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Dhaka’s abundant water sources grapple with pervasive pollution. The image captures heaps of general waste and plastic by a local riverbank, creating a distressing scene right next to residential areas. (Picture by Saikat Shil)

Bangladesh, known for its abundant water resources, sadly grapples with a pressing issue — a severe scarcity of drinking water.The country’s landscape is characterized by the delta of the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Meghna rivers, with their extensive marshlands, and the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forests in the world. Approximately 90% of the country consists of flat lowlands, with the capital, Dhaka, situated just 6 meters above sea level. During the monsoon season in summer, the country quickly suffers from river floods and inundations. Due to Bangladesh’s location by the sea, flooding can also be expected in the future, triggered by rising sea levels.  Presently, salinization of arable soils can already be observed, due to the impact of rising sea levels. [1] In addition, a significant proportion of the groundwater in Bangladesh is contaminated with arsenic. As early as 2000, the WHO spoke of the „largest mass poisoning in history“[2], affecting around 20 million Bangladeshis.[3] While there is, in principle, an abundance of water, a substantial portion of it is unsuitable for meeting the needs of Bangladesh’s 164.7 million population.

In economic terms, Bangladesh heavily relies on the production of textile goods. In 2017, they accounted for 87% of total. Notably, 60% of these exports reached the EU, with German companies serving as key customers. [4] The apparel sector, a dominant sector in the textile industry, is projected to reach an estimated value of around USD 50 billion annually in the coming years. The fast fashion industry, in particular, benefits from Bangladesh’s low wage levels and a predominantly female workforce. [5] Much has been known about the working conditions in the factories since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in 2013, in which more than a thousand people lost their lives. However, in addition to fair working conditions, one of the most important levers for achieving social justice in the fashion industry is still a niche issue – water.

Access to clean drinking water is an internationally recognized human right. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by the United Nations in 2015, includes Sustainable Development Goal number 6, which aims to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. This is already a major challenge for Bangladesh, which is made even more difficult by water use and pollution in the textile industry. Although scientists have been warning for years that access to clean freshwater will trigger the great wars of the future [6], there appears to be a prevailing acceptance that the textile industry continues to exacerbate Bangladesh’s water scarcity by discharging untreated wastewater into the environment.

According to the database of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, around 3,000 textile factories are in operation in Dhaka. On average, the dyeing and washing of two pairs of jeans require 120 liters of water, equivalent to about one kilogram of fabric. In conversation with the local non-governmental organization Agroho, which specializes in solving the water problem, Drip by Drip gathered insights from Ridwanul Haque, the head of the NGO. Haque notes, “The factories that use groundwater for washing and dyeing fabrics have contributed significantly to the fact that the groundwater level in the textile centers, Dhaka, Gazipur, Savar and Narayanganj, has already dropped dangerously.”  He further elaborates, “The textile industry’s wastewater, which contains a variety of pollutants, was estimated to be around 217 million cubic meters in 2016 and will reach 349 million cubic meters by 2022 if the textile industry continues to use conventional dyeing methods.”

In industrial areas, the discharge of untreated industrial waste and wastewater containing harmful heavy metals like vanadium, molybdenum, zinc, nickel, mercury, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and arsenic finds its way into nature.The contaminated river water is then used to irrigate the rice and vegetable fields (spinach, tomatoes, and cauliflower) in Gazipur and Keraniganj. Analysis of vegetable and fruit samples from Savar, Dhamrai, and Tongi show the presence of various textile dyes.

One study revealed a 16% higher incidence of disease among people living in Hazaribagh. Marginalized population groups, especially women and children, are particularly affected as they use the contaminated water for washing and household chores. The consequences manifest as acute, short-term ailments such as painful skin irritations, diarrhea, food poisoning, and other gastrointestinal ailments as well as long-term, serious health consequences such as respiratory diseases or cancer. Even the population residing outside the immediate vicinity of industrial areas is affected. Similar health repercussions have been observed, particularly in cities where contaminated vegetables are sold.[7] 

As industrial wastewater is generally released untreated into the natural water cycle, highly concentrated heavy metals have also been found in fish and microorganisms in the river arms further away from the industrial areas. Many villages in Savar, Dhamrai, Gazipur, and Tongi are already suffering from depleted fish stocks and crop yields, as soil fertility declines. The natural ecosystems face a threat as the warm wastewater raises the water temperature, exerting added stress on the local flora and fauna.

