Under the Singair bridge over Dhaleshwari river, Sujan and his friends were catching fish with fishing rods. The catches were nothing noteworthy- puti, tengra etc., but the boys were visibly happy with them. Twenty metres into the river, three other boys were diving and trying somersaults in the fresh monsoon water from the roof of a rust-covered half-sunken vehicle.
The happiness of these boys stood in stark contrast to country boys who live beside the rivers, for whom this would be a year-round normal activity. For these boys, it is only seasonal.
A little over a kilometre south of the bridge, the newly established Savar Tannery Industrial Estate stretches over a 200-acre area along the river.
Shifted from Hazaribagh in Dhaka to protect Buriganga river from pollution, the tannery is now polluting Dhaleshwari river, as its waste management systems are not fully functional yet. It's been 17 long years since the relocation was planned.
The pollutants discharged from the estate made Dhaleshwari river off-limits to Sujan and his friends, as well as fishers and everyone else living along the river. As the monsoon water quickly flushes the toxic waste away, the boys seized the opportunity to indulge in a little water sport.
A project to relocate pollution
The project to relocate some 150 tanneries to Hemayetpur in Savar from Hazaribagh was planned back in 2003, which was supposed to end in 2005. The project work actually began in 2013. The tanners were reluctant to move out of Hazaribagh. The project completion deadline was also deferred a dozen times.
Finally in 2016, when the tanneries started to shift to Savar, construction of the central effluent treatment plant (CETP) was not complete.
In the middle of 2020, the waste management system is still a mess.
The delay in constructing the waste management systems has been the central concern with regards to the effectiveness of the relocation project, for at least two reasons. Firstly, the pollution went on unabated; and secondly, the industry now faces certification issues, which bars many of the companies from getting good price for their products.
This certificate is issued by Leather Working Group (LWG), a membership organisation for stakeholders across the leather supply chain, based on environmental compliance and performance capabilities of leather manufacturers.
The wastewater discharge from the CETP is tested by the Department of Environment, as well as a consultation team from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). The leader of the team, Dr Delwar Hossain, a professor of the university's Civil Engineering Department, is happy with the CETP's recent performance.
"From June, the discharge of CETP has been meeting LWG requirements," the professor told The Business Standard.
According to industry sources, however, the concern over CETP is not over yet. Currently, only 20 to 30 percent of tannery activity is going on. The peak season for the industry is coming up, with the Eid-ul-Adha only days away. In the peak season - which typically starts from 15 days after the Eid and lasts for two to two and half months- the CETP will not be able to handle the large amount of wastewater coming from fully operating factories, sources said.
Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) authority, the implementing agency of the tannery project, however, disagreed.
"Even if 50 to 60 more factories are added to the estate, the CETP is capable of treating their waste. But the factory owners need to stop wasting water," BSCIC chairman Md. Mostaque Hassan told The Business Standard. "If we make them pay for water, water usage will reduce."
Professor Delwar Hossain agreed. He said the factories are supposed to use 30 thousand litre water for each tonne of hide, but they consume 50 thousand litre water instead.
"If they reduce water consumption, the discharge will be limited to 25,000 cubic metre, which is within the capacity of the CETP," said Professor Hossain.
In the backdrop of delay in construction of the CETP and its alleged incapability, factory owners have been asking for permission to set up their own ETPs. The government is on the verge of allowing two private ETPs, BSCIC chairman confirmed. Of course, if the CETP is capable of treating all the liquid waste after fair usage, the question as to why the private ETPs are being permitted, remains unanswered.
Professor Hossain expressed his fear that if private ETPs are allowed, ensuring compliance would be much harder compared to using CETP.
There are malpractices on the factory side, too. The chromium-laden water should be delivered to the CETP separately from other wastewater. According to both factory sources and project officials, factories often fail to do so out of sheer negligence, which involves simple measures like opening one valve and closing another while releasing the water.
Besides, the factories are supposed to have sedimentation tanks with the capacity of storing wastewater for two days in case of a need to wait before releasing it toward the CETP. But the tanks are so small in size that factories can't hold the wastewater for more than a few hours.
There are storm drains that lead to the adjacent river directly from the factories. The factories use that drain to dump toxic water into the river because of the low-capacity tanks.
The alleged shortage of ETP, however, is not the only environmental issue. The solid waste produced at the estate is currently being dumped under the open sky in the south end of the estate. As the rainwater washes the waste, the leachate ends up in Dhaleshwari. The tannery estate is yet to arrange proper disposal of such waste.
"These solid wastes can contain 200 types of chemicals, at least 10 to 15 of them are extremely hazardous," said a mid-level employee working inside the estate, seeking anonymity.
Bangladesh's leather and leather products do not get a high price in the international market due to compliance issues. These products are mainly sold in the low-value, non-brand market, as renowned brands do not buy products from non-compliant factories.
On the other hand, compliant finished goods exporters of the country are forced to import leather instead of using local leather because of the same certification issue. As a result, getting LWG certification for the tanneries has been key to survival of the sector.
However, even a properly functioning CETP- which is still not in sight - would not ensure necessary LWG clearance, according to BSCIC chairman.
"Only a part of LWG requirements is under BSCIC's responsibility. Majority of it depends on the measures to be taken by the factory owners," said Mostaque Hassan.
