Twenty years ago, 70-year-old Nurul Islam made a living fishing the Buriganga River, which once was Dhaka’s lifeline, flows southwest of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka.
Now, with little fish to be found in the “dead” river due to pollution from the widespread dumping of industrial and human waste, Islam makes ends meet by selling street food from nearby carts.
“Twenty years ago, the river was fine. It was full of life,” said Islam, whose family has lived by the river for generations.
“We used to bathe in the river. There were a lot of fish…Many of us used to fish in the river for a living. Things have changed now.”
The Buriganga, or “Old Ganga”, is so polluted that its water takes on a pitch-black color – except during the monsoon months – and emits a foul smell year-round.
The South Asian country of nearly 170 million people, of whom about 23 million live in Dhaka, has about 220 rivers, large and small, on which a large portion of its population depends for their livelihoods and transportation.
The devastation in places like Briganga is in the spotlight ahead of Earth Day, when people around the world celebrate and mobilize in support of protecting the environment.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest clothing exporter after China, but citizens and environmentalists say the booming industry is also a major contributor to the river’s ecological decline.
Raw sewage, by-products of fabric dyeing and other chemical waste from nearby factories flow in daily. Polyethylene and plastic waste accumulated on the river bed shallowed the river bed and caused the channel to drift.
“People who bathe in this river often get scabies,” said Siddique Hawlader, 45, who lives on a boat by the river.
“Sometimes our eyes are itchy and burning,” he added.
In 1995, Bangladesh made it mandatory for all industrial units to use sewage treatment plants to prevent river pollution, but the industry often ignores this regulation.
Mohammad Masud Hasan Patwari, an environmental official, said that while the government conducts regular inspections to ensure compliance, there is a lack of personnel to monitor “around the clock”.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said all textile factories have wastewater treatment plants.
“It is mandatory and there is no way to skip the rules because they have to ensure compliance with international standards,” said Shahidullah Azim, one of its officials.
A recent survey by the Center for River and Delta Research found that the pollution of river water during the dry season far exceeds the standard level, and industrial sewage is the main culprit.
“The once pristine and vast Buriganga River is now dying due to rampant dumping of industrial and human waste,” said Sharif Jameel of the environmental group Poribesh Andolon in Bangladesh.
“During the dry season, there are no fish or aquatic life in the river. We call it biological death.”