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Cover Story

Let the Dead River Flow

Dhaka is celebrating its 400th anniversary as the capital of Bengal proclaimed by the Mughals in the early 17th century. It is a strategic decision by the Mughals considering the economic, navigation and security potentials of the perennial river Buriganga which surrounded parts of Dhaka. Since then the civilisation of Dhaka City has been developed by the bank of the Buriganga River. The history, livelihood, culture and heritage of Dhaka City have been largely shaped by this small but important river. Four hundred years later the river continues to play a very important role, since according to officials an average of 30,000 people use the Sadarghat launch terminal, one of the largest river ports in the world, for departure and arrival every day. But for hundreds of years the Buriganga has been continuously abused by unplanned urbanisation and unsupervised industrialisation. The onslaught of the resultant pollution has virtually killed the Buriganga.

Ershad Kamol
Photos: zahedul i khan

In the present scenario, the river carries only wastewater during the seven months of the dry season (November-May). Even during the wet season no aquatic animal can survive in the dead river water. Throughout the year, inhabitants near the river and thousands of people who travel through Sadarghat suffer a lot because of the foul smelling water of the Buriganga.

Ironically the adverse impact of unplanned urbanisation was recognised even during the British rule. Addressing the issue the then British administration made a plan in 1917. For almost a hundred years, successive governments and agencies have also made several plans and the intellectuals and civil society members have been demanding regenerating life into the dead river. Sadly, no plan has been executed properly so far.

A trip from Gabtali to Shyampur is a devastating experience and gives a startling picture of the extent of degradation. Everyone who has to travel through the Buriganga has the similar experience being almost suffocated by the stench. Baharul Alam, who landed at Sadarghat from Bhola by a launch, says, "The bad smell of pitch black water begins near Kathtoli, Munshiganj, where launches enter into the Buriganga in their way to capital Dhaka. Travelling through such contaminated water makes passengers nauseas."

The ongoing environmental degradation on the Buriganga River has forced the people, who used to live by the river, to change their livelihood. Pollution and loss of navigability in the Buriganga is forcing thousands of people to become street vendors. Many of the fishermen and dhopa (washermen) who once were totally depended on the river for a living, have switched to other professions as the rivers have become biologically dead.

Keraniganj Upazila, under Dhaka district, was once home to nearly 500 fishing families, it currently has only a handful of families who continue fishing as a source of income. The Buriganga at Kaliganj of Keraniganj has become so contaminated that the locals have long stopped bathing in its water. Those who have no choice but to take a dip in the river are dangerously exposed to water-borne diseases. "I have long been suffering from skin rashes,” says Akhtar Hossain, a boatman of Kaliganj ghat.

Professor Muntasir Mamoon.

The washermen too have their share of problems because of river pollution. Those living near the Buriganga struggles to wash clothes in the river during the dry season as the water becomes too filthy. Even so, some washermen have no choice but to wash the clothes in such dirty water. When asked why he was washing clothes in such contaminated water, he replied in an annoying tone, "We do it for a living", says Hiron Das, near Loharpool at Kamrangirchar, "Instead of asking the polluters, why do you people approach us with such ridiculous questions? What will we do? Water creates skin diseases, but we have to continue, since we don't have any alternative to survive."

About two kilometres upstream of Kamrangirchar, at Rayerbazar Sluice gate, through which sewage and effluents from Hagazibagh Tannery are dumped into Buriganga, the scenario is even worse.

Parveen Akhtar, a housewife of Basila says, "The water of the Buriganga is so polluted that we can't use it. And it's really difficult to live by the bank of Buriganga that flows only foul smelling wastes."

The health of locals living by the bank of Buriganga-Turag system is at risk. A survey carried out by Environment and Human Development (SEHD) has identified diseases such as skin diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, dermatological diseases, hypertension and jaundice caused by environmental degradation of Buriganga River. Moreover, the existence of heavy toxic metals such as chromium in the surrounding areas of Buriganga River may cause cancerous diseases.

Shipyards on the riverbank discharge burnt oil and effluents into the river.

