Ashfiq Mohammad Khalid, a rice farmer, has been making losses for years. His paddy fields rot from the bottom up before his crop can mature during the growing season.
For Khalid, who lives in the central district of Gazipur, and other farmers along the Balu River, farming is tough. Gazipur is just north of Dhaka, and has become a local hub of mass-produced garments in Bangladesh’s sprawling textile industry. Pollution in the rivers around the capital has reached very high levels.
Farmers claim the indiscriminate release of wastewater from nearby clothing factories has turned the area’s agricultural fields to tar, and causes long-term skin disease.
“I have been suffering from itching all over my body and sores developed on my hands, as I had to work in my paddy field,” Khalid tells The Third Pole.
“When farmers hoe and plough land for crop cultivation, it is as if we are digging through tar. There are no fish in the river, because of pollution with toxic wastewater released from factories, mostly those manufacturing garments.”
The area is also facing an acute drinking water crisis, 35-year-old Khalid adds.
Textiles are an important industry in Bangladesh, with knitwear and other garments accounting for about USD 44 billion of the total USD 52 billion it exported from July 2021 to June 2022. Most of the apparel factories have been set up in Gazipur, Narayanganj and Savar, districts that fall under the metropolitan area of Dhaka.
Out of a total of 2,220 factories in Gazipur, 1,222 manufacture ready-made garments, employing about 1.6 million people as day labourers, according to the Industrial Police.
However, only 556 of all the factories have effluent treatment plants (ETPs) on paper, Muhammad Monir Hossain, chair of the Bangladesh River Foundation, told The Third Pole. Of these, he said, just 18 have installed inter-process communication cameras, which allow the Department of Environment to monitor the ETPs remotely.
The Labandha River is one of the major victims of industrial pollution, as there are about 500 factories along it. Industrial waste from Gazipur and the city of Sreepur flows from the Labandha into the Turag, then joins Dhaka’s main Buriganga River at Mirpur.
“If ETPs are as efficient as the [factory] owners claim, then how have these rivers become so polluted that even the nearby agricultural lands have become tar black?” asks Hossain.
In collaboration with other research groups, Hossain’s organisation surveyed 149 rivers along industrial areas and found alarming levels of wastewater pollution, showing ETPs are barely protecting the environment, he says.
Ready-made garment factories that dye, wash and colour textiles, and cement and medicine manufacturers, among others, have been discharging wastewater into the Buriganga, Shitalakshya, Turag, Dhaleshwari and Balu rivers indiscriminately, even though there is a legal prohibition against this, Hossain adds.