Published:  02:01 AM, 09 August 2018

The toxic factors feeding extremism

The toxic factors feeding extremism

There are many places in the world where climate change is starting to become visible, but few where the changes are already as striking as in Bangladesh.

In Dhaka, the capital city of more than 18 million people, the population has surged in the past decade as climate change has accelerated the migration from rural to urban areas. The coastline has been lashed with cyclones, while rice paddies that were once fertile have become too salty for use, due to flooding and rising sea levels.

This population influx has worsened the city's bad congestion and led to a construction boom and deteriorating air quality. Thousands of brick kilns ring the city, producing the building blocks for construction growth, and sending smoke and particulate matter into the lungs of everyone who lives there.

Dhaka's air pollution is among the worst of any world capital on a par with Beijing and only slightly better than New Delhi, according to data from the World Health Organization that spans 2013 to 2016. By working at night across a six-month period, photographer Niklas Grapatin has captured both the air pollution that plagues the city, as well as the monsoon rains that provide relief from the smog.

In the evening when seen with the aid of flash photography the particles that hang in the air take on a life of their own.Brick kilns are the single biggest source of air pollution in Dhaka, accounting for more than a third of fine particulate matter, while vehicles account for a fifth, according to a leaked copy of a World Bank study reported by The Third Pole, a news website.

The study also finds that the health impact of air pollution in urban areas in Bangladesh is equivalent to an economic burden of $1.9bn annually, as asthma and other respiratory illnesses plague city dwellers. The government has been trying to address the problem, and recently announced a new metro line project to alleviate congestion and vehicle pollution.

The city has experimented with closing certain roads to motorized traffic on some days to reduce roadside pollution and encourage non-motorized transport. As Grapatin's photographs suggest, the residents of Dhaka find ways to adapt to the poor air and the lack of open space.

A child swings on a palm frond; friends paddle across a polluted lake and life carries on. The pollution is worst during the dry season that spans the winter months, and then improves with the monsoon rains between June and October.

Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, a professor of environmental science at Stamford University Bangladesh, says the lack of open spaces in the city has also had an impact on people's health and that development projects are encroaching on the few that remain, leaving residents with even fewer options to get a breath of fresh air.

A bridge over Dhanmondi Lake, where residents go to escape the city's traffic noise Between the air pollution and the congestion, he says that Dhaka has become so difficult to live in that people with relatives outside the city usually leave to visit them, rather than the other way around. But he also points out that awareness about air pollution has been increasing, and more initiatives are trying to address the issue.

Just now people are raising their voice," says Majumder. We don't have any other alternative. International human rights law compels Bangladesh's government to protect its citizens from abuses, including those connected with business activity. Many of Hazaribagh's tanneries' have serious health implications for their workers, including children like Jahaj, and local residents.

The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) requires that states realize the right to the highest attainable standard of health for everyone in their territory. The Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), tasked with interpreting the ICESCR, has affirmed states' obligations to protect the health of its workers.

The CESR has also explained that governments violate the right to the highest attainable standard of health if they fail to regulate the activities of corporations to prevent them from violating the right to health of others. This includes "the failure to enact or enforce laws to prevent the pollution of water, air and soil by extractive and manufacturing industries. The right to health encompasses the right to healthy natural environments.

This right involves the obligation to "prevent threats to health from unsafe and toxic water conditions. The government has also failed to implement relevant national laws that could protect its citizens from abuses. As a result, it is not fulfilling its duties to protect the right to health of its citizens as recognized under domestic and international law.

Compounding this situation, the government's failure to respect High Court rulings has deprived residents suffering health problems due to Hazaribagh's tanneries of an effective judicial remedy. There is a widespread assumption in government circles that building a planned central effluent treatment plant (CETP) in Savar will resolve the environmental and health issues related to the Hazaribagh tanneries.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that a CETP will allow tanneries in Savar to treat their waste. However, there are already well-documented alternative processes and technologies proven to significantly reduce tannery pollution and which do not require a CETP. Without enforcement of environmental laws by the Bangladeshi government, there is no incentive for the Hazaribagh tanneries to reduce their pollution load by adopting such measures.

Since each of Hazaribagh's 150 or so tanneries may have contracts with numerous buyers that vary by facility and over time, the report does not focus on working conditions in specific tanneries, nor on particular international companies that may purchase leather from Hazaribagh tanneries. Human Rights Watch believes that sustained enforcement of Bangladeshi law throughout the Hazaribagh tanneries offers the best hope for remedying the systemic human rights violations identified in this report.

Past and present tannery workers described and displayed a range of health conditions including prematurely aged, discolored, itchy, peeling, acid-burned, and rash-covered skin; fingers corroded to stumps; aches, dizziness, and nausea; and disfigured or amputated limbs. Although Human Rights Watch is not aware of any epidemiological studies on cancer among tannery workers in Bangladesh, some anecdotal evidence suggests that cancer rates are indeed elevated among workers dealing with chemicals.

Many common health problems that tannery workers face such as skin and respiratory diseases result from repeated exposure to a hazardous cocktail of chemicals when measuring and mixing them, adding them to hides in drums, or manipulating hides saturated in them.

Some chemicals can be injurious to health in the short term, such as sulfuric acid and sodium sulfide that can burn tissue,eye membrane, skin, and the respiratory tract.Others,such as formaldehyde, azocolorants, and pentachlorophenol, are confirmed or potential human carcinogens, the health effects of which may only manifest years after exposure.

Workers expressed extreme concern to Human Rights Watch regarding the possible long-term effects of such exposure. Many complained that their tannery did not supply protective equipment such as gloves, masks, boots, and aprons, or if it did, failed to supply sufficient quantities.

Other workers told Human Rights Watch they suffered serious accidents working old and poorly maintained tannery machines for which they had scant training. Shongi, in his mid-40s, described an accident with a large hot plate used to press hides, which had occurred nine days before his interview with Human Rights Watch.

Foreign companies that source leather produced in Hazaribagh have a crucial role to play in ensuring that Hazaribagh residents are no longer exposed to hazardous chemicals and other forms of pollution, and that tannery worker enjoy safe and healthy workplaces.

They should immediately take steps to ensure that they are not implicated in unregulated pollution, violations of occupational health and safety laws, or hazardous child labor through their supplier relationships (including through job work tanneries sub-contracted to perform part or all of leather processing).

Critics of regulation contend that Bangladesh is a poor country, which can ill-afford to enforce laws that could possibly shut down the tannery industry. However, ensuring compliance of all Hazaribagh tanneries with international standards and Bangladeshi law is an opportunity to establish the industry as a modern sector capable of producing high-value and high-quality leather in an environmentally sound and rights-respecting manner that strengthens, rather than undermines, this growing sector of the nation's economy.
    
Rayhan Ahmed Topader  is aWriter and Columnist. He can be reach at :  
raihan567@yahoo.com

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