With much hype and efforts involving at least Tk1,000 crore, the Hazaribagh leather estate was finally relocated in 2017 with the promise that it would improve the water quality of the Buriganga.
The Buriganga, flowing past Dhaka city with a long historical past, had to be saved, its pitch-black water had to be cleaned and marine life brought back to it.
Today the Buriganga still flows as squalid as it did before; its oxygen level is still five times below the acceptable level, proving that the leather industry relocation has been a complete waste of money. Similar has been the experience with five more projects, undertaken over the last 19 years and that saw a waste of Tk3,000 crore.
For example, the government had fenced off the river with concrete railings, most of which have disappeared and the river encroached upon. The project to bring in water from the Jamuna to ensure a clean water supply to the Buriganga also did not materialise. And other projects also similarly failed.
The Hazaribagh leather complex housing 250 industries contributed only 6 percent to the Buriganga's pollution. The remaining 94 percent remain unaddressed with no future plan to deal with the major cause of pollution, nor is there any commitment other than some actions that are little more than eyewash.
On Sunday, the High Court ordered the Department of Environment (DoE) to shut down the operations of all industries, factories and other structures on both banks of the Buriganga River, which have been running without its approval and polluting the river.
The 29-kilometre-long Buriganga is today witness to how haphazard, myopic plans make no difference to a major environmental disaster and lead to a squandering of public money that comes from taxpayers.
"We shifted the Hazaribagh leather estate, but why?" asks M Inamul Haque, chairman of the Institute of Water and Environment, adding, "Relocation of tanneries would not have been necessary if the authorities concerned had compelled the 'Red Category' factories to install standard effluent plants in Hazaribagh. The Buriganga is yet being polluted due to effluents released by Hemayetpur tannery estate. The campaign for cleaning up the river by a shifting of the leather industries has been in vain."
The sources of Buriganga pollution are too starkly visible now.
Standing on the Ahsanullah Road beside the sluice gates in Sutrapur, one can see thousands of litres of sewage – untreated and raw – gushing into the Buriganga. The odour is overwhelming.
Some 2,500 industries along its banks release their untreated water into the river system. The leading ones among them are the textile industries that produce 56 million tonnes of waste and half a million tonnes of sludge daily.
The riverbed is also getting filled up at an ever increasing rate as Dhaka dwellers are throwing into the river polythene bags manufactured by 250 industries countrywide despite an official ban.
Of about 17,000 tonnes of such unrecycled annual plastic waste, most flow into the Buriganga. A testimony to this havoc came to light when a clean-up of the riverbed in 2012 revealed a 12-13 feet layer of polythene and other wastes.
So, all this together is an image of what once was a pristine river where dolphins played and fishing was the main source of livelihood of the people living by the banks.
Today all that remains is the filth, odour and tales of a wasteland.
Nuruddin, a sand porter at Fatullah market, pointed to a box culvert near the Fatullah Mass Grave that was releasing toxic water from the dyeing factories in the area.
"The toxic water is drained untreated into the river," Nuruddin said. He also mentioned another culvert at Dharmaganj which too releases industrial effluents into the Buriganga.
Although the river water looks pitch black and smells toxic, people living near the banks, particularly porters and local children in Fatullah, regularly bathe in the river.
According to Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa), around 5.1 million people living along the Buriganga riverbank generate around 380 million litres of liquid waste – both household and industrial – on a single day.
Buriganga River keepers coordinator Sharif Jamil said building owners violating the Building Code 2006 link the buildings' sewage lines directly to Dhaka Wasa's storm water discharge network, contaminating the discharge with solid wastes.
"Such practices contribute tremendously to the degradation of the Buriganga," he said.
Local people, who had closely observed the cleaning campaign taken up by Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) and financed by Bangladesh Climate Change Trust, now consider that pilot project to have been an eyewash.
"The extracted wastes drained down into the river again as they were piled up in the open on the riverbank and the cleaners did not remove them before the monsoon," said the sexagenarian Atahar Uddin while crossing the Buriganga from Matborghat to Babubazar Ghat at Kamrangirchar.
As the sunny day rolled on, the pitch black water of the Buriganga vaporised toxic odours, creating breathing discomfort to riverside people who seldom pay attention to the deteriorating quality of the river water. But they can feel that the river, which was once considered the artery of the 400-year-old Dhaka city, is dying every day.
When asked about the reasons behind the pollution, Atahar, covering his nose with a corner of his sarong, blamed indiscriminate waste dumping as well as sewage disposal – both from households and industries – along the riverbank for the continuous water pollution.
