August 7, 2020

Bangladesh Pollution, Told in Colors and Smells

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 Walmart, 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.

Environmental damage usually trails rapid industrialization in developing countries. But Bangladesh is already one of the world’s most environmentally fragile places, densely populated yet braided by river systems, with a labyrinth of low-lying wetlands leading to the Bay of Bengal. Even as pollution threatens agriculture and public health, Bangladesh is acutely vulnerable to climate change, as rising sea levels and changing weather patterns could displace millions of people and sharply reduce crop yields.

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.”

Bangladesh has laws to protect the environment, a national environment ministry and new special courts for environmental cases. Yet pollution is rising, not falling, experts say, largely because of the political and economic power of industry.

Tanneries and pharmaceutical plants are part of the problem, but textile and garment factories, a mainstay of the economy and a crucial source of employment, have the most clout. When the environment ministry appointed a tough-minded official who levied fines against textile and dyeing factories, complaining owners eventually forced his transfer.

“Nobody in the country, at least at the government level, is thinking about sustainable development,” said Rizwana Hasan, a prominent environmental lawyer. “All of the natural resources have been severely degraded and depleted.”

Less than two miles from the site of Rana Plaza, the Genda primary school has a student body made up mostly of the children of garment workers. Golam Rabbi, 11, who is the top-ranked student in the third grade there, lives with his mother and two younger brothers in a single room. The boys use price tags collected from factory floors as makeshift playing cards.

“The school always smells,” Golam said. “Sometimes we can’t even eat there. It is making some kids sick. Sometimes my head spins. It is hard to concentrate.”

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.

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E.U. Agrees to Reform Fishing Policy

The plan — backed by representatives of EU member states, the European Parliament and the executive commission — commits the fishing industry to respect scientific advice on overfishing, to reduce the amount of healthy fish thrown back into the sea and to protect sensitive areas at sea.

North Sea stocks of cod, the emblematic fish in the Atlantic EU waters, have declined by roughly 75 percent over three decades and special campaigns to revive the species have long struggled. Bluefin tuna, once the pride of the Mediterranean, has seen its stocks drop by 80 percent over the same time.

Under the new plan, overfishing should end by 2015 for most species and by 2020 for all stocks.

“The next generation will have stocks to fish that are in a better state than that they are now,” said Irish Marine Minister Simon Coveney, who represented the 27 EU nations at the talks.

The plan still needs the approval of the member states and the European Parliament, but since they were intensely involved in the negotiations, that was not expected to be a problem.

“I am confident we can get the agreement,” said Coveney.

European parliament rapporteur Ulrike Rodust was equally “confident of a large majority in the plenary” of the legislature.

Environmental groups welcomed the agreement.

“For decades in Europe, fishing has been a story of decline, with severe overexploitation of fish stocks,” said Greenpeace expert Saskia Richartz. “The deal that is emerging today is good news.”

The Eurostat agency released statistics showing that fish catches declined from 8.07 million tons in 1995 to 4.94 million tons in 2010, a drop of almost 40 percent in 15 years, as stocks of fish such as cod and Bluefin tuna dwindled dramatically. Quotas for EU fishermen also became more restrictive, reflecting the dearth of supplies.

The discarding of fish has also been a serious problem as EU fishermen had to throw back catches that were above quotas, resulting often in a huge waste of resources.

Liberal European lawmaker Chris Davies said some 1.7 million tons of fish per year were lost that way but said he was confident that trend will be reversed.

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E.U. Proposal for Fishing Industry Support Raises Eyebrows

PARIS — The European Commission on Friday backed a funding policy that leaves largely intact its substantial support for the fishing industry, despite the commission’s own finding that subsidies were leading to destructive overfishing.

The commission, the executive arm of the European Union, approved the creation of a €6.5 billion, or $8.8 billion, European Maritime and Fisheries Fund
to finance its Common Fisheries Policy
from 2014 to 2020. Both the revised fisheries policy and its funding are due to be finalized in 2013 by a vote of the 27 E.U. member states.

Maria Damanaki, the commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, said in a statement that the fund would “increase economic growth and create jobs in the sector. No more money will be spent to build big vessels. Small-scale fisheries and aquaculture will benefit of this budgetary greening.”

Conservationists said the commission had made progress in some areas, but expressed disappointment with the details, saying overcapacity, the biggest problem facing fish stocks, was not adequately being addressed and noting that little financing appeared to be set aside for enforcement activities and scientific assessment.

In a working paper
in 2008, the commission noted that subsidies to European fleets contributed to pressure on fish stocks that in some cases “is two to three times the sustainable level.” According to commission figures this year, 63 percent of stocks in Europe’s Atlantic waters are overfished, as are 82 percent of its Mediterranean stocks and two-thirds of its Baltic stocks.

Some groups assert that without subsidies, a huge swath of the industry would be unprofitable. Oceana, a nongovernmental organization in Brussels, estimated in September that E.U. fishing fleets received total subsidies — mostly for fuel — of €3.3 billion in 2009, equivalent to 50 percent of the value of the total catch. And 13 E.U. countries got more in fishing subsidies than the value of their catch.

Fuel subsidies are important since the cost of diesel is a critical part of the calculus of how long a boat can remain at sea and remain profitable, and boats that remain at sea longer are more likely to overfish.

In one case, the Union spent €33.5 million from 2000 and 2008 helping to modernize the bluefin tuna fleet, money that went largely to the giant purse seiners that are capable of vacuuming up entire schools of the endangered fish.

Conservation groups assert that European fishing subsidies have long been subject to abuse, saying that much of the money ends up in the hands of the largest industrial fisheries. A Greenpeace investigation
even found that Spain was subsidizing a fleet owner who had been convicted of illegal fishing.

The new funding policy would require that subsidies be cut off to anyone found guilty of illegal fishing, a nod to the so-called Johannesburg commitment, an E.U. pledge made in 2002 to phase out destructive fishing practices by 2012.

Markus Knigge, an adviser to the Pew Environment Group and the Ocean2012 coalition of conservation organizations, said Europe did not even know how it was spending its subsidies, because some of the most important fishing states, including Spain and France, had failed to carry out fleet assessments.

According to E.U. rules, “member states are obliged to assess overcapacity and put their efforts into eliminating it,” he said. “But if you don’t know where the overcapacity is, and you modernize the fleets, you may end up actually increasing overcapacity.”

Oliver Drewes, a spokesman for Ms. Damanaki, said he did not want to dismiss the concerns of conservationists, but “there are some innovative instruments being introduced here, and this is just the start of it.”

“The way things are going to be designed in practice is what’s going to make the music,” Mr. Drewes said.

In one of the biggest changes, the fund proposal approved Friday would extend financial support for the first time to the growing aquaculture sector.

Funding, which is co-financed by member states, also aims to help fishers and their families diversify their sources of income, and includes a budget for retraining the spouses of fishers whose families depend on the industry for their livelihoods.

The new proposal drops so-called scrapping subsidies, used to decommission boats to reduce overcapacity. The policy has been widely regarded as a failure: the European Union has spent €1.7 billion on scrapping fishing boats since the 1990s, according to the commission, with no effect on the problem of too many boats chasing too few fish. The problem has been partly that as smaller boats are decommissioned, larger, more technologically sophisticated boats have taken their places.

The new proposal instead calls for spending on “economically and socially productive activities,” including in fish processing, catering and tourism, as well as aid to small-scale coastal fleets.

It will also be used to help fishers adopt improved gear to reduce discards. But even that, conservationists warned, could be used to make existing boats more efficient, further increasing overcapacity in the fleet.

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