Buriganga: The endangered lifeline

Jesmul Hasan

During the tenure of the last Caretaker Government, an eviction drive against illegal encroachment along the river Buriganga was initiated with great fervor. Within a couple of days, Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) demolished a good number of unauthorized structures erected along the river. The initiative was hailed by city dwellers. After the formation of newly elected government, it was announced that the demolition drive would continue. 
If the aged Dhakaites can remember an afternoon beside the river Buriganaga fifty years ago, they will be looking back at a mighty river on which sailed festooned Bajras. There was a long stretch between Sowarighat and Buckland Bundh which is now haunted by memories of a refreshing breeze that would relieve the tired city-dwellers as they rested on the banks. 
All pleas having fallen on deaf ears, there was no recourse but to urgently seek an order from the High Court to stop illegal construction along the river. One fears that too might have little effect! The river is now dying a slow death. Despite a government vow to stop encroachments, Buriganga, which was once the main artery of communication and is an old tributary of the Ganges has virtually been reduced to a narrow canal of polluted slime. Dumping of city and industrial wastes round the clock have not only changed the physical aspect of the river but much of its fish and other aquatic animals have disappeared. A local boatman, Farid (40) says, " The river has lost its youth; in winter, it does not even look like a river."

The river has become a dumping ground for Dhaka's garbage and industrial pollutants. The question of Buriganga's treated water being potable does not even arise. In 1992, the Department of Environment (DoE) ruled out the use of Buriganga water for both household and drinking purposes. The DoE found the level of oxygen to be below 2 micrograms per litre. The standard minimum is 5 micrograms per litre. The level of chromium in the waters of the Buriganga was 6 ppm, an amount 60 times higher than the tolerable limit prescribed for the human body. " We cannot use the water of the river, nor can we take a dip," adds Farid the boatman. 

The 25 mile long river originates from the Dhaleshwari River to the south of Savar and reunites with its source to the south of Fatullah. Dhaka is situated on its northern bank. The existence of Buriganga is threatened from many directions. Flourishing trade in sand and stone at Fatullah near Narayanganj is not only troubling the environment but also gives rise to heavy traffic jams. There are several ship building and heavy engineering industries near Fatullah Launch Terminal. Over a dozen ships are concurrently being repaired in these docks and in the process, these are cleaned, oiled and greased. The leftover grease and spoils are conveniently thrown into the river. Brick fields, huts for workers in the brick fields and latrines overhanging the river cause serious environmental concern. Workers of the brick fields use the water of the river for cooking, bathing without being aware of the poison contained in it. Much of the thousands of tons of solid and liquid waste generated by around 100 million people of the city are dumped into the river. According to Dhaka WASA experts, 60 per cent of the city's sewage is dumped into the Buriganga. 

The water of the river has turned septic under the burden of effluents generated mostly from the sewerage system and chromium-rich leftovers from the city tanneries. According to DoE, each day, 15,000 to 21,000 cubic liters of waste from 500 tanneries, 3,500 cubic liters of waste from 330 industrial units and 2,700 cubic liters of waste from other sources is expelled into the Buriganga. Every day, 15,000 cubic liters of liquid waste, 19 tons of solid waste and 7.5 tons of organic waste go into Buriganga from the Hazaribagh leather processing units. Unspecified volumes of toxic waste from industries in Tejgaon, Tongi and Savar (the latter two are on the banks of the river Turag which flows into the Buriganga) are also finding way into the river. These chemical wastes have rendered the river water in the adjacent areas, black and stinking. The tannery wastes include liquefied arsenic, solid salt sodium sulfide, lime, ammonium sulfate, sulfuric and formic acid, basic chromium sulfate, preservatives, color, pigments and finishing materials. After these chemicals are used to treat leather, effluents are allowed to flow out and accumulate in low-lying areas inside the Dhaka City protection embankment. These flow into the Buriganga through a number of sluice gates in the surrounding embankment. According to the residents of Hazaribagh, the tannery owners should be fined for causing grievous harm to the public. 

The DoE has identified as sources of incoming effluent, the waste pouring in through the sluice gates at Rayer Bazar and Dholai Khal, the sewage treatment plant at Pagla, drains of Dhaka city and numerous latrines overhanging the Buriganga. Besides, hundreds of tons of wastes are thrown directly from numerous houses, hotels, restaurants, kitchens and markets situated on the riverbank. There are two open drains from the Mitford Hospital which pour a considerable amount of hospital waste into the river.

A study done in 1997 showed that the cost of pollution from the tanneries exceeded Tk. 29,551 million- a figure much higher than the relocation cost. The cost has been calculated in terms of human health losses, loss of property value and loss of real income due to pollution. 

According to a DoE survey, few living organisms survive in the stretch from Mirpur to Bangladesh-China Friendship Bridge. Fish resource has decreased drastically. The survey also states that the level of liquefied oxygen required for survival of aquatic life is six milligram per liter. If this level drops to four mg, it considered dangerous. In Buriganga the level is 4 mg at Hazaribagh, 1 to 0 mg at Kamrangir Char to Pagla point, 0 mg at Dholai Khal. During the dry season, 80% of Buriganga is so polluted that it is literally impossible for any aquatic life including fish to survive, says the DoE officials.