The Department of Environment (DoE) has already announced that the quality of the Buriganga River water is well below acceptable standards.
According to the DoE's laboratory report in 2017,the river water contains at least five times less dissolved oxygen than the amount required for sustaining aquatic microbes.
BIWTA Director Rokibul Islam Talukder opined that no cleaning projects would be effective unless waste disposal into the Buriganga is stopped.
How the pollution is going on
Dhaka Wasa has a sewerage system that is only 816km long and leaves out major parts of the city, including Uttara, Mohammadpur, Shyamoli, Banani and Jatrabari.
Porter Mohammad Manik Sardar of Goshaibari, Sutrapur, has been witnessing the slow death of the Buriganga for the past three decades. He may have no idea about a river system restoration but he certainly is aware of the sources of wastes that pollute the river every second.
Sewage and storm water from New Market, Azimpur, Lalbagh, Chawkbazar, Bangshal, Kaptan Bazar, Lakshmibazar and other parts of Old Dhaka drain into the Buriganga River.
The Business Standard has found at least eight sluice gates releasing liquid wastes on the bank of the Buriganga along the walkway between Sadarghat and Postagola. Additionally, there are a number of privately stretched small culverts that also release sewage from nearby residential areas.
Currently, Dhaka Wasa operates only one sewage treatment plant at Pagla in Narayanganj with a capacity of treating 120 million litres per day against the produced 200 million litres of sewage, including human faeces.
Wasa officials said the plant now could treat only 4 million litres of sewage due to a clogged sewerage network.
Professor Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) expressed his dissatisfaction over the failure to implement the government's master plan to construct at least 11 sewage treatment plants in Dhaka and its neighbouring districts by 2025.
"The authorities concerned have so far failed to complete the construction of at least one treatment plant," he regretted.
Experts have identified nine industrial areas comprising about 2,500 factories in and around the capital city as the primary sources of river pollution.
Most industrial units have no effluent treatment plants. Textile industries annually discharge as much as 56 million tonnes of waste and 0.5 million tonnes of sludge and most of these are released into the Buriganga.
DoE Director Ziaul Haque said the department conducts mobile courts on a regular basis to check water pollution caused by industrial effluents.
Inadequate manpower hampers a strict implementation of the environmental law, he said, adding that the department has regularly been clamping fines on polluters.
Between January 2010 and May 2019, DoE-led mobile courts fined river polluters a total of Tk.116.76 crore.
Projects that failed
The Water Development Board (WDB) took up a project in 2000 involving Tk61 crore to develop the Buriganga and the ports on its banks. The project, spanning six years, developed four river ports on the banks of the Buriganga.
In 2003, the government took up a massive project to relocate the Hazaribagh tannery industry to Hemayetpur, Savar. Implemented by Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC), the project involving Tk1,078 crore saw the transfer but helped the Buriganga very little in terms of restoring it to health. The relocated tannery factories are now polluting the Dhaleshwari River.
To prevent the Buriganga and its foreshore land being encroached upon, the BIWTA took up a project worth Tk35 crore in 2006. Under the six-year project, the BIWTA began constructing an eco-park at Shyampur of Postagola. The construction was later halted owing to legal issues.
Also under the project, the BIWTA set up around 300 pillars to demarcate the Buriganga to check encroachment. But the pillars were set wrongly, without considerations of the river flow and foreshore during the monsoon. The result was that it rather facilitated grabbers in encroaching further.
Following directives from the High Court, the BIWTA took up another project involving Tk844 crore to reset the boundary pillars. BIWTA officials said they would launch the project soon.
The WDB implemented the Buriganga River Restoration Project involving Tk944 crore in 2010-2015 to dredge 162km of the Buriganga and bring water from the Jamuna River. The project did not finish within the period. Officials pinned the blame on delays in fund disbursement.
The government also dredged 200,000 cubic metres of the river in 2017-18 to ensure adequate navigability for large vessels.
In 2012, the BIWTA executed a project involving Tk21 crore to extract solid wastes from the Buriganga and Turag rivers. However, the pilot project proved futile as waste dumping into the rivers continued unabated.
In 2019, the BIWTA took up work on setting up walkways and jetties on the Buriganga, Turag, Shitalakhya and Balu rivers. Under the project worth Tk848 crore, 20km of the planned 50km walkway was constructed in the first phase, but some parts of the walkway got damaged, facilitating land filling and encroachment.
Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, minister of state for shipping, recently vowed to restore the Buriganga River to its former state within 10 years through drives against river encroachment and pollution.
"We are doing this as per the government's plan to create a 10,000km long waterway across the country," he said.