The tannery industry is a $1 billion business in Bangladesh. Until recently, the majority of the tanneries were located at Hazaribogh and were polluting the Buriganga River with over forty heavy metals including Chromium. Pure Earth listed the Buriganga River as one of the top ten polluted sites in the world, including Chernobyl. In July 2017, the High Court of Bangladesh issued an order to cut down electricity to Hazaribogh to force the relocation of tanneries to the newly established supposedly green Savar Tannery Park. Plans for this park were begun in 2003, but repeatedly relocation deadlines were missed. Many tanneries did not relocate even after the court's order and continued operations by way of illegal electrical connections. The new park has a CETP (Common Effluent Treatment Plant), but it is not functioning correctly since it lacks a Chrome Separation Plant. Existing operations and CETP functionality are not monitored and there are no preparations or guidelines for solid waste management. Currently, solid waste is dumped into a field and contaminates the soil. Many small and medium scale cottage industries use tannery waste and byproducts, but there are no guidelines for these businesses. No plans or arrangements have been made for treating salt either, so wastewater being released into the river contains a high saline count. Furthermore, the plant does not have the capacity to handle all the effluents after the complete relocation of the tanneries and when they are all operating at capacity. Additionally, they do not have sufficient capacity to handle all tanning operations following Eid Ul Azha, the annual Muslim holiday commemorating Abraham's sacrifice of his son, during which many cattle and other animals are slaughtered. The CEPT in Savar has the capacity to treat, if properly functional, 2500 cubic meters of waste, but the tannery industries produce more than double that during this large religious festival. Finally, not all the tanneries go through the CETP and the image below shows untreated effluent being dumped directly in the Dhaleshwari River.
I went to Savar with Buriganga Riverkeeper and Executive Director of the Blue Planet Initiative, Sharif Jamil. We were also accompanied by Adrian Sym, the Chief Executive of the Alliance for Water Stewardship, a global network of members "that promotes responsible use of freshwater that is socially and economically beneficial and environmentally sustainable." The group has formulated an International Water Stewardship Standard (the AWS standard) and companies that comply with this standard are rewarded as being good water stewards. As the government in Bangladesh (and in the United States and in many parts of the world) fails to implement policies if they are even made, I am in agreement that finding a way to get companies to comply on their own is highly desirable. Those that meet these standards can market themselves as being responsible water stewards and those that do not can be boycotted by consumers or otherwise pressured to comply with this standard and stop polluting our waterways. Though people I spoke with thought the United States was well ahead of Bangladesh in environmental protection issues, I indicated that Florida could benefit from the implementation of an international water standard. In 2016, the Governor convened a board with two seats vacant, one to represent the environment and one to represent municipalities, to raise the level of acceptable toxic pollutants in the state's water by three times. It would seem an international standard would prevent governments from changing acceptable levels to support the operations of corporations without requiring industries to improve waste management.
While we were taking photographs of this effluent being dumped directly in the river, I felt really nauseated from the terrible odor released from all the chemicals. There is a strong ammonia smell, among other scents. Though the images are disturbing, the odor was even worse. Adrian astutely observed that I needed a smell camera.
The tanneries were relocated to Savar in order to protect the dead Buriganga River, which is black and has no living fish. Given that many toxins are being directly released into the Dhaleshwari, it could soon meet the same fate as the Buriganga. Additionally, the Dhaleshwari joins with the Buriganga downstream, so pollutants released into the Dhaleshwari will eventually reach the Buriganga.
The Dhaleshwari divides into two branches and merges back again before meeting the Shitalakshya River and eventually merging into the Meghna River, which is terminates in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers and is the largest delta in the world. This delta is also where the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest is located. Toxins dumped in the Dhaleshwari do not just stay in that river. Rather, they make their way to other rivers and the delta. The rivers in Bangladesh would be in even worse shape water quality wise, if it weren't for the monsoons that flood the waterways and wash some of their pollution away every year. However, these toxins are being carried somewhere and rather than looking at the monsoons as a way to cleanse polluted water, it would seem to make more sense not to allow the water to be so seriously polluted in the first place.