Not only is the river threatened by pollution, its very existence is made questionable through the act of encroachment. All kinds of encroachers, often backed by local influential people, are reportedly busy grabbing the riverbank bit by bit. They also consolidate their gains through reclaiming land- the most precious thing in and around the capital- by sticking bamboo poles into the riverbed. A visit to the riverfront will show how structures built on stilts have sprung up along the banks of the dying river. To consolidate their holdings, they resort to large scale and indiscriminate dumping of garbage for landfill. At some places like Kamrangirchar, Kamalbagh and Islampur, some local people have even raised concrete pillars with boundary walls to make their presence permanent. Some of these structures have been demolished in the recent drive. Near the Sadarghat terminal, encroachment is mostly in terms of commercial establishments. They have put up shops on both sides of the river. Quite a large number of unauthorized dockyards and boat building industries have been extended to mid-stream. Collecting soil from the riverbed and selling it has become very good business and is done in broad daylight. Huge slums and shanties have also sprung up on both banks of the river.

A survey conducted in 1998 by the DoE found that the river had been boxed in by at least 244 establishments. These include 35 slums, 20 saw mills, 16 dock yards, 11 fruit/vegetable godowns, seven mosques and madrashas, four manufacturing industries and 20 textile mills. These include residential houses, furniture shops and wholesale shops of bamboo and wood. Illegal occupants have encroached upon approximately 50 acres of Buriganga land. Out of this, 38.7 acres are under Kotwali circle, 7.01 acres are under Tejgaon circle and 4.3 acres are under Keraniganj thana.
The Buriganga faces navigation problems as well. Shoals have emerged at the confluence of the Dhaleshwari and the Buriganga, causing great difficulty in the plying of river vehicles. This again leads to loss in terms of extra fuel and time. Near Savar, the river has nearly dried up due to accumulated silt. 

The DoE formed a committee in 1997 in order to implement the 'Save Buriganga' program. A subsequent national committee headed by the Minister for Environment and Forests is in charge of the overall action plan regarding the Buriganga. According to informed sources, the Divisional Commissioner of Dhaka is responsible for evicting the illegal encroachers while Rajdhani Unnayan Kortripakkha (RAJUK), the main agency for developing Dhaka city, is responsible for beautification of the river banks. Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) is entrusted with restoring normal flow of the river.

The BIWTA evicted an illegal installation of the Sena Kalyan Sangstha (SKS) on the river Buriganga near Shyampur a few months back. Recently the BIWTA has started removing the massive deposit of earth to free the river of one of the largest encroachments. Its Dredgers are now removing some two million cubic feet of earth from the river which was illegally dumped by the SKS over the last two years to build facilities for berthing and storing goods. The task has proven to be difficult for BIWTA because there are many large boulders and bricks that have to be removed manually. 
Following reports published in several newspapers, BIWTA launched a massive eviction drive a few months ago to remove more than 200 illegal encroachments on the Buriganga including the SKS installation. The SKS had encroached upon more than 860 feet of the river channel, foreshore and shore. It had however maintained that the 'land' belonged to it by 'right of purchase'. BIWTA is now entrusted with the painstaking responsibility of removing at least four similar encroachments in Shyampur area alone. In many cases, the encroachers procured land fraudulently and produced ownership papers in connivance with a section of unscrupulous officials at the Deputy Commissioner's office and violated the port laws by grabbing land along the river.

The people of Shyampur feel that in the process of this long established fraud, the river has been "sold and resold" at different places. In most cases, the river grabbers acted under the banner of one or the other main political party. Successive governments have vowed to save the river from encroachment and pollution but have inevitably backed out when things have gone against their vested interests.

The Chief Engineer of the Water Development Board informed that they were completing a Taka 110 crore project to build flood walls, roads and walkways along the river to demarcate it clearly. This would help stop encroachments on the river. A UNIDO source said that a Taka 100 crore proposal for building a common effluent treatment plant for tannery wastes is at the 'PCP stage' awaiting approval of the authorities concerned. But a donor is yet to be found for financing the project. A 7.5 acre site has also been earmarked for the project but the proposal for land acquisition is yet to be sent. Dhaka WASA has meanwhile requested RAJUK not to approve any building plans on the site which has been earmarked for the treatment plant. Under the project, all tannery workers would be required to bring in some changes in their internal infrastructure and they would also be required to install in-house chromium recovery plants because a large volume of chromium is lost with the tannery waste. Sources in the Finished Leather Association of Bangladesh said they have written to a Swiss Organization for financial help to install the recovery plants but they are yet to hear from them. The tannery owners are earning crores of taka in foreign currency at the expense of public health and ruination of the lifeline of the city. In any civilized country, they would have to pay for the treatment plant and also pay compensation to the victims. 

References: Bangladesh: State of the Environment Report 2000, (2001), FEJB

Bangladesh Environment: Facing the 21st Century, (1998) SEHD The Daily Star

Source: The Holiday, 14 December, 2001