The River Karnaphuli – the lifeline of port city Chattogram – is gradually choking to death on indiscriminate dumping of household and industrial wastes, unchecked environmental pollution, and unabated encroachment.
From Tk9,000-crore government projects to a High Court directive to a master plan – nothing seems to be working to protect the river.
Large-scale encroachment of the riverbed by establishing hundreds of household and commercial buildings and their wastes have continually shrunk the once mighty Karnaphuli to almost a canal.
A steep decline in navigability over the years has severely affected maritime trade through the river while unbridled pollution poses a serious threat to public health as well as the river's aquatic ecosystems.
Many plant and fish species native to the River Karnaphuli have already gone extinct, say local residents, and many are very hard to find.
A 2020 survey by the Chattogram River and Canal Protection Movement, a body that has long been voicing concerns about the encroachment of the Karnaphuli, showed that the width of the river in the Shah Amanat Bridge area shrunk to 510 metres at high tide and 410 metres at low tide, which was 886 metres earlier.
The river's width has almost halved in front of the Rajakhali canal while at Firingi Bazar point it has come down to 750 metres from 904 metres after the construction of a wall by the Chattogram Port Authority, the survey found.
The maritime trade in Khatunganj, the largest wholesale hub for household essentials in the country, is in crisis because of waterlogging and navigability problems resulting from the filling of Chaktai canal. Traders are being forced to leave Khatunganj after incurring losses. Even though tidal regulators are being installed in the canal, they are smaller in size compared to boats.
Traders fear the maritime trade of Khatunganj will completely stop if the problem is not addressed right away.
The government has approved four projects involving a total cost of around Tk9,000crore in the last five years to alleviate waterlogging in Chattogram and restore the navigability of the River Karnaphuli. The High Court also ordered protection of the river.The National River Conservation Commission called for protecting the river from pollution and illegal occupation. A master plan was formulated last year in this regard.
However, nothing seems to be working.
140 jetties and ghats in 3-km area
Some 140 jetties and ghats have been built on the two banks of the Karnaphuli in the three-kilometre area from BanglabazarGhat to Shah Amanat Bridge point, disrupting ship movement through the channel.
In the last one year, at least five people, including a boatman, have died in different accidents in the river. Some bulkheads and lighterage ships also sank during the period.
But, the Chattogram Port Authority, which is in charge of protecting the river, has not taken any initiative to solve the problems. Moreover, allegations are there that these jetties are being built with the help of some CPA officials.
Ataul KabirRanju, joint-secretary of the Water Transport Cell, said, "Ship movement in the Karnaphuli channel has become tough due to the illegal jetties and fishing boats. In many cases, we have to keep ships at the outer anchorage with risk after not finding a place in the river."
Aliur Rahman, former environmental consultant of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), said, "All legal and illegal establishments have been built with the consent of port officials. They do not conduct any drive to remove the illegal ghats and jetties because they have been bribed."
Zillur Rahman, deputy manager (state department) of the CPA, however, claimed there are no illegal ghats or jetties in the Karnaphuli at present.
CPA Secretary Omar Faruk said, "Dredging work in the river will be completed before June this year at a cost of around Tk300 crore. Once the dredging is complete, there will be no more problems in the channel."
In 2010, the High Court directed the authorities to publish the names of people who unlawfully occupied the River Karnaphuli and its banks. As per the directive, the district administration of Chattogram conducted a survey in 2014 and identified 2,181 individuals.
But, the port authorities leased out 147.10 acres of land to National Fisheries Cooperative Society Limited for 15 years in 2015. Around 1.75 lakh square feet of land was also allotted to the fish market at the New Fishery Ghat.
Mezbah Uddin, the then Deputy Commissioner of Chattogram, in 2016 identified 147.10 acres of land as part of the River Karnaphuli and directed to stop the construction work by the fishermen cooperative society.
In the last five years, five agencies including the district administration, land office, Chattogram Development Authority have written to the CPA to remove illegal establishments, but to no avail.
Chowdhury Farid, president of Chattogram River and Canal Protection Movement, said, "There are clear instructions of the High Court order regarding the eviction of fish market and sheep market. But the port authorities have not taken any initiative to do so."
What is more, he said, the port authorities have again leased out 2,000 square feet of river land along the middle pillar of the Shah Amanat Bridge to set up a new ice factory.
On 21 April 2019, the National River Protection Commission visited the River Karnaphuli and reported, "Various organisations are occupying the river bank and constructing structures in complete violation of the rules which are narrowing the flow of the river.
"As a result, the river will not be able to retain extra water during floods. Moreover, the navigability of the river will decrease rapidly. As the sea level rises, the river will fail to cope with natural disasters such as cyclones, storms and tidal surges."
