It is noon and the sun is beating down. Bidhu Halder, a 55-year-old fisherman, and his 24-year-old son Aradhon Halder are busy cutting steel rods for sanitary wares at Paragram village on the bank of the River Kaliganga.
"I used to catch fish in the river for my livelihood, but the water has now become so polluted that there are no fish there. I had to resort to day labour for survival," says Bidhu Halder. His hammer comes down and hits the rod cutter his son is holding.
Even a few years back, villages, including Paragram, were pristine with trees and houses dotting both sides of the river. The villagers would use river water for daily activities, such as doing dishes, washing clothes and bathing in the river. Fishermen's livelihood in the picture-perfect village depended on the fish they used to catch.
But those days have gone.
Contaminated water from the Savar Tannery Industrial Estate empties into Paragram's section of the Kaliganga around 15 kilometres away, posing a serious threat to the biodiversity of the region as well as the livelihood of the villagers.
The tannery estate is now killing the Kaliganga after the Dhaleshwari and the Buriganga.
Bidhu Halder feels bad when he looks at the condition of the river.
"We are helpless. The colour of the water has turned pitch black and red and it stinks. You cannot stand on the riverbank because of the odour," says Bidhu.
The pollution in the river has also changed Ratan Bepari's life. The 35-year-old began fishing in the river with his father when he was just 10. But now, the condition of the river has made him change his profession. He now scratches a living as a rickshaw-van puller in the area.
Mohammad Siraj, 72, was born and raised in Paragram and he has always bathed in the river – most of his life. But now he has to bathe in the tube-well water at home during the dry season.
"You just cannot look at the water during the dry season, let alone bathe in it…Take one dip and your body will itch all over," Siraj says.
Gone are the days when the people of the villages on the riverbank did not need to buy fish. They all now point fingers at the tannery waste as the cause of the destruction of the river. But Bidhu Halder is a bit happy that fresh water has started flowing into the Kaliganga, rekindling hopes of good days ahead when fishermen like him will have the scope to catch fish in the river again but for a short period, until another dry season sets in.
How it began
In 2003, the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) took up a project to build the tannery industrial estate to relocate all tanneries from Hazaribagh in Dhaka city to Savar – to save the River Buriganga.
Finally, in 2017, all the Hazaribagh tanneries were shifted to Savar to save Buriganga, but the tannery has almost killed the Dhaleshwari and is now killing the Kaliganga, a tributary that flows from the Jamuna to the Dhaleshwari.
Officials at the environment department said the tannery estate still keeps on polluting the rivers. The agency is taking action against the tannery estate authorities as well as tanners but has failed to control the river pollution.
In 2020, the environment department fined eight tanneries at the Savar tannery estate Tk21 lakh for polluting the environment. In the same year, the department also slapped the BSCIC with a fine of over Tk6 crore for polluting the river. Last March, it closed down the operation of seven tanneries for polluting the River Dhaleshwari by discharging untreated liquid effluents into it.
The parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on 23 August last year recommended shutting down the Savar Tannery Industrial Estate in Hemayetpur owing to a lack of adequate facilities to treat all liquid waste generated by the tanners.
The problem: Discharge of untreated liquid waste
Zahirul Islam Talukder, deputy director at Dhaka District Office of the Department of Environment, said the main factor lies with the effective operation of Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CEPT). The main pollution happens when CETP releases untreated liquid waste.
"We have some parameters for water quality. We test water every month. According to our latest report the discharged water did not fall within the parameters. That means the CETP is discharging water waste which is polluting the river water," said Zahirul Islam Talukder.
He said the department has asked the BSCIC to follow the directive of the High Court and operate the CEPT correctly so that the quality of water discharged by the CETP stays within the parameters.
Professor Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, director at the Institute of Leather Engineering and Technology of Dhaka University, said the CETP was not set up with modern technology.
"BSCIC claimed that the common effluent treatment plant has a capacity of handling 25,000 cubic metres of liquid per day. The actual capacity is around 14,000 cubic metres of liquid waste per day," said Prof Mizanur Rahman.
"When the plant treats around 5,000-6,000 cubic metres of liquid waste, the discharge quality falls within parameters of the environment," he noted.
In the peak season, 50% of tanneries produce more than 30,000 cubic metres of liquid waste per day. The retention time for the waste in the treatment plant is 24 hours, but the tanners remove it from the module after 12 hours, he pointed out.
"If you discharge the water before fully treating it, it will ultimately be harmful to the river and biodiversity. They are doing that to make room for new liquid in the plant that does not have enough capacity," he added.
There are many deficiencies in the treatment plant. For example, the tannery estate was supposed to set up a plant for a chromium recovery unit. The authorities are supposed to recover and reuse chromium. That did not happen.
The government is planning to make it mandatory for big companies to set up individual effluent treatment plants. The pressure on the CEPT will then go down. Small companies will be able to use the common plant.
The authorities have yet to set up any facility for solid waste management.
However, tanners' association leaders said the quality of the discharged water is improving though it is not that satisfactory yet.
They said they are now more concerned about the management of solid waste.
Shakawat Ullah, general secretary at Bangladesh Tanners Association said, a company has been running the CEPT since last July. The situation has improved to a great extent.
As the company is working on it, the situation will improve within two months, he added.
"Even a drop of water flows into the river after being treated. It is right that it is not fulfilling the parameters 100%," said Shakawat.
"We need a huge amount of money for setting up an effluent treatment plant. But there is no allotment for that. Only a few large companies have the financial capability to install their own plants," he noted.
A few large companies have already got approval for setting up their own effluent treatment plants, he stated.
BSCIC Chairman Mahbubor Rahman said there is now no possibility of river water being polluted because chemicals are being used in the CETP on a regular basis.
The water in the rivers has a light brown colour but the water is not harmful. "If you take it in a glass, it will not look bad," he noted.
Asked about the fine imposed on the BSCIC by the Department of Environment, he said a lot of reforms were carried out after the incident.
There is now no problem in the CETP, he added.
"Everything is going well. The CETP is working well," said Mahbubor Rahman.
The Chinese company handed over the CETP nearly one year ago. The CETP will be tested this month to see if everything is alright, he continued.
"We are now planning to treat solid waste. We do not have any plan to set up a second CETP," Mahbubor Rahman added.
Asked about last month's report of the Department of Environment, the BSCIC chairman said the department did not inform the corporation about the water quality of last month.
"We will see the report and give directives to them [tanners]," he added.