Pollution of Buriganga River began in the Mughal period, since the sewage of the city used to be dumped into the river. Professor Muntasir Mamoon, a historian who has been writing books and articles on Buriganga River and other connecting canals since early 1970s, says, "The historical documents state that people used to get bad smell one and half kilometers away from Buriganga River even in the late 19th century. The then British administration showed concern about the river, since the water level used to decrease to an alarming level during the dry season. Renowned Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes made a master plan for Dhaka City including the Buriganga River in 1917. The then administration also made some plans to save Buriganga from the grasp of ongoing pollution caused by domestic sewage. However, the pollution of the river was at the tolerable level till Pakistani period. Personally, I saw boat racing and boat hotels on Buriganga River even in the 1960s. But after Liberation, everything became Dhaka-centric. And because of encroachment, unplanned urbanisation and establishment of polluting industries in the city, water pollution has taken such a devastating shape that the river, mother of the civilisation, has been killed by the 'civilised' people."

"I first wrote a cover story in the weekly Bichitra in 1973 with some comprehensive suggestions to save Buriganga River", says Professor Mamoon. "Later, many others have also written on the issue and many movements have been initiated with the aim to save the river, however, nothing happened," says the frustrated historian.

Several studies on the Buriganga River have identified many causes for the river's pollution such as sedimentation at the upstream, encroachment, and disposal of solid wastes, sewage and industrial wastes in the river.

In the present scenario the river carries only wastewater.

Because of the sedimentation on the upstream, the flow of Buriganga-Turag system gets cut off, especially during the dry season. Which is why not a single drop water flows into the river system at that time, informs the hydrologists and engineers of Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB). During this period of time the system basically carries sewage and industrial effluents. And because of high tide a little water comes from downstream.

Encroachment, of course, has always been a big threat to rivers eating away the banks and narrowing them further and further. Politically backed influential land encroachers have created illegal structures including houses, bazaars, ghats (port), brickfields etc. on the river that has created obstacles on the flow of the river. Meanwhile, the dumping of wastes into the river system has virtually killed it.

Dhaka City dwellers have been dumping domestic wastes and solid wastes into the Buriganga since the Mughal period. After hundreds of years, government agencies such as Rajdhani Unnyan Kartripakkha (Rajuk), Dhaka City Corporation, Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa), Department of Environment (DoE) Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) and Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) have failed to stop disposal of solid wastes and domestic wastes into the river bodies, state several reports on the Buriganga River pollution.

According to several studies, each day about 900 cubic metres untreated domestic and industrial effluents are discharged into the Buriganga-Turag system. Dhaka Wasa has only one sewage treatment plant at Pagla with a capacity of 0.12 million cubic metres per day, which is only 10 percent of the total disposal of sewage. But, because of mismanagement the treatment plant is using one third of its capacity. As a result, Buriganga and other rivers and canals are Dhaka's main outlet of sewage waste. Statistics say, up to 80 percent of Dhaka's untreated sewage is drained in Buriganga-Turag channel. Each day a huge volume of domestic waste of the entire area from Gazipur to Munshiganj, is discharged into Turag-Buriganga rivers. Along the riverbanks between Kamrangir Char Bridge and the second Buriganga bridge, tons of wastes are dumped into the river every day.

Small dyeing units on the river create environmental degradation. The pitch-black colour of water indicates the alarming level of
pollution in the Buriganga River.

Moreover, ignoring any laws of Dhaka City Corporation, locals and vessel operators randomly dump solid wastes into the Buriganga-Turag system. BIWTA sources confirm that they get huge quantities of discarded polythene deposited beneath the water during dredging. The materials from breaking of buildings of the riverbanks also add hazardous substances into the river.

There are many other offenders abusing the river. Innumerable mechanised trawlers and vessels ply in the rivers of Dhaka. Ignorance about the adverse environmental effects of dumping waste materials from the vessels such as solid wastes and burnt oil and BIWTA's lack of stringent laws against such dumping as well as lack enforcement, have led to large scale pollution of the river.

Violating the Environment Conservation Rule 1997, more than 7,000 units of industries for textiles, metals, chemicals, rubber, pharmaceuticals, cement, leather, pulp, paperboards, fertilizer, food processing, and petroleum refining in the city area are discharging 1.3 million cubic metres of untreated industrial effluents in the rivers.

