Politicians made promises, the courts gave directives, National River Conservation Commission urged actions and finally, last year a master plan was formulated to save the Karnaphuli river from pollution and encroachment.
Yet, unabated waste dumping and river land grabbing kept on poisoning and choking the Karnaphuli while the plans and promises remained unimplemented.
The river that contributes to 36 percent of the country’s total GDP absorbs 22,000 tonnes of liquid and solid waste every day discharged by households, industrial and medical establishments combined, found a technical sub-committee led by Chattogram Port Authority’s chairman.
Following an Ecnec decision in 2016, the sub-committee prepared a masterplan for the Karnaphuli and the Halda, a draft of which was submitted to a ministerial committee in 2018 suggesting 45 primary and 167 supplementary measures to save the two rivers.
The STP Panacea
Seven natural canals known as Mohesh Khal, Murari Khal, Khondokia Khal, Chaktai Khal, Rubi Gate Khal, Maizpara Khal and Rajakhali Khal bring waste from households and commercial establishments into the river, according to the findings of the sub-committee, comprising of the Chattogram Port Authority, Chattogram Development Authority, Chattogram Wasa and the Department of Environment as members.
The centuries-old port city with an official population of 70 lakh, situated on the bank of the Karnaphuli, has no Sewerage Treatment Plant (STP).
As a result, the waste from the canals spread into one square kilometre of the river at the points where the natural canals meet the Karnaphuli, revealed the masterplan.
AKM Fajlullah, managing director of Chattogram Wasa, on January 5 said they prepared a master plan for the STP which would be set up in six phases. It was approved in 2017 and expected to be completed by 2022.
“We have a Malaysian firm as consultant for preparing the design of the STP. By March this year, we will be able to hire the contractor to kickstart the work. Once the STP is done, the Karnaphuli will be spared from pollution,” he said.
Even the Department of Environment (DoE) in Chattogram, responsible office for monitoring and preventing pollution of the river, shifted the blame on the absence of STP.
According to the DoE, there are about 300 factories and industrial complexes along the 100-kilometre stretch of the Karnaphuli from Rangamati’s Chandraghona to the mouth of the river at Patenga. The industries include paper mills, oil refineries, power plants, tanneries, fertiliser manufacturers, dyeing and washing plants, soap and cement factories.
Of these, 84 factories discharge effluents in the river, although at least 74 of them have effluent treatment plant or ETP, many of which, according to DoE insiders, are kept dysfunctional by factory owners to save production cost.
Azadur Rahman Mallik, director of Chattogram DoE (metro) denied allegations of lax in strictly monitoring ETP usage by factories, claiming they inspect factories regularly and fine those who are found releasing untreated effluents.
He said in the absence of a STP, the pollution of the Karnaphuli cannot be checked only by curbing industrial pollutants.
Concerns for humans and aquatic life
Meanwhile, the river pollution is having an impact on the people living along its bank, observed the master plan. The report mentioned, increased prevalence of water-borne diseases, relocation of homes along the river and fishermen changing profession because of fish scarcity in the river.
On December 31, while visiting three different points, where Khondokia, Chaktai and Rajakhali khals connect with the river, this correspondent could hardly stay a minute because of the foul air in the area.
Dr Nurullah Noori, director of the DoE’s Chattogram lab, told The Daily Star they often analyse the water quality of the river and its connected canals. Almost every parameter of the water of the river and the canals were found unsafe for humans as well as aquatic life.
“In lab tests conducted in November 2019, average dissolved oxygen (DO) at the mouth of the seven canals were found below 3.99 milligram per litre instead of the standard 5.00 milligram per litre. Average biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) was 26 milligram per litre where it requires to be 9.00 milligram per litre for clean water,” Dr Nurullah said.
According to a 2012 DoE report, out of 140 species of fresh water, mixed-water and sea fish of the Karnaphuli, 35 different species can no longer be found in the river while the rest are endangered.
In addition to wastes and effluents, the near about 3,000 vessels operating on the river every day also worsen the quality of the water of Karnaphuli, through which goods are transported to and from the busy Chattogram port.
The port responsible for the movement of the vessels claimed that they operate routine drive to remove oil spill over, and uses specialised vessels for solid and liquid waste cleaning and oil dispersing.
All deaf ears
Apart from pollution, the Karnaphuli has 2112 grabbers along its 40-km stretch from Kalurghat to Patenga, according to a list prepared by Chattogram district administration following a 2010 High Court order.
Since 2016, the court has issued several directives at different times ordering the district administration, Chattogram Port Authority (CPA) and Chattogram Development Authority (CDA) to remove illegal structures from the riverbanks.
Till date, none of the authorities have fully complied with the court orders.
While the CPA and CDA kept asking for more time to carry out the court orders, the district administration stopped eviction drive merely a week after its operation started in February 2019 citing reclaimed land management issues.
Elias Hossen, deputy commissioner of Chattogram, told The Daily Star on January 8, that the court ordered CPA to evict the illegal grabbers, and district administration will help CPA with magistrate and manpower, if necessary.
Contacted, CPA spokesperson Omar Faruk, told The Daily Star on January 08 that the port authority already evicted some structures and preparation is being taken to remove the rest.
He said they will launch drive again to remove illegal structures as per court direction.
A promise yet again!