KamrunNahar Ahmed, a full-time member (additional secretary) of the commission, said, "According to the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950, no organisation can occupy or fill a river and build structures. But land is being leased on the banks of the Karnaphuli violating the rules."
CPA Chairman Rear Admiral M Shahjahan, however, said they are fulfilling the responsibility given by the High Court to protect the river.
Political leaders occupying river land
Some political leaders have occupied around 30 acres of land in different chars of the river around the Shah Amanat Bridge area. The lands have been rented to poor people who have come to the city due to river erosion and climate change.
An organisation named Sheep Market Workers Cooperative Welfare Society has been formed to maintain the occupation. Akhter Hossain, a local Juba League leader, is the president of the association.
He could not be reached for a comment over phone or text message.
Akhtar's son Arman said, "I can't talk about the slums. It's my father's business."
A woman named Rozina is in charge of collecting rent from people living in Akhter's slum. She said, "I collect the rentals from the tenants and send them to the slum owner."
She said that the writ petition filed by Akhtar Hossain in the High Court in 2014 to prevent eviction has not been disposed of yet.
Another political leader Nurul Amin has occupied around 50 acres of land of the river in the name of Bakalia Multipurpose BastuharaColoni in the College Road area adjacent to Bakshirhat Third Bridge.
He also is reportedly involved in the politics of ruling Awami League. A BNP leader named Jasim Uddin was the first to sell this land. Now an Awami League leader named Sushil takes care of the colony.
Ward Juba League President Manna Biswas, however, claimed that neither Akhtar nor Amin belong to Awami League or Juba League. "They assumed these political identities to commit crimes."
Water turns blue because of pollution
According to sources, around 5,000 tonnes of household wastes are going to the River Karnaphuli every day through 36 canals of the Chattogram city. Besides, there are industrial and medical wastes. The burnt oil from the boats plying in the river is also contributing to the pollution.
According to joint research by the University of Hong Kong, RMIT University, Australia and the Institute of Marine Science of Chattogram University, the fertiliser plants discharge 145 cubic metres of polluted water, 35 tonnes of China soil, four tonnes of cellulose and sodium hydroxide per day.
Md SM Maruf Hossain, a member of the research team and professor of Marine Science, Chattogram University, said, "Toxic waste emitting industries include 26 textile, one oil refinery, one fertiliser factory, two chemical factories, five fish processing units, five pesticide industries. About 300 industrial establishments in 16 industrial zones of Chattogram are responsible for this pollution."
According to the Department of Environment, 15 to 25 milligrams of biochemical oxygen per litre of water has been found in Karnaphuli recently which is supposed to be below eight milligrams.
The master plan for protecting the river states, "There are 50,000 sanitary and 24,000 open toilets in the metropolis. Wastes from these are mixing directly to the river water as Chattogram WASA does not have any sewerage system.
AKM Fazlullah, managing director of Chattogram WASA, said, "There is a master plan for a sewerage system in Chattogram. Work on the project will begin by dividing the city into six parts."
River ecosystem being destroyed
In 2015, Professor Aijun Wang of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of California and Professor MdKawser Ahmed of the Department of Oceanography at Dhaka University, conducted a research titled "Heavy Metal Accumulation During the Last 30 Years in the Karnaphuli River Estuary".
It shows that over the last 30 years, chromium, copper, nickel, lead and zinc have increased at the depth of the river which is destroying the ecosystem.
Professor Manjurul Kibria of the Zoology Department of Chattogram University said, "Around 20-25 out of 66 freshwater fish species are almost extinct in the Karnaphuli and 10 out of 59 species of saltwater fish are lost. Other aquatic animals including dolphins are in critical condition."
"We found cancer-causing elements in the sample water taken from the river," he added.
According to the master plan, people living on the banks of Karnaphuli are being affected by the river pollution. Different diseases including water-borne ones are increasing alarmingly.
Eviction drive stalled
On 16 August 2016, the High Court ruled to evict illegal structures built on both banks of the River Karnaphuli. In 2019, the court ordered the district administration to remove 2,181 illegal establishments within 90 days. The district administration evicted 230 establishments and recovered 10 acres of land in that year. Since then, no eviction drive has been carried out
DC Mohammad Mominur Rahman said, "All measures will be taken to protect the Karnaphuli for the sake of the country's economy. We will start eviction drives at a larger scale after taking preparation."
Meanwhile, on 17 April 2019, the government finalised a draft 10-year plan to protect Karnaphuli and some rivers surrounding Dhaka from pollution and illegal occupiers.
The draft includes guidelines to prevent wastes from entering the rivers. The plan also provides guidelines on how to reclaim and conserve illegally occupied land, and how to utilise them to increase tourism facilities.