Dirty industry The leather tanneries in Bangladesh fell into disrepute for having contaminated a river in an urban area. The government forced them to move away from the capital Dhaka. Now yet another river is being poisoned.
With a population of 163 million, the country is the 8th most populated in the world. It is also one of the most densely populated.
The climate change brings more flooding in the coastal areas. This has made people from the countryside move to the capital Dhaka which keeps growing and now has over 19 million inhabitants.
The young man grabs the truck platform with his hands, pressing his legs backward, half running to kick the mixture of hide and meat leftovers off the small truck. Ploff goes the slush as it slides down to be mixed with the tannery waste already in place on the dump in Savar, an hour outside the multimillion city of Dhaka. The smell. The stink. The stench. It is impossible to avoid.
The sun is heating pieces of cow meat and the pieces of hide full of chemicals.
Fires erupt spontaneously but mainly from cigarette butts. The smoke is painful to the nose in spite of controlled breathing through the mouth. The belly is churning and it is hard to control the urge to throw up. After ten minutes the headache is setting in.
The idea was that everything was to become so much better when the tanneries moved here, to a brand new industrial zone. Earlier, virtually the entire tannery business was located in Dhaka, in the area called Hazaribagh.
Tanning leather in the conventional manner requires lots of chemicals and water. In Hazaribagh, the polluted water was led away in canals eventually ending up in Buriganga, one of the most polluted rivers in Bangladesh.
Through the years, media and environment organisations have repeatedly sounded the alarm about the on-going environment disaster in Hazaribagh. The area has been identified as one of the most polluted places in the world, alongside, among others, Chernobyl.
Already several years ago, the government of Bangladesh wanted to move the tanneries to the new area. The tannery owners refused for a long time and did not begin moving until the electricity was cut. In 2017, the business started in Savar. Here, there is now a modern sewage treatment facility to sanitise the wastewater from the tanneries.
The sun is high and a warm breeze is coming from the river further down. We have left the young man working with the hide refuse on a truck. We are walking against the wind and over the dump heap, which is longer and wider than a football pitch. This is a maximum challenge for one’s sense of smell. It is hard to imagine a worse smell anywhere on earth.
The smoke from the dump fires is spreading over the area. Still three years after the move to Savar, the authorities haven’t solved the problem of what to do with all the solid waste from the tanneries.
In one of the nearest residential houses, Rabbi is in his bedroom playing a traditional tune on his guitar. His soft and pleasant voice makes us forget for a while the pieces of hide and meat debris that can be seen through the open window. On a table there are pills against asthma and against bowel problems. Rabbi and his wife became ill as they moved here. The smoke, or the gas as he calls it, comes in bursts depending on how the wind blows. Rabbi is dreaming of another life., away from the job at the tannery that nearly took the music from him. His left hand is distorted after an accident at work where he was caught in a machine. He has managed to adjust his way of playing so that he still can play the chords.
“I don’t know what I would have done otherwise.”
Rabbi takes us out to see the fields. The farmer Abdul Mannan, 45, has been cultivating the area his whole life. He testifies that the plants began to grow weaker and die when the tanneries arrived.
“The smoke is killing my crop. The children get skin diseases. Many people have asthma and bowel problems”, he says
Abdul Mannan is not alone. He points at fields, next to his, that have been affected as well.
At the other side of the dump heap, the river Dahleswhari is flowing. The water outlet from new newly-built sewage treatment works comes out into the river just a short bit from the tannery waste. A layer of foam has formed on the surface where sewage water joins the river.
An old fisherman tells us that Dhaleswhari has sustained him for 30 years. Pointing at a dead fish and leaning on his stick, he sighs:
”In all of my years I have never caught as few fish as now.”
A bit upstream, three fishermen are struggling to pull up a long net. They confirm that the amount of fish has gone down especially around the outlets from the tanning area. Because it is not only water from the sewage treatment works that ends up in the river. Smelly and brown surface water from the industrial zone is led into the river in cement pipes. The surface water is contaminated by water from the tanneries.
Dagens Arbete has taken samples from the surface water and had them analysed at a laboratory in Bangladesh. The results show high concentration of chrome, which the tanning industry uses to a large extent. We have asked Markus Sundbom, a researcher at the environmental research department at the University of Stockholm, to interpret the laboratory report.
“These are extreme concentrations of chrome.They should not be in the surface water. The concentrations of oxygen-consuming organic material are also very high. Put together, the results indicate that untreated wastewater has been leaking from the tanneries. That’s a foul brew pouring into the river and it risks leading to fish dying or fleeing”, he says.
The fact that the surface water is contaminated by wastewater from the tanneries, is also confirmed by Abdul Majed, CEO of Apex Tannery, the largest tannery in Savar. He is sitting behind a big office desk and likes to lean forward as he speaks. The office is cool with a strong smell of perfume, or possibly detergent, to keep away the stench from the production.
“The Chinese company that built the treatment works used pipes that are too small. This means that all our waste cannot be received by the treatment plant. Instead it is being pressed up through the soil ending up in the surface water”, he explains.
