Environmental toll seen in Bangladesh’s factories

Jim Yardley / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 15, 2013 at 05:00AM

SAVAR, Bangladesh — On the worst days, the toxic stench wafting through the Ganda Government Primary School is almost suffocating. Teachers struggle to concentrate, as if they were choking on air. Students often become lightheaded and dizzy. A few boys fainted in late April. Another retched in class.

The odor rises off the polluted canal behind the schoolhouse, where nearby factories dump their wastewater. Most of the factories are garment operations, textile mills and dyeing plants in the supply chain that exports clothing to Europe and the United States. Students can see what colors are in fashion by looking at the canal.

“Sometimes it is red,” said Tamanna Afrous, the school’s English teacher. “Or gray. Sometimes it is blue. It depends on the colors they are using in the factories.”

Nearly three months ago, the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people, in a disaster that exposed the risks in the low-cost formula that has made Bangladesh the world’s second-leading clothing exporter, after China, and a favorite of companies like Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and H&M. That formula depends on paying the lowest wages in the world and, at some factories, spending a minimum on work conditions and safety.

But it also often means ignoring costly environmental regulations. Bangladesh’s garment and textile industries have contributed heavily to what experts describe as a water pollution disaster, especially in the large industrial areas of Dhaka, the capital. Many rice paddies are now inundated with toxic wastewater. Fish stocks are dying. And many smaller waterways are being filled with sand and garbage, as developers sell off plots for factories or housing.

Here in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka and the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, some factories treat their wastewater, but many do not have treatment plants or chose not to operate them to save on utility costs. Many of Savar’s canals or wetlands are now effectively retention ponds of untreated industrial waste.

“Look, it’s not only in Savar,” said Mohammed Abdul Kader, who has been Savar’s mayor since his predecessor was suspended in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. “The whole country is suffering from pollution. In Savar, we have lots of coconut trees, but they don’t produce coconuts anymore. Industrial pollution is damaging our fish stocks, our fruit produce, our vegetables.”