The cost of the garment-led economic boom in Bangladesh

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Dhaka (AFP) – Bangladeshi smuggler Kalu Molla started working on the Buriganga River before the patchwork of slums on its banks gave way to garment factories – and before its waters turned black.

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

“The doctors told me to quit this job and get off the river. But how is that possible?” Molla told AFP near his home in the industrial outskirts of the capital Dhaka. “Transporting people is my bread and butter.”

In the half century since a devastating war of independence left its people facing starvation, Bangladesh has become an often unsung economic success story.

Bangladesh will soon be removed from the UN’s list of the world‘s least developed countries, but environmentalists say the growth has come at an incalculable cost Munir UZ ZAMAN AFP

The South Asian country of 169 million people has overtaken neighbor India in per capita income and will soon be removed from the United Nations list of the world’s least developed countries.

Underlying years of meteoric growth was the booming garment trade, serving the global powerhouses of fast fashion, employing millions of women and accounting for around 80% of the country’s $50 billion annual exports. dollars.

But environmentalists say the growth has come at an incalculable cost, with a toxic mix of dyes, tanning acids and other dangerous chemicals ending up in the water.

Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, was founded on the banks of the Buriganga over 400 years ago by the Mughal Empire.

“It’s now the biggest sewer in the country,” said Sheikh Rokon, the head of the environmental advocacy group Riverine People.

Water samples from the Buriganga River have found chromium and cadmium levels more than six times the World Health Organization's recommended maximums
Water samples from the Buriganga River have found chromium and cadmium levels more than six times the World Health Organization‘s recommended maximums Munir UZ ZAMAN AFP

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

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

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

Ammonia, phenol, and other byproducts of fabric dyeing have also helped deprive the river of oxygen necessary for marine life.

“They are powerful people”

In Shyampur, one of several sprawling industrial districts around Dhaka, residents told AFP that at least 300 local factories were dumping untreated sewage into the Buriganga River.

Local residents say they have given up complaining about the putrid smell of the water, knowing that the offending businesses can easily avoid their responsibilities.

The Buriganga River is
The Buriganga River is ‘now the biggest sewer in the country’, said Sheikh Rokon, the head of the environmental advocacy group Riverine People. Munir UZ ZAMAN AFP

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

“If anyone wants (or) raises the issue in the factories, they will beat them up. They are powerful people with connections.”

The crucial position of the textile trade in the economy created a bond between business owners and the country’s political establishment. In some cases, politicians themselves have become powerful industry players.

Further south, in Narayanganj district, residents showed AFP a stream of purple-colored water flowing in stagnant channels from a nearby factory.

Bangladesh's booming garment trade accounts for around 80% of the country's exports, but many factories are close to rivers with a toxic mix of dyes, tanning acids and other dangerous chemicals that end up in the water.
Bangladesh’s booming garment trade accounts for around 80% of the country’s exports, but many factories are close to rivers with a toxic mix of dyes, tanning acids and other dangerous chemicals that end up in the water. Munir UZ ZAMAN AFP

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

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), which represents the interests of around 3,500 large factories, defends its record by pointing to the environmental certifications issued to its members.

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

But small factories and contractors operating on the industry’s razor-thin margins say they are unable to afford the cost of wastewater treatment.

A senior garment official in the Savar industrial district, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said even most high-end factories serving major US and European brands often do not turn on their processing machinery.

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

“Faced with the same fate”

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

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

Any action will be too late for the five rivers that surround Dhaka and its industrial outskirts - all are already technically dead, meaning they are completely devoid of marine life, says prominent environmental activist Sharif Jamil
Any action will be too late for the five rivers that surround Dhaka and its industrial outskirts – all are already technically dead, meaning they are completely devoid of marine life, says prominent environmental activist Sharif Jamil Munir UZ ZAMAN AFP

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the authorities have set up a commission to save the main bodies of water, on which almost half of the country’s population depends for agriculture.

The National Rivers Commission has launched several large-scale campaigns in beautiful factories that have polluted the rivers.

Its newly appointed leader, Manjur Chowdhury, said “greedy” industrialists were responsible for the state of the country’s waterways.

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

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

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

All are already technically dead, meaning they are completely devoid of marine life, said prominent environmental activist Sharif Jamil.

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

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