Bathing in the toxic waters of Bangladesh’s ‘dead river’

STORY: The ‘Old Ganges’ in Bangladesh is a ‘dead river’.

Fish have been replaced by human and industrial waste.

But for many, this is home, and they still depend on the toxic water to live, bathe and work.

What’s impossible to miss all-year round is the smell.

The ‘Old Ganges’ or Buriganga is so polluted that its water often appears pitch black and emits a foul stench through the year.

Untreated sewage, chemical waste from factories and byproducts of fabric dyeing flow in daily.

Polythene and plastic have also piled up on the riverbed, making it shallow and forcing the river to change its course.

The river was once the lifeline of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

But hardly any fish survive in it anymore.

Like many fishermen, Nurul Islam was forced to abandon his profession.

He now sells food from a cart instead.

“This is the birthplace for my father, and for myself. Around 20 to 30 years back, the river water was good. I used to catch all sorts of fish here. Now the river has become polluted with discharge from urban and factory waste, and there is no fish in the river.”

It’s common to see children play next to landfills and floating pieces of rubbish.

Men, mostly day laborers, still bathe in the river because they have no other choice.

Boatman Mohammad Jahid complains that the water stings.

“This time of the year about 80% of us face trouble with our eyes. Our eyes become red, swollen, and we can’t see properly.”

So where is this pollution coming from exactly?

The main culprit, environmentalists say, are textile factories near the river.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest garment exporter after China.

Dyeing fabrics requires lots of poisonous chemicals, and the wastewater often isn’t treated before it’s discharged into the Buriganga.

But there are laws in Bangladesh supposedly meant to prevent this from happening. In 1995, the government made it compulsory for all industrial units to use effluent treatment plants.

The problem is officials don’t have enough staff to enforce the law with “round-the-clock” monitoring. So industries often get a free pass.

And there’s more.

“There is not a single waste dumping chain that is available or provided by the city corporations.”

Mohammad Azaz is the chairman of River and Delta Research Center.

He points out Dhaka has no central sewerage system, and the government agency for the city’s water and sewage, called WASA, should look into changing that.

“What is the solution here? What we’ve found, there is a water treatment plant run by the WASA, and it is very much near and very much close to Buriganga. Still now, Buriganga is suffering from these 250 water sewers network. But if these sewers networks should be channelized, to this water treatment plant, which is situated in Bakla at least Buriganga could have been relieved from this continuous sewage pollution.”

Find the main story in Reuters.

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