Another huge problem with the Savar Tannery Park is that adequate drainage has not been implemented and pipes back up all the time, spilling black noxious water in the roadways that people drive and walk along and which dogs wander near and potentially drink from. Chromium is a carcinogen, so having this water flood areas people live in and work near is a huge threat to their health. Additionally, no guidelines or plans have been made for the housing, healthcare, and education of the tannery workers as was required. Workers lack protective clothing and many work barefoot, according to one report by a NY based company, Transparentem, examining human rights in this industry. The report also found children worked in the industry, although Bangladesh prohibits anyone under 18 from working in tanneries. Transparentem did not publish its findings to protect investigators, and the claims about child laborers have been denied by the companies involved. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-4347870/Report-examines-grim-Bangladesh-leather-trade-links-West.html)
Even though plans for the Savar Tannery Park were begun in 2003, it is still not complete. Roads remain unfinished and the Chinese company responsible for the park has used that as an excuse for not finishing the CETP and making it more effective. Below are some more images of the plant.
The photograph below shows the last tank before the effluent is discharged. In the background, workers are bringing their lunch to the site. The water in the tank is still black and clearly has not been sufficiently cleaned.
The image below shows where the effluent from that last tank ends up. There is still substantial point source pollution of these toxic chemicals.
The following photograph shows hides hanging in the building in Savar Park. Where tannery hides from the Dhaka tanneries end up was traced by Transparentem to Apex Tannery and Bay Tannery, who in turn manufacture for Clarks, Coach, Kate Spade, Macy's, Michael Kors, Sears, Steven Madden and Timberland, as well as Germany-based Deichmann, Harbor Footwear Group, and Genesco, which in turn design and market shoes in even more brands. ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-4347870/Report-examines-grim-Bangladesh-leather-trade-links-West.html#ixzz595vpmUua) Though some companies denied the claims while other said they got only about 1% of their leather from Bangladesh, consumers can make a difference by asking where companies are getting their leather from and what is being done to protect the workers and ensure that labor and environmental laws are being complied with.
The Dhaleshwari is also plagued by pollutants from the textile industry. Though we did not get to visit a plant, we did drive by this building owned by the Doel Group of Industries, a 100 percent export oriented fabric and apparel company with in-house knitting, dyeing and garment production. The photograph below shows untreated effluent being dumped directly into a canal. Invasive plant species have clearly proliferated as a result of these discharges, and the toxins in this wastewater flow from the canal into the Dhaleshwari River.
The textile industry accounts for 83 percent of Bangaldesh's exports, and Bangladesh's prices for textiles are the lowest of all global markets. However, the textile industry is the second largest contributor to the pollution of Dhaka's Rivers after the tanneries. According to a feature story by the World Bank in February 2017, "There are 718 washing, dyeing and finishing factories discharging wastewater to the rivers in Dhaka and according to IFC’s best estimates this is generating as much as 200 metric tonnes of wastewater per tonne of fabric." (http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2017/02/15/how-dialogue-is-shifting-bangladeshs-textile-industry-from-pollution-problem-to-pollution-solution). The industry also has lots of child labor issues that need to be addressed, but that was not something I had time to delve into on this trip.
In 2013 an initiative called the Water PaCT (Partnership for Cleaner Textile) was introduced and some progress has been made though implementation is often where difficulties arise in developing countries. The World Bank worked with 215 companies on cleaner production and achieved the following milestones: $200 million was allocated by the Bangladesh Bank for a Green Transformation Fund for companies that implement environmentally friendly measures; incentives for environmentally friendly technologies were created; and penal measures for companies continuing to use chemical pollutants were agreed upon. These measures and recommendations were submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forest for approval and ratification. In the meantime, the water is still being polluted. One positive note is that in 2016 Levi's announced they were rolling out the implementation of PaCT's recommendations at six facilities in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Again, if customers demand that the source for products they purchase is not destructive to the environment or a violator of child labor laws, changes may be made by the companies themselves so that their bottom line is not adversely affected by boycotts.
The textile industry accounts for 45 percent of all industrial employment in Bangladesh, and is a huge source of jobs as well as contributing 5% to national income. People need clothing and labor here is cheap, so this industry will likely remain in Bangladesh for years to come. The environmental crisis has reached a critical stage in Bangladesh and, as in many places around the globe, government often sides with corporations. However, the people in the country are increasingly aware of how polluted their water and air has become and they are starting a movement to demand that waterbodies are cleaned up and air pollution is reduced. Due to increased public's awareness of environmental and water quality issues, frequent discussions are held between government officials, scientists, and civil society members. Though Bangladesh is experiencing industrialization as we did 100 years ago and the United States is ahead of Bangladesh in controlling industrial pollution in many sectors, the recognition of the important role activists play and the willingness of these different sectors to come together to find solutions is something we can take away from this country in dealing with our own environmental issues. Lastly, given that the environmental problems in Bangladesh have become so severe as to become human rights issues, it behooves consumers in the US and around the world to purchase responsibly and consider the sources for materials in products we buy.