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The cost of Bangladesh’s garment-driven economic boom

Industrial waste enters Buriganga River as skippers wait for passengers in Karanigonj

Industrial waste enters the Buriganga River as skippers wait for passengers in Karanigonj.

Bengali ferryman Kalu Molla started working on the Buriganga River before the patchwork of slums on the banks gave way to garment factories – and before the water turned pitch black.

The 52-year-old has a constant cough, allergies and skin rashes, and doctors have told him that the foul-smelling sludge that has also wiped out marine life in one of Dhaka’s major waterways is to blame.

“The doctors told me to stop working and get out of the river. But how is that possible?’ Molla told AFP near his home in the industrial suburbs of the capital Dhaka. “Transferring people is my bread and butter.”

In the half century since a devastating war of independence left the population starving, Bangladesh has emerged as an often unheralded economic success story.

The South Asian country of 169 million has overtaken neighboring India in terms of per capita income and will soon be promoted to the United Nations’ list of the least developed countries in the world.

The foundation of years of runaway growth is the thriving clothing trade, serving global fast-fashion powerhouses, employing millions of women, and accounting for about 80 percent of the country’s $50 billion annual exports.

But environmentalists say the growth comes with incalculable costs, with a toxic blend of dyes, tannic acids and other dangerous chemicals ending up in the water.

Bangladesh may soon graduate from UN list of the world's least developed countries, but environmentalists say growth

Bangladesh will soon be promoted from the UN’s list of the world’s least developed countries, but environmentalists say its growth will come with incalculable costs.

The capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, was founded more than 400 years ago on the banks of the Buriganga by the Mughal Empire.

“It is now the largest sewer in the country,” said Sheikh Rokon, head of the environmental rights group Riverine People.

“For centuries, people built their houses on the banks to bask in the river breeze,” he added. “Now the smell of toxic sludge in the winter is so awful that people have to shut their noses when they get close to it.”

Water samples from the river found chromium and cadmium levels more than six times the World Health Organization recommended maximums, according to a 2020 paper from the Bangladeshi government’s River Research Institute.

Both elements are used in leather tanning and overexposure to both is extremely dangerous to human health: chromium is carcinogenic and chronic exposure to cadmium causes lung damage, kidney disease and premature birth.

Ammonia, phenol, and other byproducts of fabric dyeing have also helped starve the river of the oxygen needed to sustain marine life.

Water samples from the Buriganga River found chromium and cadmium levels more than six times the World Health Organization recommendations

Water samples from the Buriganga River found chromium and cadmium levels more than six times the World Health Organization recommended maximums.

‘They are powerful people’

In Shyampur, one of the many sprawling industrial districts around Dhaka, locals told AFP that at least 300 local factories are discharging untreated wastewater into the Buriganga River.

Residents say they have given up complaining about the water’s foul odor, knowing that violating companies can easily avoid responsibility.

“The factories are bribing (authorities) to buy the silence from the regulators,” said Chan Mia, who lives in the area.

“If someone wants to raise the problem with the factories, they beat them up. They are powerful people with connections.”

The pivotal position of the textile trade in the economy has created a bond between entrepreneurs and the country’s political establishment. In some cases, politicians themselves have become powerful players in the sector.

The Buriganga River is

The Buriganga River is “now the largest sewer in the country,” said Sheikh Rokon, head of the environmental rights group Riverine People.

Farther south, in Narayanganj district, residents showed AFP a stream of crimson water flowing from a nearby factory into stagnant canals.

“But you can’t talk about it out loud,” a local resident told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We only suffer in silence.”

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), which represents the interests of approximately 3,500 top factories, defends its track record by highlighting the environmental certifications awarded to its members.

“We’re going green – that’s why we’re witnessing big jumps in export orders,” BGMEA president Faruque Hassan told a recent press conference.

But smaller plants and subcontractors operating on the industry’s wafer-thin margins say they can’t afford the cost of wastewater treatment.

A top clothing official in the Savar industrial district, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said that even most high-end factories serving major US and European brands often don’t turn on their treatment machines.

“Not everyone uses it regularly. They want to cut costs,” he says.

Bangladesh's thriving clothing trade accounts for about 80% of the country's exports, but many factories are close to rivers with

Bangladesh’s thriving clothing trade accounts for about 80% of the country’s exports, but many factories are located close to rivers where a toxic blend of dyes, tannic acids and other dangerous chemicals spill into the water.

‘Facing the same fate’

Bangladesh is a delta country crossed by more than 200 waterways, each connected to the mighty rivers Ganges and Brahmatura that flow from the Himalayas and through the South Asian subcontinent.

More than a quarter of them are now heavily contaminated with industrial pollutants and in need of “urgent” rescue, according to an April legal notice sent to the government by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA).

Authorities have set up a commission tasked with saving major bodies of water on which nearly half of the country’s population depends for agriculture, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said.

The National River Commission has launched several high-profile rides to factories with polluted rivers.

The newly appointed chief, Manjur Chowdhury, said “greedy” industrialists were responsible for the condition of the country’s waterways.

Any action will be too late for the five rivers that circle Dhaka and its industrial suburbs - technically all of them are already dead

Any action will be too late for the five rivers that circle Dhaka and its industrial suburbs — all of them are technically dead already, meaning they are completely devoid of marine life, prominent environmentalist Sharif Jamil said.

But he also admitted that enforcement of existing sanctions was insufficient to address the scale of the problem.

“We need to draft new laws to deal with this emergency. But it will take time,” he told AFP.

Any action will be too late for the five rivers that circle Dhaka and its industrial suburbs.

They are all technically dead already, meaning they are completely devoid of marine life, prominent environmentalist Sharif Jamil said.

“With factories now settling deep in the rural heartland, rivers across the country are suffering the same fate,” he told AFP.


Bangladesh factories ordered to close to save important river


© 2022 AFP

Quote: Dead Rivers: The Cost of Bangladesh’s Clothing-Driven Economic Boom (2022, June 21) Retrieved June 21, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-dead-rivers-bangladesh-garment-driven economic. html

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