Managing Surma River flooding and environmental concerns

The largest urban hub in northeastern Bangladesh, Sylhet City Corporation, turns its focus to improving the management of sanitation to mitigate the health and environmental risks of flooding, droughts, and water pollution.

Sylhet City Corporation (SCC) is the largest city in the northeastern region of Bangladesh and is located along the Surma riverbank. The city covers an area of 79.50 km2 with a population of more than half a million. On average, the city experiences an annual rainfall of 4,034 mm, which is double the annual rainfall of the country.

Surrounded by several major rivers, the sight of rising waters is commonplace in many parts of Bangladesh, especially for SCC's long-time residents.

However, the effects of unabated growth, migration, and climate change have made the impacts of flooding deadlier. Poorly managed solid waste and sanitation practices contribute to this. When flooding occurs, flood water mixes with solid waste and sanitation waste, contaminating water, and releasing pathogens into the environment.

An affront to water security

Poor containments, illegal drainage connections, and unauthorised dumping of solid waste are choking water bodies (rivers, canals, and groundwater) and increasing waterlogging.

Toilet contents flowing into the river

1.   According to several SCC officials, Surma River treatment costs are escalating due to pollution. The efficiency of the water treatment plant is declining, forcing the population to rely more on groundwater.

2.   Groundwater pollution is a significant concern for residents of the SCC who mostly rely on it for water supply. Moreover, the iron content in SCC’s groundwater exceeds acceptable limits. Over-dependence on groundwater is depleting the water resource and negatively impacting the groundwater table.

3.   Waterlogging has adverse effects on livelihoods, health, and infrastructure, particularly affecting low-income communities and people living along bituminous roads.  

System improvements needed

Despite understanding the clear links between the safe management of sanitation, public health, environmental well-being, and water security – faecal sludge persistently infiltrates the groundwater and the Surma River in SCC.

Unfortunately, professional desludging and a treatment plant are lacking in the area. Septic tanks and pits are typically emptied manually, under illegal and unregulated circumstances.

Furthermore, although existing solid waste collection services collect 56% of the generated waste and dump this into a designated site, the absence of segregation practices and a proper leachate management system contributes to pollution rather than preventing it.

A public health hazard: the indiscriminate disposal of solid waste into waterbodies

During the dry season, extracting groundwater has become more challenging. Engineer Nur Azizur Rahman, Chief Engineer of Sylhet City Corporation, said: ‘The safe management of solid waste and sanitation are key to the water security of Sylhet City Corporation. Our Sustainable Urban Water Cycle (SUWC) project aims to provide technical support to manage solid waste, sanitation, waterlogging, and flooding.’

Acting for water security

A safely managed sanitary landfill for waste segregation and treatment, including leachate management facilities, is now being developed. The landfill is expected to become operational during the year. The landfill construction is a project of the Engineering Department of SCC, which receives financing and technical support from the World Bank.

But the work does not stop there. A comprehensive approach is required to transform the entire system of solid waste and faecal sludge management to safeguard people’s water security and health.

SNV is assisting the SCC in several ways:

  • reviewing the SCC’s solid waste management strategy and introducing smart regulations.

  • increasing the capacity to manage floods and waterlogging through evidence-based data (spatial analysis, secondary data analysis, research, and possible water modelling).   

  • developing BCC (Behaviour Change Communication) strategies based on formative research that identifies the most effective methods to facilitate change and new practice.

  • professionalising solid waste and faecal sludge collection systems by innovating emptying services, data collection methods, monitoring and maintenance systems, etc.

  • developing faecal sludge treatment facilities that are customised to the SCC.  

In collaboration with SNV, the SCC is co-hosting a learning event titled 'Sustainable Urban Water Cycles' from 4-7 March. The event will focus on various urban water services such as water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, greywater treatment, and drainage. Participants will explore how climate change and rapid urbanisation processes affect each of these services, aiming to deepen their understanding and search for remedies.

Note: SNV's collaboration with the SCC is financed currently by the Netherlands Government. Read more about the fund and project here. | Cover photo: People bathing in the Surma River. Photo credits: SNV.

Join the e-conversation

The prelude to the SNV-SCC learning event in Bangladesh opens today, 9 February 2024. Throughout the remainder of February, participate in the moderated email discussion of sector professionals who will explore the intricacies and implications of a Sustainable Urban Water Cycle.

Non-water sector professionals are highly encouraged to register to facilitate cross-disciplinary learning.