Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, was founded 500 years ago on the north bank of the Buriganga River.
The city is surrounded by a circular waterway consisting of five rivers, and the many canals that once criss-crossed the city were of major hydrographic importance, connecting the outlying rivers to each other and to the waterway. The majority of these urban canals were blocked, to satisfy, without any consideration for the environment, the chaotic and uncontrolled development of the city. Dhaka and its surrounding suburbs have a population of over 18 million, up from just 1.5 million in 1971, the year Bangladesh gained independence.
While the Buriganga and other rivers have always been considered the “lifeline” of Dhaka, today they are garbage rivers that run the river circuit. These rivers were fish-bearing, provided the necessary water for the domestic needs of the population, carried away the used water from the whole city, facilitated travel between the capital and the cities of the South and the ocean, played (with the immense adjacent plains) the role of “buffer zone” to protect the city from floods caused by monsoons. Rivers will soon no longer be able to perform these functions.
Industrial pollution produced by tanneries, textile factories, shipyards, steel factories, brickworks, industrial and craft factories of all kinds, is the primary cause of river contamination. About 10,000 cubic metres of toxic waste are directly discharged into the rivers of Dhaka every day.
In addition to chemical pollution in the industrial sector, untreated domestic wastewater is systematically discharged into rivers. Only 20% of the city’s wastewater is treated, turning rivers into gigantic open sewers. Despite the development of the road network, Buriganga remains the main trade route between Dhaka and the two Bangladeshi seaports on the Indian Ocean. The unquantifiable quantity of waste oils discharged by an increasing number of cargo and passengers ships crossing rivers aggravates the situation. Entrepreneurs, politicians and investors quickly sacrificed the long-term balance and sustainability of rivers by focusing on immediate economic and financial opportunities. The impact of these polluting activities is amplified by the narrowing of river sections and the closure of urban canals. The appropriation of land and portions of watercourses allows industrialists to set up their production sites, contractors to build housing areas and people from the countryside to build makeshift dwellings. These practices reduce river currents and impoverish their regeneration. Smelly odours, puddles of oil and grease on the surface of the water, plastic and organic waste floating on the water, discoloration of banks and groundwater, fish unfit for consumption, proliferation of toxic algae, etc. are all visible signs of contamination that has practically transformed Buriganga into a “dead river”.
This ecological disaster is encouraged by the lack of law enforcement, corruption, the interests of Bangladeshi and foreign investors and the cruel lack of attention to the environment among the population. Activists, journalists, scientists, lawyers and members of Bangladeshi environmental organizations are regularly threatened or even physically assaulted for their work.
If the Turag, Tongi Khal, Balu and Lakhya rivers, which surround Dhaka, were to experience a identical scenario to that of the Buriganga River, the ecological balance of the city would be irremediably upset and Dhaka would become unbearable.