Bangladeshi ferryman Kalu Molla began working on the Buriganga River before the patchwork quilt of slums lining its banks gave way to textile mills — and before its waters turned pitch black.
The 52-year-old has constant coughs, allergies and rashes, and doctors have told him the culprit is the foul-smelling mud, which has also wiped out marine life in one of the capital Dhaka’s main waterways.
“The doctors told me to quit this job and get out of the river. But how is that possible?” Molla said near his home on the industrial outskirts of Dhaka. “Moving people is my bread and butter.”
In the half-century since a devastating war of independence left its people starving to death, Bangladesh has emerged as an often unheralded economic success story.
The South Asian country of 169 million people has overtaken its neighbor India in per capita income and will soon be removed from the UN list of the world’s least developed countries.
Underpinning years of rapid growth is the booming apparel trade, which serves global fast fashion powerhouses, employs millions of women and accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s $50 billion annual exports.
But environmentalists say the growth comes at an incalculable cost, as a toxic mix of dyes, tannic acids and other dangerous chemicals leaches into the water.
Dhaka was founded by the Mughal Empire more than 400 years ago on the banks of the Buriganga.
“It’s now the largest sewer in the country,” said Sheikh Rokon, the head of environmental rights group Riverine People.
“For centuries, people built their homes on its banks to bask in the river breeze,” he added. “Now the smell of toxic mud in winter is so horrid that people have to hold their noses when approaching it.”
According to a 2020 paper by the Bangladesh government’s River Research Institute, water samples from the river revealed levels of chromium and cadmium more than six times the maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organization.
Both elements are used in leather tanning, and excessive exposure to both is extremely harmful: chromium is carcinogenic, and chronic exposure to cadmium causes lung damage, kidney disease and premature birth.
Ammonia, phenol, and other by-products of fabric dyeing have also helped deprive the river of the oxygen needed to sustain marine life.
In Shyampur, one of several sprawling industrial areas surrounding Dhaka, residents said at least 300 local factories dump untreated sewage into the Buriganga River.
Local residents say they have given up complaining about the water’s foul smell, knowing that offending companies can easily evade responsibility.
“The factories bribe[the authorities]to buy the regulators’ silence,” said Chan Mia, who lives in the area. “If someone wanted to raise the issue in the factories, they would beat them up. They are powerful people with connections.”
The crucial position of the textile trade in the economy has created a link between entrepreneurs and the country’s political establishment. In some cases, politicians have become powerful players in the industry themselves.
Further south, in Narayanganj district, local residents showed a stream of crimson water draining from a nearby factory into stagnant canals.
“But you can’t say a word about it out loud,” said a local resident 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, defends its record by highlighting the environmental certifications its members receive.
“We’re going green – that’s why we’re seeing big jumps in export orders,” BGMEA President Faruque Hassan said at a recent press conference.
But smaller factories and subcontractors, operating on the industry’s razor-thin margins, say they can’t afford the cost of treating wastewater.
A senior garment official at the Savar Industrial Zone said on condition of anonymity that even most high-end factories supplying major American and European brands often don’t turn on their treatment machines.
“Not everyone uses it regularly. They want to cut costs,” he said.
Bangladesh is a delta country criss-crossed by more than 200 waterways, each connected to the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, which flow from the Himalayas through the South Asian subcontinent.
More than a quarter of them are now severely contaminated with industrial pollutants and in need of “urgent” rescue, according to a legal memo sent to the government by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) in April this year.
Authorities have set up a commission tasked with saving vital bodies of water on which nearly half the country’s population depends for agriculture, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
The National River Commission has launched several high-profile actions on fine factories that have been polluting rivers. Its newly appointed chief, Manjur Chowdhury, said “greedy” industrialists were responsible for the state of the country’s waterways.
However, he also acknowledged that enforcing existing penalties was not enough to address the scale of the problem. “We must enact new laws to address this emergency situation. But it will take time.”