Industrial pollutants are the main cause of surface water pollution in the urban areas of Bangladesh. Dhaka and its adjoining districts like Gazipur and Narayanganj are the worst victims of unplanned industrialization and corresponding drastic pollution of water sources. Although the city of Dhaka is surrounded by some peripheral rivers, the rivers are  too contaminated to be used as drinking water. Within the city, there are 19 primary and at least 41 secondary discharge points for industrial wastewater into the rivers. [8]  A World Bank study showed that Dhaka’s peripheral rivers receive 1.5 million cubic meters of wastewater per day from 7,000 industrial plants in the surrounding areas. [9]  In stark contrast, there is only one sewage treatment plant capable of processing 0.12 million cubic meters of wastewater per day. [10] The severity of groundwater pollution is particularly alarming, considering that 95% of the region’s drinking water is sourced from groundwater. [11]

Bangladesh is just one example of many countries that already have to live with the consequences of acute water shortages. Despite the awareness of the issues outlined here, there has been little to no change in recent years in the production conditions for which the German fashion and textile industry bears partial responsibility. This is why Drip by Drip is committed to ensuring that water, nature conservation, and social impacts are introduced as important factors in the design, sourcing, and awarding of production contracts and in the form of fixed criteria when selecting partners in the value chain.

In particular, Drip by Drip recommends focusing on the following three solutions:

  1. Binding requirements but also financial support for factories to install and use Effluent Treatment Plants (ETPs) with so-called closed-loop processes that allow industrial wastewater to be reused.
  2. Investment in innovative technologies that minimize the size and cost factors of such ETPs.
  3. Investment in water treatment systems in areas with acute drinking water shortages in order to make the contaminated groundwater in Bangladesh usable again for humans and animals.

[1]  Christiane Grefe: ”Klimawandel – „Am schlimmsten ist die Versalzung“. In: 3. Dezember 2009, abgerufen am 10. Oktober 2021.

[2] WHO Feature Nr. 206, März 2002, abgerufen am 10. Oktober 2021.

[ 3 ]  Arne Perras: „Die größte Massenvergiftung der Geschichte“. In: 7. April 2016, abgerufen am 10. Oktober 2021.

[ 4 ]  Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (Hrsg.): 2017 Statistical Year Book Bangladesh 37th EDITION. S. 262–263.

[ 5 ]  Ian M. Taplin: “Who is to blame? A re-examination of fast fashion after the 2013 factory disaster in Bangladesh”. In: Critical Perspectives on International Business, Vol. 10 No. 1/2, 2014, S. 72-83, abgerufen am 10. Oktober 2021.

[ 6 ]  Matthias Jauch: “Der globale Mangel wächst – Welche Konflikte um Wasser drohen”. In: 25. Oktober 2020, abgerufen am 10. Oktober 2021. 

[ 7 ]  Sakamoto M., Ahmed T., Begum S., Huq H.: “Water Pollution and the Textile Industry in Bangladesh: Flawed Corporate Practices or Restrictive Opportunities?” In: Sustainability 2019, 11(7). 1951. 

[ 8 ]  IWM, World Bank: “Dhaka: Industrial Environmental Compliance and Pollution”. 2007.

[ 9 ]   Islam M.R.: “A Silent Icy River in Dhaka!” In: The Daily Star. 24. April 2010, abgerufen am 10. Oktober 2021.

[ 10 ]  Akter K., Kurisu K., Hanaki K.: “Water use and pollution recognition from the viewpoint of local residents in Dhaka, Bangladesh”. In: Water. 2017/9. S. 331 [Google Scholar]

[ 11 ]  Chowdhury N.T.: “Water management in Bangladesh: an analytical review”. In: Water Policy. 2010/12. S. :32. [Google Scholar]

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