Plagued by pollution: 75 Savar industries dump untreated liquid waste in water bodies; 2 lakh people in 12 villages face serious health risks

polluted waterAbout 2 lakh people of 12 villages around the Savar Export Processing Zone (EPZ) face serious health risks due to tremendous pollution, as industries here dump their untreated liquid waste into surrounding water bodies, ignoring the government's environmental law. Two decades ago, the villagers of this area used local water bodies, such as the Dholai beel, for drinking, cleaning and irrigation purposes. Today, however, that water has turned pitch-black, thoroughly poisoned from the liquid waste of the industries. At present, about 75 different industries are freely discharging their untreated waste into the Dholai beel, Bongshi river and Dholai canal in Savar. These industries include electric supplies and electronics, footwear and leather goods, garment, dyeing, metal, paper goods, plastic goods and hardware.

EPZ authorities sources admitted the alleged discharging of untreated waste and said they would take measures to prevent it as early as possible. The most affected villages are Modhupur, Santaki, Kanda, Kaika Bari, Basak Bari, Dagortali, Sukandi, Bashbari, Majibari, Namopara, Nayapara and Nalam, where as a result of the polluted water the cultivation of boro in winter gets hampered and fishing by the villagers in other seasons has came to an end. Abu Reza Khan, a member of the engineering board of EPZ, said, "All the industries have effluent treatment plants, but they do not use them as we do not monitor regularly." The operation cost of the plant is high. "It is mandatory for the industries to use the treatment plants and buyers quiz us sometimes about it," he added. "The World Bank is supporting the EPZ authorities to set up a central effluent treatment plant within one year, to divert sewage discharge from the affected water bodies," he said.

In the meantime, the untreated sewage discharge has dramatically altered some of the traditional means of livelihood in the villages, preventing crop cultivation, harming cattle and forcing villagers to adopt new sources of income. Bholanatha Rajbonshi, a fisherman of the Majhipara in Savar, said, "Just 15 years ago, people like us made a living by fishing in the beel and the Bongshi river. But there is no question of getting any fish in the beel nowadays." Presently the villagers depend on water from tube-wells for day-to-day drinking, washing, and bathing, but the number of tube-wells is insufficient compared to their needs. In a survey it was also found that many farmers of Savar no longer cultivate paddy, and have instead built houses on their land that they rent out to the EPZ workers. "I used to cultivate paddy in the Dholai beel in winter, but now I live on the income of my rented houses that I made at my yard," said Hasan Ali of Modhupur village.

During floods and monsoons, contaminated water spreads throughout the villages, diminishing the fertility of cropland. "We used to get at least 50 mounds of rice per acre of land around the Dholai beel, but today we hardly get 25 mounds, though we still cultivate as we have to feed our family," said Ramjan Ali of Chhantek village. To cope with the problems, some farmers, especially of Konda village, have also started selling out the topsoil of their crop fields to developers at the rate of Tk 500 a truck. The cattle mortality rate is extremely high in the area and the villagers blame it on the pollution, even though they do not let their cattle drink the contaminated water. "There is severe pollution in our locality but we do not know to whom we should complain. If you can do anything for us by your writing, God will bless you," said Md Almas, a farmer from Aluboddi village.

The villagers said they suffer from a number of diseases, including typhoid, diarrhoea and hepatitis, spread by the polluted water. "Once the chairman of the EPZ came to our villages and he assured us that there will be no discharge of polluted water in the water bodies. But nothing has happened so far. Still we are suffering as bad as before," said Almas, a villager (Pinaki Roy and Suranjit Debnath, Daily Star, March 4, 2005).

Environmental crime: Organised polluters most culpable

The worst environment-related omissions and commissions are taking place, surprisingly, not among ignoramuses but in perfectly knowledgeable circles. These are the handiwork of leaders in organised sectors whose ranks are growing thanks to the sidelining of environmental concerns before commercial considerations. The latest to figure on the list of major polluters are some 75 industries in Savar disgorging untreated waste into nearby water-bodies, and the omniscient brick-kilns -- 4000 in and around the capital -- which are belching sulfur for the people to breathe instead of required amounts of oxygen.

The offending industries are located in the Savar Export Processing Zone, ironically, the most high-profile industrial area. They were mandated by the licensing authority to be treating the effluents as a public health precaution before releasing these into Bongshi river and the adjoining Dholai beel and canal. The worst part of the tale is that such industries do have waste treatment plants but they are not using them to save money, or let's say, make extra money at the expense of public health involving well-being of some two lakh people.

Whose responsibility it is to enforce the relevant environmental laws -- the ministry of industries, the department of environment or the EPZ authority? We would like to know. Can the EPZ authority absolve itself of the responsibility for not holding the industries accountable by merely pointing at the prospect of a central effluent treatment plant scheduled to be set up with World Bank assistance in a year's time?

Simultaneously, we voice our concern over the lethal air pollution issuing from a few thousand brick kilns in the suburbs of Dhaka. The raising of their chimneys has hardly helped matters, given the dangerous fuel mix the kilns use. The basic question is: why the kilns have been allowed to operate within one kilometre of human habitation when the relevant Act specifically debars establishing them within three kilometres of the habitat? The air pollution has had such a telling effect on life that not merely diseases have been spawned, even the livelihood pattern is changing. When will the government wake up? (Editorial, Daily Star, March 9, 2005).

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