Deadly pollution of rivers endangers lives of thousands

The environmental situation of the capital city is reportedly in a horrendous state as rivers in and around it continue to be used illegally as dumping grounds for industrial waste and sewage with little or no regard for the necessary safety measures. As a result, not only the rivers, but also their surrounding areas are being severely contaminated.

Thousands of people living on the banks of rivers like the Turag and Dhaleshwari as well as the Buriganga and its tributaries - namely Narai, Debdholai and Balu - are at risk of such dangers as intestinal and skin diseases. The water from the three tributaries of the Buriganga river look like discarded engine oil - it is black and thick with untreated waste dumped by WASA and numerous other industries at Tejgaon. Toxic wastes continue to flow into the rivers day and night, exposing thousands of men, women and children of several villages under Khilgaon thana to serious health hazards. The rivers that used to be the lifelines of the vast eastern fringe of the city only a decade back, now release poisonous gas into the air. Boatmen, traders, farmers and others have no alternative but to live with these manmade hazards.

The fertility of arable land along the rivers has fallen drastically due to river pollution, leading to a plunge in food production. The shortage of safe drinking water as well as water for cooking, bathing and washing is critical. The rivers have become fishless due to severe pollution. Factories alongside the rivers have not set up waste treatment plants though notices have already been served on them. Although the Ministry of Environment has set up an Environment Court, punitive action is yet to be taken against offenders who cause such spillage of pollutants. As per Section 9 of the Environment Conservation Act 1995, where the discharge of any environmental pollutant occurs in excess of the prescribed limit, the persons responsible shall be bound to prevent or mitigate the environmental pollution caused as a result of such discharge. If the situation is not brought under control on an emergency basis, there is fear that an environment catastrophe could occur including massive outbreak of diseases (J. Hasan, 2002).

Contamination of water in three rivers flowing through Khilgaon and Sabujbagh thanas (near Dhaka city) of the city has risen to such a level that more than 50 thousand people in 12 villages along their banks are finding life unbearable. Indiscriminate dumping of industrial and household wastes through WASA's sewer pipes into Buriganga's three tributaries continues unabated, polluting the rivers and their surrounding areas. Decomposed body of cattle is sometimes seen floating in the water.

Millions of cubic metres of untreated sewage through sewers of Dhaka WASA flow into the three rivers -- Norai, Devdholai and Balupolluting their water far beyond the tolerable level. Numerous open pit latrines along river banks and other wastes have worsened the situation. Local people said such unusually polluted water is not only causing health hazards but also contaminating cultivable lands and vegetables grown on those. Farmers who grow and supply vegetables mainly to the city markets have to use this water, looking like burnt lubricants and emitting extremely foul odour.

Only a few years ago, water of these rivers was used for drinking and washing. The rivers were also rich in fish, but no fish can survive there now. Fishermen in the area have either gone unemployed or shifted to other professions to earn their living, local people said.

They alleged that untreated sewer flow into the rivers originates from two points-- one at Kamalapur and the other at Rampura. They have appealed to the authorities concerned to immediately build treatment plants at those points and stop polluting the three rivers, considered the lifelines of the area. Meanwhile, people of the 12 villages formed an organisation --Barogram Unnayan Sangstha (BUS)to realise their demand for an end to pollution of the rivers. In this connection, the BUS will hold a rally at Trimohini village under Khilgaon thana today.

Voluntary organisation 'The Hunger Project' and 'Save Buriganga Movement' have supported their movement. A similar rally was organised in March last year and about 10,000 people from 37 villages joined it. Leaders of the BUS yesterday exchanged views with newsmen at Nasirabad High School in the area. Later, they brought out a procession of the villagers to press home their demand.

Villagers told this correspondent that they are facing a crisis of drinking water as they have to depend only on a few tube-wells for it. President of BUS Suruj Mia said fertility of soil in the villages have greatly decreased due to use of highly polluted water of these rivers for production of crop. "Once 20 to 25 maunds of paddy were produced per bigha and now only 12 to 15 maunds are produced," he said.

Asked about open pit latrines along river banks, the BUS leaders said they are providing interest- free loans for setting up sanitary latrines. "As literacy rate is low in the area, it takes time to motivate people to do this." They also called upon the government to solve the unemployment problem in the area. (M. Zaman, 2002)

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