Outcry ignored, result obvious
The water has a yellowish tinge and is even somewhat black in parts. The strong stench it emanates keeps people from going near it.
This is Ekhtiarpur canal, a waterbody testifying to severe pollution as the result of a factory dumping untreated liquid waste.
The canal leads to the Sutang River, which ultimately meets and pollutes the mighty Meghna. Along the way, it poses health risks to locals living along the canal and harms their livelihoods and the surrounding environment.
On World Rivers Day -- the theme of which is "waterways in our communities" -- The Daily Star takes a look at how one factory's pollution affected a local canal and all the communities which depend on it.
Many such factories and industrial establishments dump untreated waste into canals, rivers and other waterbodies in the Shahpur area in Habiganj's Madhabpur upazila.
Locals have protested on several occasions but Maize Advance Argo Refineries Limited (MAAR Ltd), which primarily produces starch powder, continued to pollute Ekhtiarpur canal since it started operations around eight years ago.
Nurul Islam, a resident of Ekhtiarpur village, said many people in the area were suffering from various diseases, including skin diseases due to contact with water contaminated by untreated waste from MAAR Ltd.
Because of the stench, no one wants to visit their village, Nurul added.
Shaheed Mia, another resident of the area, said agricultural land was being destroyed due to waste from the factory. The crop productivity of the land has decreased, and cattle and chickens are often dying after drinking the contaminated canal water.
Tofazzal Sohel, general secretary of the Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon's local unit, yesterday said there was no fish in the canal anymore due to the contaminated water.
In monsoon, fish stocks enter the canal with the greater flow of water but do not survive long, he added.
During a visit in late July, this correspondent found that the canal water has become unsuitable for daily necessities, including irrigation of agricultural fields.
Shahid Uddin Ahmed, chairman of Chhatian Union Parishad, said MAAR Ltd's factory in the Shahpur area generates significant liquid waste, which is released untreated into Ekhtiarpur canal.
Villages in the union affected by the polluted canal include Shramitpur, Daspara, Chhatian North, Chhatian South, Sakuchail, Piyam, and Shimulghar.
Contacted a week ago, Sadiqul Islam, general manager of MAAR Ltd, refuted all allegations brought against the company, saying they have set up a central effluent treatment plant (ETP),.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (Bela), who recently visited the factory site to see the situation, told The Daily Star yesterday that pollution still continues because their ETP is not functional.
"People living in the area are facing a horrible situation," she said.
Speaking to The Daily Star recently, Habiganj Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Kamrul Hasan said MAAR Ltd caused significant environmental pollution, for which its factory was shut down four months ago following complaints from locals.
Whether the authorities have re-opened the factory without the knowledge of the administration will be investigated, he said, adding that any activities of factories which are harmful to the environment will not be allowed in the district.
However, the general manager of MAAR said they resumed factory operations following a court order.
Director of the Sylhet Divisional Office of the Department of Environment Mohammad Emran Hossain, recently told this correspondent that MAAR Ltd did not renew its environmental clearance after 2014.
Although the company was previously fined for environmental pollution, it did not pay the full amount and resorted to court, he added.
Sharif Jamil, general secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon's central committee, said thousands of people from more than 12 villages downstream protested the pollution from MAAR Ltd.
"It is so unfortunate that the government didn't pay proper attention to that."
The administration is instead allowing MAAR and other industrial establishments in Habiganj to pollute the canals and rivers there, which ultimately flows to the Meghna, he said.
It needs a comprehensive action plan to be in place to protect from industrial pollution throughout the Meghna basin, he added.
Shah Shaheda, coordinator of Bela's Sylhet chapter, told this correspondent yesterday that a delegation of their association visited the spot recently and found the allegations against the company to be true. Bela has been working on this company's pollution issue since 2015.
Bela subsequently sent a notice to 11 individuals -- including two secretaries of the Ministries of Industry and Environment, Forests and Climate Change -- on August 19, citing environmental pollution and damage to agricultural land and livestock.
All those concerned were asked to respond within seven days of sending the notice; on receiving no response, Bela is currently working on taking legal action against the company in the interest of protecting the environmental rights and public health of the locals.