Power, Poison And Pollution – Compounding Urban Growth With The Profitable Production Networks Of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, is one of the most crowded places on earth. It has almost 9 million residents and its rate of growth is set to rise in the coming months. With climate change making vulnerable coastal areas less inhabitable, its exponentially increasing national population growth rate during the last few decades will continue as people flock to urban areas. The city symbolizes economic progress and industry for people living in Bangladesh. It is globally renowned as a production hub for garment manufacturing, characterised by striking images of colourful dye pools with thousands of drying pieces of fabric placed out in the hot Asian sun. Pertinently, it has received plenty of negative media attention for dangerous working conditions, such as child labour in ‘sweat shops,’ collapsing buildings and factories with high fire risks. 

Today, Dhaka is reaching a crisis point. It has pollution levels recently estimated to be higher than anywhere else in the world. 

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change states that on average, 21,600 cubic metres of toxic waste are released each day by both legal and illegal tanneries. The Department of Environment claims that the airborne particulate matter reached 463 micrograms per cubic metre (mcm) during dry seasons. This is well above the World Health Organisation proposed limit of 20mcm. 70mcm would be considered a significantly polluted area. If these issues are not urgently addressed, the numbers could even be higher.

Bangladesh has compounding issues as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, whilst also ranked 142 out of 199 countries the Human Development Index of 2014. The country is located on the largest delta in the world, known as the Ganges-Brahmaputra, with over 100 million people living on its tributaries. Global warming is shifting silt and other materials further downstream, increasing surface run-off and decreasing land areas suitable for subsistence or smallholder farming. 

On average, 700,000 Bangladeshis are displaced each year, adding on to issues caused by pollution. City wide incidents of lethal fog and smog are set to increase in 2020. Tim McDonnel for the National Geographic reports that such areas are ‘fraught with extreme poverty, public health hazards, human trafficking and other risks.’ 

Recently, awareness of the extent of this health risk has been emphasised by Nursat Jahan (University of Dhaka) in a 2019 study, claiming many schools were ‘disproportionately located in places with high levels of air pollution from industrial sources.’ The study cited a need to address the harmful industries which continue to expel exceptionally dangerous chemicals such as ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. While pollution is a primary concern, the effects of these chemicals on vulnerable children aged 5 to 15 include reduced brain development.

This is not a new problem. The regulation of the fashion industry in Bangladesh has been headline news in recent years.  However, it is now reaching a tipping point.

Government ‘crack downs’, reported in Aljazeera by Bernard Smith, seem to be too little too late. The Bangladesh Garment Employers Association has tried more recently in the summer of 2019 to place stricter regulation to combat factory fire and building structural safety. According to Fashion United, a recent high court ruling on 20 January 2020 calls for ‘immediate action against 231 garment-related factories including rubber plants, dyeing factories and tanneries that had been using the Buriganga river as the private dumping ground for their industrial waste’. 

The Organisation for World Peace advocates for continued pressure to regulate these industries, before local social-ecological systems are damaged beyond return.