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Environmental impact of Savar tannery industry

22 November 2022

Monirul Haque Rony :
Savar is now known as a tannery industry city after relocating tanneries there from Hazaribagh.  At present there are about 140 small and big leather factories in production.  On the one hand, these large numbers of leather factories are playing an important role in driving our economy.  On the other hand, it poses a dangerous threat to environmental pollution.  The nearby Dhaleswari River in particular is heavily polluted by tannery waste.  The water, soil, air and surrounding environment of this area are being polluted continuously.  The water of Dhaleswari River has acquired an eerie black colour. Such an intolerable condition has developed in its surrounding areas that it has become difficult to live there. The level of environmental pollution has gone so out of control that the parliamentary committee on the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MEFCC) itself has recommended the temporary closure of the tannery industry city due to environmental pollution.  Even the chairman of the National River Conservation Commission recently visited the tannery industry city and expressed his anger and dissatisfaction with the waste management.
The dire picture of this industry in terms of overall environmental pollution can be seen in some earlier statistics.  According to the information of the MEFCC of Bangladesh-22000 liters of toxic waste including cancer-causing chromium from the tanneries located in Hazaribagh were mixed in Buriganga every day. Besides, an average of 3,000 metric tons of solid and 250,000 tons of liquid waste were dumped in Buriganga every month.
Although the aforementioned statistical information is very early and Hazaribagh-centric, the situation has not changed much.  Even after relocating to Savar, the tanneries continue to generate the same level of polluted waste.  What has changed is the river.  Earlier Buriganga used to be polluted, and now Dhaleswari has taken over that place.  Currently, about 40,000 cubic meters of waste is generated daily from the tanneries located in Savar.  But the daily treatment capacity of the Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) here is 25,000 cubic meters.  The remaining fifteen thousand cubic meters of waste is flowing into the Dhaleswari River without any treatment.  About 92 types of chemicals like harmful cadmium, arsenic, zinc etc. are needed in the processing of leather from start to finish.  (Although not more than 45 are used here.)  These toxic liquid wastes mixed with chemicals are causing great harm to the fish and other aquatic animals in the water. It is destroying the aquatic environment and the balance of the environment.
The condition of the workers working in these leather factories is also deplorable.  Most of them do not use any protective measures like hand gloves, face masks etc. for safety and the hiring authorities have no initiatives about using these.  As a result, most of them are suffering from incurable and terrible diseases like skin cancer; bronchitis, asthma, high blood pressure, skin lesions etc. and some are dying prematurely. Many workers are also losing their eyesight due to the toxic gases used in the factories.  During the rainy season, tannery wastes mix with the surrounding cropland and depleting the fertility of the land. The overall environment of the tannery industry area has become extremely unsuitable for healthy living.
The biggest reason behind the decision of relocating the tannery industry from Hazaribagh to Savar was to free the Buriganga River from the pollution of that industry and to protect the large population living in Hazaribagh and its surrounding areas from the health hazards of pollution.  But the fact is, with the migration of this industry, its pollution also migrated; people's sufferings have also been transferred. Because the nearby Dhaleswari River is suffering from similar pollution and the people living in the vicinity of this industrial city are facing health hazards and environmental damage. Since, there is actually no effective and sustainable system of waste management has been developed yet.
The conditions for treatment and disposal of waste in the plan to build a new tannery at Hemayetpur in Savar are being violated to a large extent. In addition to the inadequacy of the factories' respective raw waste screening systems, the CETP is not fully operational yet. The technical system for separation of solid and liquid waste is also insufficient. The Dumping yard is incomplete. Non-operation of CETPs and dumping yards is not only increasing the damage to the natural environment, it has a negative impact on the industry itself.  Exports of leather products from Bangladesh are decreasing gradually and this industry is failing to achieve enough compliance.  As a result, our tannery industry has failed to attain the certification of the global organization called 'Leather Working Group' (LWG). In consequence, the progress towards the amelioration of this industry is being disrupted step by step. In this situation, it has become very important to take effective measures to prevent the environmental pollution caused by the tannery industry.
Most of the workers working in the tannery industry are illiterate.  They have no knowledge about workers' safety or the harmful effects of working in the tannery industry. All these workers should be provided training on various aspects of working in leather factories.  In many places tannery waste can be seen lying in the heaps by the roadside, which pollutes the air.  It is unhealthy and not environmentally friendly.  In this case, there is a need to have necessary arrangements for dumping these wastes in a specific place, as well as a strong step to modernize the tannery industry with effective CETP.  
There is no denying the contribution of a booming industry like the tannery industry to the economy of Bangladesh. But due to various mismanagement, use of old technology, lack of proper infrastructure, lack of awareness, insecurity and health risks of workers, financial crisis etc., this industry is becoming a threat to the environment and population of the country day by day.  If this continues, this almost century-old industry will one day write its name in the book of extinction.  Therefore, to reduce the negative impact of the tannery industry on the environment and public health, formulation of a long-term, modern and realistic plan and its implementation is the demand of the day.

(The writer is lecturer, Department of Social Work, Savar Govt. College).

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