The impact of the fashion industry on water resources in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporting country in the world. Around 80% of the country’s earnings come from the Ready Made Garments (RMG) sector, which contributes 16% to the country’s GDP. A total of 4.4 million people work directly in the fashion industry, providing support to more than 40 million indirectly for their livelihood.
The concentration of the fashion industries is high around the river banks surrounding Dhaka due to easy access to the capital city via waterways and the availability of essential amenities. Industries generate significant amount of wastewater and discharge them into the surface water without proper treatment, polluting the river eco-system. The effluent contains pollutants including salts, dyes and bleaches, heavy metals, chromium etc. Over the last twenty years, surface water quality in and around Dhaka has significantly deteriorated due to unregulated industrial expansion. Water pollution is creating stress in domestic water use as well.
According to the ranking of National Water Security Index, Bangladesh stands at the 5th lowest. The major reason for that is the deterioration of water quality in rivers and waterbodies due to the discharge of inadequately treated industrial wastewater, unregulated groundwater abstraction and saline intrusion.
An analysis of industrial water use in Bangladesh in 2015, showed that a total of 11,000 industries are operating currently in Bangladesh, of which more than half originate from the fashion industries. Typically, water for industrial use mostly comes from groundwater abstraction. The result of unregulated groundwater abstraction is causing the depletion of groundwater aquifers. With the growth of fashion industries, the demand for water is also increasing. In 2014, estimated water demand was around 4,000 million litres a day. This will increase by 250% by 2030, of which 98% is expected to come from groundwater. Average groundwater depletion in Dhaka city is 3m/year and at some places it led to a ‘water mining situation’, which means water will not be replenished in the aquifer for hundreds of years. Unregulated water abstraction may cause irreversible damage in different parts of the country.
The fashion industry creates livelihood opportunities for millions of people but at the same time, these industries are polluting natural resources – water in particular. We simply cannot ignore the significant financial contributions of the industry and its influence on the socio-economic dynamics of the country. The question now is how to strike a balance between the positive and negative impacts. The easiest solution could be understanding the causes of pollution and minimizing the impacts on the environment and people.
Minimizing water use
There are water-efficient technologies and products which can minimize water use. We need to invest more on research and development. With the forecast increase in the need of water for industry, we need to plan ahead the investment required for future water security towards saving the environment. Often effluent treatment plants are too complicated and expensive. Context specific effluent treatment systems could be designed and operated to suit local conditions. We can promote the reuse and recycling of water and wastewater from the fashion industry. A simple example could be harvesting rainwater and recycling water within industry premises.
Tackling plastic pollution
Another issue is that packaging plastic impedes the natural flow of water and aggravates water pollution. The time has come to handle plastic pollution globally. We need to find alternatives but more importantly we need to consciously recycle plastic products now. Technologies are available for recycling to a large extent, if not for all sorts of plastic. However, the very simple issue is that recycled plastic products are always costlier than new plastic. Therefore, to promote plastic recycling, it is essential to change the mind-set, understand the financial implications and adopt a conducive policy environment to make it happen.
The fashion industry needs to revisit its investment paradigm and operational approach to reduce its adverse effects on the environment and become a trendsetter for the globe.
Acknowledgement: This presentation was made on invitation from Drip by Drip at an event FASHION FOR WATER in Berlin on the occasion of the World Water Day, 22 March 2019.