The cost of Bangladesh’s clothing-based economic boom

Industrial waste enters Buriganga River while boatmen wait for passengers in Karanigonj

Industrial waste enters the Buriganga River while boatmen wait for passengers in Karanigonj.

The Bangladeshi ferry Kalu Mola began operating on the Buriganga River before the towels from the slums on its shores gave way to clothing factories – and before its waters turned black as tar.

The 52-year-old man has a constant cough, allergies and skin rashes, and doctors told him it was the foul-smelling sludge that also destroyed marine life on one of Dhaka’s main waterways.

“The doctors told me to quit this job and leave the river. But how is that possible?” Mola told AFP near her home on the industrial outskirts of the capital Dhaka. “Transporting people is my bread and butter.”

Half a century after a devastating war of independence has put its people to starvation, Bangladesh has emerged as an often undeclared story of economic success.

The 169 million-strong South Asian country is ahead of its neighbor India in per capita income and will soon be on the UN list of the world’s least developed countries.

At the heart of the years of rapid growth is the thriving clothing trade, which serves the world’s fast fashion manufacturers, employs millions of women and accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s $ 50 billion in annual exports.

But environmentalists say the growth has come at an incalculable cost, such as a toxic mixture of dyes, tannins and other dangerous chemicals that enter the water.

Bangladesh will soon be on the UN list of the world's least developed countries, but environmentalists say growth

Bangladesh will soon be on the UN list of the world’s least developed countries, but environmentalists say the growth has come at an incalculable cost.

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

“Now this is the largest sewer in the country,” said Sheikh Rokon, head of the Riverine People Environmental Protection Group.

“For centuries, people have built their homes on its banks to enjoy the river breeze,” he added. “Now the smell of toxic sludge in the winter is so horrible that people have to hold their noses when they approach it.

Water samples from the river found chromium and cadmium levels more than six times above the World Health Organization-recommended highs, according to a 2020 document from the Bangladesh River Research Institute.

Both elements are used in tanning of the skin and excessive exposure to each of them 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 by-products from tissue dyeing have also helped starve the river of oxygen needed to sustain marine life.

Water samples from the Buriganga River found chromium and cadmium levels more than six times higher than those recommended by the World Health Organization

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

“They are strong people”

In Shampur, one of several large industrial areas around Dhaka, locals told AFP that at least 300 local factories were dumping untreated wastewater into the Buriganga River.

Residents say they have refused to complain about the rotten smell of water, knowing that violating companies can easily escape responsibility.

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

“If someone wants to (raise) the issue in front of the factories, he will beat them. That’s right powerful people with connections.”

The decisive position of the textile trade in the economy created a connection between the owners of companies and the political establishment in the country. In some cases, politicians themselves have become powerful players in the industry.

The Buriganga River is

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

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

“But you can’t say a word about it out loud,” a resident of the area told AFP on condition of anonymity. “We only suffer in silence.”

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), which represents the interests of some 3,500 leading factories, is defending its record by highlighting the environmental certificates given to its members.

“We are turning green – that’s why we are witnessing big jumps in export orders,” BGMEA President Farouke Hassan told a recent news conference.

But smaller factories and subcontractors working with thin margins in the industry say they can’t afford the cost of wastewater treatment.

Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, a senior clothing official in the Savar industrial area said that even most high-end factories serving major American and European brands often do not include their treatment machines.

“Not everyone uses it regularly. They want to save money,” he said.

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

Bangladesh’s booming clothing trade accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s exports, but many factories are close to rivers with a toxic mix of dyes, tannins and other hazardous chemicals that enter the water.

“Facing the same fate”

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

More than a quarter of them are now heavily polluted with industrial pollutants and need to be “urgently” rescued, a legal statement in April sent to the government by the Association of Environmental Lawyers in Bangladesh (BELA) said.

Authorities have set up a commission tasked with rescuing key water bodies, nearly half of the country’s population dependent on agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The National River Commission has launched several high-level discussions to fine factories that have been found to have polluted rivers.

His newly appointed chief, Manchur Chowdhury, said “greedy” industrialists were to blame for the country’s waterways.

Any action will be too late for the five rivers that bypass Dhaka and its industrial suburbs - all already technically demined.

Any action will be too late for the five rivers that bypass Dhaka and its industrial outskirts – all are technically dead, meaning they are completely devoid of marine life, said prominent environmental activist Sharif Jamil.

But he also acknowledged that the application of existing penalties is inadequate to address the scale of the problem.

“We need to create 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 bypass Dhaka and its industrial outskirts.

All are already technically dead, which means they are completely devoid of them marine lifesaid prominent environmental activist Sharif Jamil.

“As factories now move deep into rural areas, rivers across the country face the same fate,” he told AFP.


Factories in Bangladesh have been ordered to close to save the key river


© 2022 AFP

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

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