- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

DHAKA, Bangladesh — A cruise on the historic Buriganga River here in the capital used to be a must for visiting dignitaries, but these days they are confronted with foul smells and rotting fish caused by massive pollution.

“This stench is unbelievable. You must do something about it,” Dale Lautenbach, a senior visiting official of the World Bank, said during a recent cruise on the river, which flows through Dhaka on its way to the Bay of Bengal.

She and the other ferry passengers covered their noses as they looked in horror at the black water and rotting, floating fish.

Hundreds of years ago, the banks of the Buriganga were a prime location when the Mughals made Dhaka their capital in 1610. The house-turned-museum of the nawab (ruler) overlooks the river, which is the country’s main waterway for trading and ferry travel.

It was once the main source of drinking water for Dhaka residents, and an hour upstream from the capital, the river is still crystal clear.

But as it flows through the capital, waste from sewers and factories — especially tanneries — pours into it.

According to the Environment Department, up to 40,000 tons of tannery waste flows into the river daily, along with sewage from Dhaka, a city of more than 10 million.

Human waste is responsible for 60 percent of the river’s pollution, followed by industrial waste at 30 percent. The rest is solid waste.

“We all get skin disease after taking baths in the river, but we have no choice, as this our home, too,” said Majnu, a worker at Sadarghat, one of Bangladesh’s main ferry terminals.

Illegal structures have sprung up along its banks, narrowing the river and adding to the dirt, while ferries spill oil into its waters.

“It is a dying river and the situation will get worse unless steps are taken urgently,” said Naser Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Environment Campaign, a nongovernmental organization (NGO).

He said the situation would be even worse if it were not for the annual monsoons, which help clear the river to some extent because the water flow increases after the heavy rains.

“It is a poisonous river now and dying, but if we could implement existing laws, it would go a long way to help the river survive,” said environmentalist Philip Gain of the Society for Environment and Human Development, another NGO.

“We have no choice but to save the river at any cost.”

Mr. Khan said an urgent priority is to dredge the bed of the Buriganga because silt and rubbish, including polythene bags, have lessened its depth.

Environmentalists also want tanneries to be moved away from the river and sewage to be diverted to treatment plants.

The Independent newspaper recently complained that the government was doing nothing to clean up the river. “The government’s inaction is as incomprehensible as it is painful,” it said in an editorial.

But Environment Minister Shahjahan Siraj insisted that the government is committed to saving the Buriganga.

“The government is doing everything possible to save the river, and we have set up task forces with specific responsibilities to identify how to save the river,” he told AFP.

God willing, “we hope to restore the river to its original state this year,” said Mr. Siraj, who banned the use of polythene bags soon after taking office in 2001.

Last month, the government adopted a plan to maintain the navigability and normal flow of the Buriganga and remove all illegal structures on its banks.

“At the meeting it was decided to ban brick kilns within [825 feet] of the river bank, structures within [1,782 feet], remove garbage and silt from the river bed and divert water from the Jamuna River to keep a good flow of the Buriganga year-round,” Mr. Siraj said.

“We have already decided to relocate tannery factories to other places.”

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