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Buriganga: The world’s largest sewer?

  • Published at 08:46 am May 18th, 2019
Buriganga-Syed Zakir Hossain-Dhaka Tribune
The boatman’s oar churns up toxic foam from the Buriganga, whose water has turned black after decades of abuse Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Several BIWTA officials derisively refer to the Buriganga as “the largest sewer in the world”

The much-delayed relocation of the tanneries from Hazaribagh to Savar has done next to nothing to impede the degradation of the Buriganga.

Already in the first weeks of summer, the stagnant Buriganga’s water now resembles discarded engine oil, black and thick, billowing toxic stench over the kilometres of neighbouring areas.

Mostafizur Rahman, deputy director of the Department of Environment (DoE), said that during dry season, the Buriganga becomes uninhabitable, utterly devoid of oxygen and of all aquatic lifeforms. The DoE conducts a monthly test on the water of the river.

The extent of pollution is visible everywhere on the 27km stretch of the river. The tanneries in Hazaribagh were ordered by the court to relocate because they were held responsible for releasing tons of toxic waste into the river every day for decades. The state largely paid for the dearly expensive relocation, out of an untenable hope for a cleaner river.


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Several Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA)officials derisively refer to the Buriganga as “the largest sewer in the world.”

One of the officials requesting anonymity, said: “For decades, every government has emphasized the need to protect the rivers. But look at Buriganga, Turag and Balu today. They are nothing but sewerage lines,” said the BIWTA official requesting anonymity.     

Dr Monowar Hossain, executive director of the Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) said the level of pollution in the rivers around the capital is increasingly becoming irreversible. 

He said: “During monsoon, you cannot see the pollution because it gets diluted. Now that the river is at its lowest, the pollution has become visible. Industries and various other sources are indiscriminately polluting the rivers – especially the Buriganga. You cannot have a sustainable development by destroying the environment around you,” 

He noted that the country’s huge population is yet another factor: “If our current population is 18 crore, we should immediately have a population policy like many other countries. By the time the mighty industrialists, the government and the people decide how to address the pollution problem in our rivers, it will be too late. You might be able to bring back some fresh water, but aquatic life will take a long, long time to recover.” 

Black water, silent killer

Along the Buriganga, millions of people are exposed to the noxious air. Residents of Kholamora said their lives are sluggish and dreary due to the river pollution.

Ahmed Fazle Rabbi, a primary school teacher in Kholamora said instead of having any benefits of living by a river, they suffer: “During the dry season, we do not dare touch the ebony water of the river. Children suffer from various health problems due to toxic air pollution, at times it becomes difficult for us to breathe.” 

Boatmen who ferry people across the river reported suffering from skin disorders.

“We make a living by ferrying people across this dead river. Our work is hazardous, as the continued exposure to the water has left our skin scarred and diseased,” Gazi Sheikh, a boatman, said, revealing ugly rashes on both of his hands. 

The Buriganga and other rivers around the capital remain stagnant for eight months between September and May. During this period, the only movement of the river water occurs during high and low tides in the Meghna River, 25km downstream. 

The rivers Brahmaputra and Jamuna in Tangail and Manikganj are the only waterfeeders for the river system around the capital. As soon as floodwater recedes upstream, the Ghior Canal in Manikganj and the Old Brahmaputra River in Tangail stop flowing due to siltation at the confluences of Jamuna and Brahmaputra. The water stops feeding the channels, turning the rivers around the capital into stagnant cesspits.

When the floods revive the rivers in June or July, the accumulated waste is flushed downstream through Meghna into the Bay of Bengal.

Resuscitating the rivers

In order to revive the rivers, in 2010 the Water Development Board (WDB) took up a Tk 1000 crore project called “Rehabilitation of Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Sitalakhya and Augmentation of Dry Season Flow”. The project envisaged, among other components, dredging of 160 kilometers of waterways from Tangail and Manikganj to Dhaka. The IWM did a feasibility study on the scheme. The project came to a standstill when several government bodies failed to reach a consensus. 

A WDB official confided that the Local Government and Engineering Department for one, was unable to say what to do with dozens of culverts, link roads they had built on top of the waterways connecting the capital from feeder points. 

But many feel that an isolated and expensive project to restore water flow will not solve the problem alone. For instance, the Dhaka Wasa and both Dhaka city corporations dump a significant portion of their untreated waste into the Buriganga every day. 

Thousands of small to large industries along the river also dump their liquid and solid wastes in the river. At densely populated areas along the river, all human and household wastes find way into the river. At the Sadarghat launch terminal, hundreds of large vessels arrive and depart every day, carrying thousands of passengers. And all the waste produced by them, ranging from mainly polythene wrapping, dirt and food residue generated on the launches, is nonchalantly swept into the river.

Humayun Kabir, a senior engineer with the WDB, said: “A single project cannot solve this problem, no matter how much money you pour into it. The problems need to be identified, analyzed and addressed. It should become a national priority first for at least a few months. Law enforcement agencies could help train and create awareness among people.”