Nurul Islam, a 70-year-old man from Bangladesh, used to make a living by fishing in the Buriganga river. The river, which flows southwest of the capital city of Dhaka, was once a lifeline for the area. However, due to pollution caused by the dumping of industrial and human waste, the river is now considered “dead” and there are hardly any fish left to catch. Islam now sells street food on a small cart nearby to make ends meet.
Islam’s family has been living on the bank of the river for generations. He remembers a time when the water was good and full of life. They used to bathe in the river and there were lots of fish. Many people used to earn a living by catching fish in the river. However, now the scenario has changed. The Buriganga, also known as the “Old Ganges”, is so polluted that its water appears pitch black and emits a foul stench throughout the year.
Bangladesh has about 220 small and large rivers, and a large chunk of its population depends on rivers for livelihoods and transport. The devastation of areas like Buriganga comes into greater focus in the run-up to Earth Day, when people worldwide celebrate and mobilize in support of protecting the environment.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-biggest garment exporter after China. Citizens and environmental activists say the booming industry is also a major contributor to the ecological decline of the river. Untreated sewage, by-products of fabric dyeing, and other chemical waste from nearby mills and factories flow into the river daily. Polythene and plastic waste piled on the riverbed have made it shallow and caused a shift in course.
“Those who bathe in this river often suffer from scabies on their skin,” said Siddique Hawlader, a ferryman who lives on his boat on the river. “Sometimes our eyes itch and burn,” he added.
In 1995, Bangladesh made it compulsory for all industrial units to use effluent treatment plants to keep pollution out of its rivers, but industries often flout the rule. While the government makes regular checks to ensure the rules are being followed, it lacks the staff for “round-the-clock” monitoring, said environment official Mohammad Masud Hasan Patwari.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said all textile factories had effluent treatment plants for wastewater. “This is mandatory and there is no way to skip the rules as they must ensure compliance with international standards,” said Shahidullah Azim, one of its officials.
Pollution in the river water during the dry season was well above standard levels, a recent survey by the River and Delta Research Centre showed, identifying industrial sewage as the main culprit. “The once-fresh and mighty river Buriganga is now on the verge of dying because of the rampant dumping of industrial and human waste,” said Sharif Jamil of environment group the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon. “There is no fish or aquatic life in this river during the dry season. We call it biologically dead.”
The situation in Buriganga is a stark reminder of the importance of protecting our environment. As we celebrate Earth Day and mobilize to protect our planet, we must remember that our actions have consequences. It is up to us to take responsibility for our actions and work towards a more sustainable future.