The Institute of Water Modeling (IWM), a government established trust has identified four industrial clusters and many other small zones as the major pollutants of Buriganga-Turag rivers. The Turag River and its multiple tributaries receive the load from the Gazipur Cluster. As it reaches Dhaka City it is joined by the Tongi Khal, which carries the discharge from the Tongi and Savar clusters. The influx of Turag-Tongi Khal joins the Karnatali River, the whole system is subsequently called Buriganga. The Buriganga borders Hazaribagh cluster, the home to tanning industries.

Of these clusters the hydrologists identify tanneries as the biggest polluters. Government agencies do not have particular data on the number of units active in the cluster. About 500 tanneries including 200 large units in Hazaribagh are discharging 4.75 million litres of a variety of extremely toxic wastes into the river. On top of this 95 metric tones of solid and hazardous wastes including trimmings of finished leather, shaving dusts, hair, fleshing, trimming of raw hides and skins are also dumped in the area's open drains every year.

United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) notes that the chrome - containing sludge and solid waste, especially fleshing wastes, that is generated by the tanneries at Hazaribagh is collected by Dhaka City Corporation and is dumped in the landfills. This is shifting the pollution problem to the outskirts of the city. Moreover, the chrome containing solid wastes of wet-blue trimmings and shavings is often incinerated in the tannery boiler oven, resulting in the release of hexavalent chrome containing particles in the air. Moreover, the geologists have found hazardous heavy metals in the underground area of tanneries, since sludge, containing heavy metals, are not of disposed properly. Health experts claim such polluting agents have every possibility of creating cancerous diseases.

Besides, there are many small units on both sides of Buriganga between Bangladesh-China Friendship Bridge 1 and 2, mainly located at Babubazar, Jinjira, Kaliganj, Postagola and Shyampur. There are small shipyards, dyeing units and small industries at these areas that discharge untreated washing and clinical wastes, used batteries, plastic bottles and containers, and other discarded plastic materials and burnt oil into the river water. They also dump the useless solid wastes of crushed materials into the river.

Pointing out the very low levels of dissolved oxygen along the Turag-Buriganga river system, which indicates the poor quality of water SM Mahbubur Rahman, principal specialist and Head of Water Resource Planning Division of IWM, says, "Bio-degradable organic pollutant, expressed as BOD5, load in the system is 17 times higher than the allowable limit of 3 milligrams per litre. Apart from high levels of BOD, other water quality parameters like Ammonia, heavy metals such as Aluminum (Al), Cadmium (Cd), Lead (Pb), and Mercury (Hg), sulphate, chloride and others have also been detected," he says.

Explaining the causes of such poor water condition he adds, "Most of the industries do not have any treatment facility for wastewaters. Treatment plants possessed by a few industries, however, do not operate regularly. While most of the industries discharge wastewater into drains or khals (natural canal), which ultimately fall into nearby water courses (rivers/khals). Some of the industries dump the wastewater directly on the ground. Some of them, situated by the side of rivers, discharge their wastewaters into the rivers through underground/concealed pipes, which are not visible from the land or water surface."

Is there no hope for Buriganga? Fortunately there is. In order to inject life into the dead river Buriganaga and Turag, there is no alternative but increasing the flow of the river. During the dry season, the river has a flow of only 50 cubic metre per second (cumec). One solution could be to augment the rivers of Dhaka with freshwater from the Jamuna River which has a minimum dry season flow of around 3500 cumec. This will not only improve the water quality of the peripheral rivers of Dhaka but also will benefit water supply, agriculture irrigation, fisheries and navigation. This is an ideal case of integrated water resources management. A feasibility study on this option was carried out in 2004 by the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) in 2004.

Both domestic and industrial wastes carried through such canals are polluting the river.