Abdul Majed says that the authorities have promised that the pipes are going to be exchanged and that pumps are going to be installed making the water flow to the treatment plant more efficient. But so far nothing has happened. Chemicals keep leaking into the surface water.
The tanneries moved in 2017
Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest producers of leather. Leather is the second biggest export product after textiles.
For a long time, the government tried to persuade the tanneries to move from Hazaribagh, inside the capital Dhaka, to Savar, an hour’s drive outside the city. It took a court order, and a cut-off of electricity, water and gas to make the tanneries move in 2017.
… people in Bangladesh work in tanneries. Many of them without protective gear.They can be exposed to up to 150 different chemical substances, used in the tanning process.
Water treatment is not the only problem in Savar. Poisonous material is also spreading from the enormous amounts of solid waste at the garbage dumps.
Dagens Arbete has collected samples from the dump and they have been analyses by a laboratory in Sweden. They contained large amounts of the cancer-causing substance Hexavalent Chrome, but also a high degree of several heavy metals causing health problems.
Abdel Majed at Apex says that, if the authorities gave their permission, they could handle their own waste instead of putting it on the dump.
“Western countries no longer want to buy leather from us. We must fix these problems. We make no profit. Now we are only exporting to communist countries and some countries in Asia”, he says.
The big markets in Europe and USA have stopped buying leather from Bangladesh because of the environment issue, but also because of the problematic working conditions in the tanneries.
Chairman Abul Kalam Azad is receiving us in the premises of the Tannery Workers’ Union situated in the middle of the industrial zone. He feels that if only the owners saw to it to fix the problems with the environment and the working conditions, they would be able to export their products to countries in the West.
“The authorities and the tannery owners must sit down together and solve the situation”, he says.
More problems have emerged after the move to Savar. There is a housing shortage, no schools and no hospital.
Many workers are forced to stay in Hazaribagh and must now commute several hours a day in order to get to work.
“The costs are increasing. They can no longer go home to eat and have to pay for the commuting”, Abul Kalam Azad says with a sigh.
The faltering economy of the tanneries makes life harder for his union members. All in all, around 20 000–25 000 people work in the area, according to the union and many tanneries have not yet started their business in Savar.
“I wish I could say that there were some tannery with decent working conditions, but in the last three years ten people have died in accidents” says Abul Kalam Azad.
What happened in Hazaribagh is now happening in Savar. Another river destroyed.
Rizwana Hassan, environment lawyer, Bangladesh.
Through the years, the environment lawyer Rizwana Hassan has made herself a name as a sharp critic of the tanning industry but she puts most of the blame for the Savar catastrophe on the government.
“They used taxpayers’ money to create a new industrial zone for the tanneries, but they cannot solve all the problems that have emerged. They all blame one another. It is a case of failed leadership.”
Rizwana Hassan has visited the area several times and seen sick children and dead fish.
“What happened in Hazaribagh is now happening in Savar. Another river destroyed. The only solution is to close the industry and solve all the problems before starting again.”
So, who is responsiblefor fixing the problems in Savar?
Abdul Halim is the senior civil servant at the Ministry of Industry in Bangladesh. He thinks that things have become much better since the industry moved from Hazaribagh. And he denies that the water treatment plants are out of order.
“I have received reports saying that they work.”
Is the river polluted?
“Tests have been carried out and I have seen reports. It hasn’t become worse. The river was already polluted before.”
Can I see those reports?
“No, they are not here.”
Abdul Halim says that there are solutions for taking care of the solid waste from the dump.
For several years you have known that the tanneries were about to move. Why have you not solved it? “There are companies that can take care of the by-products They have not started yet.”
People around the dump are falling ill. What do you want to say to them? “We have no concrete information saying that they are falling ill.”
What’s your time plan? “It’s a process. Things are happening fast now. I am inviting you to come back in six months. You shall see another scenario.”
Promise? “Yes, you’ll see
Rizwana Hasan, the environment lawyer, does no believe one iota of his promises.
“He is giving us false expectations, he doesn’t know what he is talking about”, she says.
Health at risk The specimen we took from tannery waste in Bangladesh contain a high percentage Hexavalent Chrome. Two Swedish experts have taken a closer look at the results.
“What sticks out the most is the large amounts of Hexavalent Chrome and of Chloride, says Stefan Rydin one of Europe’s most prominent experts on environmental issues in the tannery industry.
The specimen shows that the amount of Hexavalent Chrome is 73.1 milligram per kilogram. In Sweden, the Swedish Environmental Prorection Agency’s general target value for Hexavalent Chrome in less sensitive areas such as an industrial zone, is 10 .0 milligram per kilogram.
According to Camilla Westlund, inspector at the Swedish Chemicals Agency, the risk of cancer is greatest when breathing in but one should not dismiss the possibility of skin contact with Hexavalent Chrome causing cancer.
Skin contact causes rashes and blisters. Add to that that a tannery could be using towards 150 different chemicals that can be hazardous to one’s health.
It surprises Stefan Rydin that the government of Bangladesh which forced the tanneries to move to Savar, has not solved the waste problem. It takes a tonne of hides to produce 200-250 kilo leather. The rest is waste.