From mid-February through the beginning of March, I went to Bangladesh to see waterways impacted by pollution and climate change with Sharif Jamil, the Buriganga Riverkeeper, head of Waterkeepers Bangladesh, and Executive Director of the Blue Planet Initiative. The Buriganga River is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, in large part from the tanneries that operated here until many were relocated to Savar Tannery Park this year. Some smaller ones still operate on the river clandestinely and the government has not done much to shut them down. The river was totally black before the larger operations were moved, and it is still very dark. According to the Department of Energy, oxygen levels have improved since the relocation to 1.0 in January and February of 2018 compared to 0 for the same two months in 2017. As you can see, Sharif's boat is not large, especially compared with barges and other large ships that travel on this waterway bringing goods to the capital. He prefers to have a smaller vessel, so that he does not have to take contributions and can maintain the integrity of his organization.
The image above shows one of the barges that came right at us. I have a closer image of a barge that was almost on top of us, but this one shows there are multiple barges and ships traveling this river all day. The thought of capsizing in that water filled me with trepidation.
The biggest threats to the Buriganga River are the dying factories at Shuampur area, Dhaka WASA (Water Supply and Sewage Authority), continued unauthorized tannery operations, other industrial waste, and household pollutants. It is estimated that 60% of the pollution in the Buriganga comes from industry, 30% from government institutions (WASA and others) and 10% from households. Most don't contain any sort of effluent treatment, and according to Abul Hasanat Abdullah, the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on local government ministry, the city of Dhaka is only able to treat 20% of the cities sewage. Fortunately for this river the largest tanneries have been moved from Hazaribagh to Savar Tannery Park, but now the Dhaleshwari River faces the same issues the Buriganga faced for years (http://www.lynnebuchanan.com/blog/2018/3/7/savar-tannery-park-and-the-textile-industry-on-the-dhaleshwari-river-in-bangladesh).
The image above shows all the hyacinths that proliferate near textile industry operations. The waste that is being released from this effluent pipe is untreated.. The lack of treatment causes water hyacinths to grow out of control and choke the river. Here you can see one of the canals that has been totally blocked. When hyacinths cover too much of the surface of the water, they block out all light and reduce oxygen levels. While researching the water hyacinth problem in Southeast Asia, I did discover one interesting proposal that has been put forth. Hyacinths can be harvested, chopped, ground, processed and dried into bricks that can be used for cooking oil and other energy needs.(https://www.eniday.com/en/sparks_en/hyacinth-power-cooking-fuel/). The World Health Organization attributes 4.3 million premature deaths worldwide to the burning of biomass and coal, so finding alternative sources for energy production seems wise for the air as well as the water.
In the photographs above and below, pipes are shown that are designed to carry water and sand from boats to fill the river's flood plain and nearby low lying land. Frequent monsoons and flooding that erodes riparian banks as well as land grabbing for development are big problems for this river.
In other areas along the river I saw people harvesting hyacinths, though I am not sure what purpose they were harvesting them for. In addition to its potential use as a source of energy, the stems of water hyacinths can be used to make rope, furniture, paper, and as a source of natural fibers (https://textiletoday.com.bd/use-of-water-hyacinth-in-sustainable-fashion/). Further usages include wastewater treatment, since the hyacinths absorb and digest nutrients and minerals from untreated effluent. The image below shows people harvesting hyacinths near a street market.
Although Dhaka is 400 years old, the city still lacks an adequate sewage treatment plant with the capability to treat 80 percent of the sludge generated by its population of close to 20 million. The water hyacinths that proliferate here, especially during the monsoon season, might be helpful in combatting this issue, as well as other forms of industrial wastewater pollution (http://wst.iwaponline.com/content/19/1-2/85.
Below is a cottage tannery business that is still operating along the banks of the Buriganga River. According to activists and civil society leaders, the government has not done enough to enforce the relocation of industry or in terms of protecting the river. Though power sources were eventually cut off to encourage businesses to move some were able to get illegal power connections. Even though a few fish have returned to the river, pollution levels are still so high that any fish that have returned are toxic to human health as will be discussed below.
The fact that some fish may have returned is suggested by the presence of these tall fishing poles that have been installed by a public park where many residents are congregating and playing cricket.