BWDB, under Ministry of Water Resources, has already submitted a project titled "Augmentation of Buriganga flow by restoring silted up links with Jamuna River' for the consideration of the government. A high official of BWDB informs that the taka 610 crore project will maintain minimum acceptable flow during the dry season through Buriganga-Turag-Shitalakhya river system. Implementation of the project will improve water quality significantly as well as the overall environment, economic and social condition. It will also explore the possibility of improving agricultural and navigational requirement.

The high official of BWDB plans the 180 kilometre long augmentation route should be New Dhaleswari offtake-Pungli-Bangshi-Turag-Buriganga. He informs that the project for augmentation has been formulated based on the results obtained from the mathematical models. The project will bring additional flow to Turag, Buriganga, Tongi, Khal and will provide enough water for irrigation in the government's agricultural project.

"This additional flow (141cubic metre per second) in Buriganga and Turag River system will improve the dissolved oxygen level of 4 milligrams per litre, which is quite satisfactory for the survival of aquatic animals", continues the high official, "At the same time the project will help the agriculture sector of the surrounding areas. Moreover, the dredging during the augmentation will keep the High Flood Level (HFL) lower than the present condition, which will help the Dhaka City dwellers to avoid flood rate."

Ignoring any laws, solid wastes are dumped into the river.

If the route were made 76.2 metres wide it would be possible to go Narayanganj to Tangail through the augmentation zone. In that case the existing bridges crossing over the route, having lower navigation clearance, would be upgraded to ensure unhindered navigation. Moreover, such route will help tourism sector, since BIWTA would be able to construct more new landing stations at potential locations along the circular route and along the augmentation route up to Tangail and offtake point near Jamuna Bridge.

After execution of the project, the only thing that should be strictly maintained is that the water of the river system does not get contaminated by domestic and industrial wastes and disposal of solid into the river water.

Obviously, the existing poor domestic sewage system needs to be improved by installing proper drainage facilities. Besides, using the total capacity of the sewage treatment plant at Pagla, Wasa must install more treatment plants so that a single drop of sewage is not discharged into the river water. As for the rest of the areas Rajuk, Dhaka City Corporation and the pourashavas must ensure that people use septic tank systems due to absence of sanitary sewer system. At the same time, the government agencies must provide proper facilities for routine sludging of the septic tanks.

To control disposal of solid wastes into river Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) and BIWTA should work together. BIWTA must force the owners of the vessels and traders on the bank of the river to dump the solid wastes at the fixed places provided by DCC. For any type of construction work within 50 metres of the riverbank, clearance from BIWTA should be mandatory. All structures, especially brickfields within 200 metres from the riverbank should be demolished. At the same time, the government must allocate a budget so that BIWTA can buy sufficient dredgers for routine dredging of the riverbed for smooth navigation. To control the discharge of untreated industrial effluents, Department of Environment and other government agencies must ensure that the industrial zones follow Environment Conservation Act 1997.

The Ministry of Industries must take initiatives to shift the leather tanneries from Hazaribagh to Hemayetpur, Savar with Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) facilities, which was supposed to be done in 2006, under the recommendation of a task force on Buriganga formed by the government in 2003.

The government should approach the development partners to install CETP in industrial areas including Tongi, Gazipur and Savar so that Buriganga- Turag river system is not affected by the discharge of effluents from these clusters. The World Bank has planned to install such CETPs and the government should keep pursuing the Bank so that it carries out the plan.

Moreover, to control environmental degradation caused by the small industrial units located at areas from Babu Bazar to Shyampur, the government should consult experts to work out a sustainable plan considering the interest of the small industries.

Existing laws and authorities responsible for controlling industrial pollution have to be clearly defined in terms of their functions.

In order to improve water quality in Buriganga-Turag system a bill can be passed immediately in the parliament. Professor Muntasir Mamoon suggests, "The government should realise that unless Buriganga-Turag exist, Dhaka City will not survive. When the bill will be passed in the parliament, it will be easier for the government to control strictly the encroachers. At the same time, demolishing the structures within half a mile of opposite of Dhaka City, a beautification programme should be initiated. It will save the river from the encroachment, at the same time people will get place for amusement, which is very important for urban dwellers. In fact, it should be the top pledges of the parliamentarians from Dhaka constituency to force the government to take steps to save the rivers."

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