As the tanners stressed that CETP plays a key role in this regard, many of them are reluctant to take care of the issues on their hands, at least at this moment.
One reason is that the business is not good due to the pandemic, which has had a serious negative impact on the leather market.
"Leather is a luxury item. Naturally, the demand for leather products during this pandemic fell sharply," said Md Shaheen Ahamed, chairman of Bangladesh Tanners Association (BTA). Of course, the demand of leather was already falling globally as artificial leather is much cheaper and is in high demand, Shaheen Ahamed added.
The leather industry has been facing a gradual decline in export earnings. According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) data, in FY19-20, export earnings from leather, leather goods, and footwear were $797.60 million, compared to $1,019.78 million in FY 18-19. The earnings declined by 21.79 percent.
A part of this decline is attributed to Covid-19 pandemic and its negative impact on the global economy. But the earlier year also saw a similar negative growth.
According to a Textile Today report, in fiscal 2017-18, export of leather, leather goods, and footwear was worth $1.08 billion. In 2016-17, Bangladesh exported leather and leather goods worth $1.23 billion, compared to $1.16 billion in the previous fiscal year.
One thing to note here is that footwear export from Bangladesh is seeing a steady growth thanks to environmentally compliant factories. Only the leather export is effected due to certification issue.
Completion of the physical infrastructure of CETP alone is not going to solve the pollution crisis. ETP operation is costly. In the textile industry, many factories adopt unfair means to reduce cost. The cost issue has already surfaced in the leather industry. This year, the government allocated Tk30 crore for operating CETP. BTA said the year round operation would cost Tk105 crore, and demanded that the government allocate more money.
To effectively run the CETP, a company- Dhaka Tannery Industrial Estate Waste Treatment Plant Company Limited- has been formed. The company, comprising tannery owners, government officials and technical experts, is yet to decide on how to fund itself.
The tannery insiders said there are many unsettled issues, which are not conducive to a fast resolution of environmental compliance problems. That means, no respite for the river and riverine communities is in sight.
Natural capital in harm's way
The tannery relocation project was taken against the backdrop of tannery factories at Hazaribagh discharging 21,000 cubic metres of untreated waste into the Buriganga river every day. This contributed heavily to killing the river ecosystem. However, despite the shifting of the tannery industry, the state of Buriganga is yet to improve because of discharges from other industries and untreated sewage from a city of two crore people. The sewage treatment facility of the city is inadequate. Half-hearted efforts to stop these sources of pollution is ongoing, but no immediate resolution is expected.
Now, Dhaleshwari, the river near the Savar Tannery Industrial Estate, is facing a similar fate.
When monsoon water comes, these rivers' water looks fresh. But the toxic waste goes somewhere downstream. It deposits on the riverbed, a part of it ends up in the sea. The toxicity enters the food chain through fishes. Toxic food is linked to various diseases and organ failure in humans.
The polluting industries promote GDP growth. As people invest and spend more in healthcare, it also contributes in GDP growth. The only thing that constantly deteriorates is the health of the ecosystems of the planet, and that of human and other species along with it.
As we calculate the profitability of certain industry, we do not usually measure with sincerity the resulting loss of natural capital the planet Earth provided us in abundance.
Inside the tannery estate, I sat in a tea stall. The stench-filled air is barely suitable for breathing, let alone enjoying a cup of tea. But for the sake of building rapport with other people at the stall, I had a banana, a piece of cake, and a cup of tea.
As one person pulled out his wallet to pay, some scraps of fine leather came out. Now I knew who to talk to.
The person, Mohammad Awlad, is a local leather scrap dealer, an equivalent of "Jhut" traders in the RMG sector.
Awlad's family lost some 20 acres when government acquired land for the tannery project. The project is located on what was a 200-acre farm land. Local inhabitants used to yield their yearly staples from here. Fisherfolk used to supply fish for the local market from the river.
The initial budget for the project was Tk175 crore. After about 18 years, the expense has risen to more than Tk1,000 crore on the government's side. At the same time, the industry owners said they spent more than Tk7,000 crore. After spending all the money, neither Buriganga nor Dhaleshwari has been rid of the pollution problem.
The tannery estate is stretched over a 1.6-kilometre-long piece of land along Dhaleshwari river. Not a single pontoon or jetty is there along this length. Evidently, the tannery estate was not set up by the side of the river to take advantage of cheap water transport. It was placed here just to use the river as a free drainage system for treated and untreated wastewater of the industry.
The river is now polluted to such a degree that nobody wants its fish because of the way they smell. The fish stock has also dwindled.
These particular farmers, fishers, all lost their profession. The fishers switched to other professions, some became day labours. Those who lost cultivable land tried businesses with the money they received as compensation.
The money does not seem to be enough for any good business. As I asked Awlad how the business was, he said money was an issue.
"I came to this business one and half year ago. I did not know anything about leather before. Yet, business could be good if I had enough capital," said Awlad.
Only a very small number of locals got employed by the industry, Awlad added. The workers mostly came from other districts. His community knew nothing about leather, he said again.
So who gained what from this, I asked Mohammad Awlad.
"What's the point of measuring that?" Awlad replied.