The image below shows a larger fishing operation on the Buriganga that seemed idle as we went past, although there were people present on the platform above. The heavy metals present in the river include: Cd, As, Pb, Cr, Ni, Zn, Se, Cu, Mo, Mn, Sb, Ba, V and Ag. According to a study in the US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health entitled "Human health risks from heavy metals in the fish of Buriganga River, Bangladesh," chemical contamination of food is the highest risk to human health from all the metals present in unsafe levels in the fish in the Buriganga River. These heavy metals persist in the aquatic environment for a long time, and they are subject to bioaccumulation and biomagnification in the food chain. Although not all metals cause carcinogenic health risks, the study concluded that "the accumulation of Ni in all fish species suggests significant cancer risk through consumption of these fish species." (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5047865/) Yet, many people in Bangladesh live in poverty and have no choice but to eat fish from this and other polluted rivers when there is enough oxygen to support the presence of fish and other aquatic life..
In the distant past, the Ganges river flowed to the Bay of Bengal via the Dhaleshwari River. Over time, the course of the river gradually shifted and lost its link with the Ganges, which is when it was renamed the Buriganga River. There were links with the Dhaleshwari though a few canals, but these canals have been grabbed by real estate companies, power companies, and brickfields. This canal, which once connected with the Dhaleshwari, has been totally blocked, essentially robbing the Buriganga River from connection to its source and worsening pollution levels as freshwater no longer flows freely from the rivers it was once a tributary of. The river would be in even worse shape if it were not for the monsoons and the flooding that accompanies these storms adding fresh rainwater to this ailing river.
The image below shows how the brick industry relies on the Buriganga River for transportation of materials to Dhaka.
One of the mainstays of the Bangladesh economy, as well as a major source of pollution is the brick industry. According to Dabaraj Dey, Research Associate from Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers association, "the unhygienic traditional burning process of the dried bricks is responsible for emitting about 11.59 million tons of CO2 in 2015." (http://youthenvop.weebly.com/youth-blog/brick-sector-of-bangladesh-development-associated-with-concerns-dabaraj-dey) It is also linked to deforestation and is detrimental to agricultural top soil. Yet bricks are the core element of most building projects in Bangladesh. Eco friendly kilns are beginning to be built, but banks are often unwilling to make loans to smaller brick making companies (http://www.thedailystar.net/business/eco-friendly-brick-kilns-growing-numbers-1383931),
I found it quite remarkable how they could balance so many bricks on their heads.
Chemically treated plastic bags are another big problem for the Buriganga River. People rinse these bags directly in the Buriganga and Turag Rivers. (https://www.thethirdpole.net/2017/06/26/can-new-protections-save-dhakas-dying-rivers/)
We saw people washing discarded scraps of textiles as well as plastic bags in the river that they may have picked up in the mounds of garbage, again releasing unfiltered toxins. Though utilizing waste and recycling are clearly beneficial for a society that produces so much trash, if waste producing unsafe chemicals is not disposed of properly, these toxins will continue to make their way into the water.
One proposal the government had in 2012 was to dredge a channel fro the Jumana River, which is part of the Brahmaputra River that flows through Tibet and India before reaching Bangladesh. However, environmentalists say this alone won't fix the problem. It is always best to prevent pollutants from reaching the river in the first place. Dredging stirs up pollutants that have settled on the bottoms of rivers, and there are many in the Buriganga River from industries and oil operations along its banks.The dredging project was suspended that same year due to a lack of dredgers. (http://www.theindependentbd.com/printversion/details/9956)
What really struck me while I was motoring down this polluted river is how it is still a major artery of life for this city of approximately 20 million people, even though it is essentially a dead river. All along the banks, I saw children playing often under drainage outlets or even in the water. They were almost always barefoot.
As was mentioned earlier, it is estimated that 10 percent of the pollution in this river comes from households. This image shows a section of the riverbank that has been entirely taken over by trash. During a Renewable Energy Meeting that I attended while I was in Dhaka, scientists discussed how biomass waste could be used as an energy source. It also might help provide a healthier environment for residents–especially children.
Below are more images of the ways in which people directly interact with the Buriganga River on a daily basis. Though we often insulate ourselves from the many roles water plays in our survival in the western world, in Bangladesh the usage and importance of water in daily life is quite visible. When I returned home and began processing these images, I realized that some were quite beautiful despite the horrifying thought that these people are continually exposing themselves to such health risks. Before the country was subjected to unregulated industrialization as we experienced it 100 years ago, this river and the lifestyle of the people who dwelled here must have been quite idyllic. When I blocked out thoughts of current pollution levels, the bustle of people going about their daily lives made me wonder if people lived along the riverbanks in much the same way when Dhaka was formed 400 years ago or even 3,000 years ago when ancient boats were first designed in Bangladesh to traverse its 700 rivers. However, food security was not an issue for this riverine country then, as the waterways were clear and stocked with fish.