From Scenic River to a Stream of ‘Black Gel’

Travel Blog  •  Joanna Kakissis  •  05.20.09 | 1:31 PM ET

Photo by Silver Surfer via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The great master of riverine prose, Norman Maclean, was haunted by the crystalline waters of Montana’s Blackfoot River. But the residents of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, are haunted by the stench of the Buriganga, a river so polluted by human and industrial waste that it’s turned into a dead stream of “black gel,” Reuters reports.

The Buriganga was once a favored locale for visiting dignitaries on a cruise, but it has never been a crystalline stream. The photographer Shehzad Noorani, who has visited its banks hundreds of times in the past two decades, described it as a commercial hub that was nonetheless “busy, vibrant and full of life.” But in recent years, he said, it’s become a poisonous stream that runs as thick as glue. People still bathe and fetch drinking water there.

Bangladesh has some 230 rivers, and many of its 140 million people depend on them for work and transportation. Because of pollution and salination from rising sea levels, safe freshwater sources are disappearing quickly. In Dhaka, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, millions of villagers have migrated from environmentally-degraded rural areas and settled in slums that have no access to safe drinking water.

The Bangladeshi government says it will clean up the Buriganga and other endangered rivers around Dhaka by cracking down on tanneries, which dump tons of waste into the streams. I’m not very hopeful that anything will come of this. Politicians have been saying for years that they will save the Buriganga; in 2003, after horrified World Bank officials traversing the river reported that they covered their mouths and noses because of the stench from waste and rotting fish, the environment minister proclaimed that he would take action.

Six years later, the once-scenic river is a still an open sewer of waste and disease.

Joanna Kakissis's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, among other publications. A contributor to the World Hum blog, she's currently a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

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