Dead rivers, the exorbitant price of Bangladesh’s economic vein
Bangladeshi boatman Kalu Molla began working on the Buriganga River, which borders the capital Dhaka, before the slums that swarmed its banks gave way to garment factories and its flowing waters turned black.
The 52-year-old, who suffers from an incessant cough, allergies and rashes, has just learned that the poisonous, foul-smelling sludge that has wiped out aquatic life in the river is responsible.
“I lost my sense of smell, so I went to the hospital for treatment,” Molla told AFP near his home in the industrial suburb of Dhaka.
“The doctors advised me to quit this job and get away from the river. But what should I do? Passenger transport ensures my livelihood”.
When Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a war that claimed three million lives, then-US national security adviser Henry Kissinger called the country a “hopeless case”.
The boom in the textile industry has greatly contributed to the economic success of the country, which is now the world’s second largest clothing exporter, behind China.
The sector accounts for around 80% of the country’s $50 billion in annual exports.
– “The largest sewer in the country” –
But, according to ecologists, the price of this growth is exorbitant for the Buriganga whose waters carry dyes and tanning acids among other chemicals and toxic products.
“It’s now the biggest sewer in the country,” said Sheikh Rokon, head of environmental rights organization Riverine People.
“For centuries people have built their houses on its banks to enjoy the breeze from the river,” he adds, “now the smell of toxic sludge in winter is so unbearable that you have to plug your mouth. nose”.
According to a 2020 paper by the Bangladeshi government’s Institute of River Research, water samples from the Buriganga had levels of chromium and cadmium six times higher than the maximums recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Both of these metals are used for tanning leather and excessive exposure to either is extremely toxic and potentially carcinogenic.
Ammonia, phenol and other dye by-products also contribute to depriving the river of oxygen necessary for aquatic organisms.
According to residents of Shyampur, one of the many industrial districts around Dhaka, at least 300 factories discharge their untreated wastewater into the river, and the companies at fault know how to easily avoid their responsibilities.
“Factories pay bribes to buy silence from regulators,” accuses Chan Mia, a local man, “if anyone tries to raise the issue with the factories, they will beat him up. They are powerful, they have relationships.
The importance of the textile trade in the national economy has forged links between industrialists and the country’s political establishment where, in some cases, politicians are themselves powerful players in the sector.
Further south, in Narayanganj, local residents led AFP to the edge of a crimson-colored stream flowing from stagnant canals at a nearby factory.
“But we can’t say anything out loud,” a resident told AFP, “we can only suffer in silence.”
– Go “green” –
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), representing the interests of some 3,500 major factories, defends its record by touting the environmental certifications granted to its members.
“We are going green, which is why we are seeing strong increases in export orders,” said Faruque Hassan, president of BGMEA, recently.
But small factories and subcontractors say they do not have the same means to support the cost of wastewater treatment.
A senior official in the sector, in the industrial district of Savar, assures that most of the large factories, working for the major American and European brands, hardly operate their water treatment systems.
“Not everyone uses it systematically. They are looking to save costs,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Bangladesh is a country of deltas, crisscrossed by more than 200 rivers, tributaries of the Ganges or the Brahmatura which have their source in the Himalayas and cross the Asian subcontinent.
More than a quarter of them are now heavily contaminated with industrial pollutants and need to be saved “urgently”, according to a legal opinion sent to the government in April by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA ).
– Already too late –
Especially since nearly half of the country’s population depends on waterways for its agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The National Rivers Commission has launched several high-profile campaigns to fine polluting factories. According to its new boss, Manjur Chowdhury, “greedy” industrialists are responsible, while admitting that the application of the sanctions available was not enough to respond to the scale of the problem.
“We need to develop new laws to deal with this emergency situation,” he told AFP, “but it will take time.”
Whatever action is taken, for the five rivers that surround Dhaka and its industrial outskirts, it is too late, according to Sharif Jamil, a prominent environmental activist. They are already dead, that is to say totally devoid of aquatic life, he told AFP.
“With factories now settling deep, in the very heart of the countryside, rivers across the country risk suffering the same fate.”