Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh on the northern bank of the Buriganga River, was founded 400 years ago. The city is surrounded by a river system with five rivers, and has numerous canals which, in the past, were key elements linking up smaller rivers, then connecting them to the main river system. Today most of the canals have been filled in to serve the anarchic development of the city, and with total disregard for the environment. The population of Dhaka and the surrounding suburbs is now over 18 million, as opposed to only 1.5 million at the time of independence in 1971.
The Buriganga and the other watercourses have traditionally been seen as a “lifeline” for Dhaka, but now they are literally being trashed. Once there were fish, and a water supply and drainage catering to the needs of the people; there was river transport between the capital city and the cities to the south and the ocean; the rivers together with the plains formed an effective buffer zone protecting the city from flooding in the monsoon season, but soon none of this will survive.
Industrial pollution from tanneries, textile factories, shipyards, iron and steel plants, brickworks, industrial factories and trades of all kinds can be cited as the main sources contaminating the rivers. Every day some 10,000 metric cubes of untreated toxic waste is dumped into the rivers of Dhaka.
Not only is there chemical pollution from industry, but also domestic waste water and sewage, again being released into the rivers. Only 20% of the city’s waste water is treated, turning the river system into a vast open sewer.
Even though the highway network has been developed, the Buriganga River is still the main trade route between Dhaka and the country’s two ports on the Indian Ocean. A huge quantity of used oil is dumped by ever-increasing numbers of cargo ships and passenger vessels traveling along the river system and making the situation even worse. Businessmen, politicians and investors have sacrificed rational balance and long-term viability for the lure of immediate financial gain.
The impact of so many activities generating so much pollution is made even worse by the reduction in the width of certain sections of the river, and the disappearance of canals in the city. With land grabbing and “water grabbing” taking parts of water courses, there have been opportunities for industry to set up production sites, for promoters to build residential areas, and for people from rural areas to erect their own makeshift accommodation. As a result, the rivers are flowing more slowly, and there is less fresh water available.
The stench is nauseating, patches of oil and grease, as well as plastic and vegetable waste float on the water; the river banks and water table are discolored; the fish is not fit for human consumption; the water is alive with toxic algal blooms. These are all tangible signs of the contamination of the Buriganga River, now the “Dead River.” This ecological disaster was not stopped for a number of reasons: no enforcement of the relevant laws, corruption, the interests of both local and foreign investors, and the total disregard for the environment shown by the general public. Activists, journalists, scientists and lawyers, as well as members of national NGOs defending the environment have been threatened, and some even physically attacked, because of the stance they have taken.
If the rivers surrounding Dhaka, (Turag, Tongi Khal, Balu and Lakhya) were to meet with the same fate as the Buriganga, the entire ecological balance of the city would be irretrievably damaged, and it would be impossible to live in Dhaka.