Water/Wastewater

  • Why Are Asian Rivers Turning Black?

Why Are Asian Rivers Turning Black?

Nov 03 2020

Several rivers across Asia have absorbed so many chemicals, dyes, heavy metals and salts that they have turned black in colour – and the fashion industry is to blame. Much of the clothing bought and worn in the Western world is fabricated in Asia, where lax legislation and poor enforcement means that thousands of tonnes of untreated wastewater enter rivers, streams and waterways each year.

This spells disastrous news for the environment. Not only does the toxic cocktail of substances discolour the water, thus making it harder for sunlight to penetrate to the plants and animals which rely on it below, it can also contaminate drinking water supplies. Meanwhile, those employed in the factories themselves are also subjected to unsafe working conditions, while people in the vicinity can become exposed to a wide variety of ailments due to the polluted waterways.

Live and let dye

The majority of garments that we browse, buy and wear in the UK, Europe and North America begin life in Asia. China and Bangladesh in particular are strongholds of textile manufacturing, with the former exporting $152 billion worth of clothing last year and the latter the next closest country with $34 billion worth of sales. Vietnam, India and Turkey are not far behind.

However, the practices used to dye clothes into whichever hues that fashion trends dictate are unsustainable in the extreme. Vast amounts of toxic chemicals are released into the environment after use, meaning that the quality of drinking water supplies can quickly become compromised. This in turn can cause various types of cancer, respiratory ailments and skin irritations, adversely impacting upon the communities which surround these textile epicentres.

A double-edged sword

It’s even worse for the unfortunate souls employed to carry out the dirty work. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is virtually non-existent in many factories, with a sizable percentage of workers barefoot during their shift. Their constant exposure to a nasty cocktail of chemicals is responsible for all manner of medical complaints and an untold number of premature deaths.

However, simply shutting down the factories is not a viable option, either. For example, Bangladesh depends upon the garment industry for a third of its total exports and 20% of its GDP. With four million people employed by the sector, losing that income would be devastating to countless families across the country.

Making inroads

There is some cause for optimism. The Bangladeshi government has indicated that it has already implemented a raft of measures geared towards reducing the textile industry’s impact on the environment. Among others, these include tightening the restrictions surrounding the sector, imposing fines on those who break them, conducting continuous online water quality monitoring, improving the national wastewater treatment capabilities and collaborating with international partners to learn from their example.

However, to expect an overnight sea change in the industry would be naïve in the extreme – especially since the demand for ever more innovative fashion trends continues to pick up pace. Indeed, a recent Pulse of the Fashion report predicted that demand for clothing will rise by 63% to 102 million tonnes per annum by 2030, suggesting that Asia’s black rivers might not receive respite any time soon.


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