padma spending crores but if it wished it could make the Buriganga pollution-free by spending some more money on purifying the water for supply,’ he said.

Mubasshar said that if the government wished to save the Buriganga from pollution it would take not more than two years as the government agencies were mostly responsible for pollution.

He asked the government to take a decisive decision to save Buriganga and other rivers from pollution by stopping sewerage dumping after developing treatment facility by phase.

The senior architect said that due to pollution the next generation of the country would suffer.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University public health and informatics teacher Dr Khalekuzzaman Rumen said that human sludge contain E coli bacteria.

 E coli refers to a wide range of bacteria that can cause various diseases, including pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and diarrhoea.

Most strains of E coli are harmless to humans. Some strains of E coli infection can include nausea, vomiting, and fever.

Furthermore, the wastewater might also cause skin diseases and other communicable diseases, said that public health expert.

Urban development director in BRACK and also a hydraulic and environmental engineer Md Liakath Ali said that sewerage treatment was mandatory for government to achieve sustainable development goals.

He said that Bangladesh achieved 100 per cent successes in stopping open defecation reducing it to zero but in waste water management Bangladesh was yet to achieve anything.

Three main health risks are present due to the effects of raw sewage exposure — viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

Liakath said that if the open dumping of sewerage into the water bodies continued public health and environment would deteriorate.

Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology civil engineering professor Tanvir Ahmed said that in absence of sewage treatment facilities in Dhaka, the city is facing the same hazard if open defecation was the norm although bathrooms are in place.

‘Toileting under the open sky is equal to discharge of sewage without treatment after toileting in bathroom,’ he said.

He said that it was different for the people who had septic tank in their houses, because septic tanks provided scope for a kind of treatment.

He said that most of the household in Dhaka had no septic tank and they directly connected their sewage line with surface drains which were installed so that rainwater was easily drained out.

Though the National Building Code makes it mandatory to include septic tank for each household, most residential houses in the city were built without them, violating the rule.

Bangladesh Institute of Planners general secretary and also Jahangirnagar University urban planning professor Adil Mohammed Khan said that community-based small sewerage system was the best for Dhaka compared to the sewage network installation.

‘If the government now wants to set sewerage network in already developed area it will create huge public nuisance and such work will necessitate demolition of many structures and it will be highly expensive,’ he observed.

Adil said that ideally a city should have pre-planned network of sewage for before the development commenced.

He said that non-network sewerage treatment facility would be cost-effective for densely populated and already developed Dhaka.

He explained that Dhaka WASA, in cooperation with other agencies like City Corporation and Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, at first should ensure septic tank for every household.

Dhaka WASA officials said that for establishing a systematic sewage management system, a Sewerage Master Plan has been prepared in 2012, for the required expansion of the sewerage system up to 2035.

The estimated cost of the implementation of the master plan is $1.7 billion.

According to the recommendation of the master plan, Dhaka city has been sub-divided into five sewerage catchments and it has been planned to construct five modern sewerage treatment plants with network in Dhaka city core area.

According to the master plan, Dhaka WASA was currently upgrading the Pagla sewerage treatment plant and started construction of a new plant at Daserkandi in cooperation with China Exim Bank.

The locations of the proposed treatment plants are Uttara, Rayer Bazar and Mirpur area.

Experts said that for the lack of wastewater treatment, Dhaka WASA supplied water lost its quality as in different studies faecal coliform was found in drinking water.

Faecal coliform, a facultative anaerobic, rod-shaped, gram-negative, non-sporulating bacterium generally originates in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, causes many health hazards, including ear infections, dysentery, typhoid fever, viral and bacterial gastroenteritis and hepatitis.

In October last year, World Bank in a report found that E coli bacteria were present in 80 per cent of household tap-water across the country.

Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution tests also found 21 out of 38 samples of drinking water marketed in the capital in jars unsafe for consumption.

Bacterial contamination was found in a majority of the samples collected from all over the capital during laboratory tests by the BSTI for three months since February 2018.

Experts said that 80 per cent of all diseases and two-thirds of deaths in developing countries like Bangladesh are attributed to consumption of poor-quality water.

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