Last year the World Air Quality Report ranked Bangladesh the country with the world’s worst air pollution. This sad development was attributed to a combination of population density and unbridled industrialisation, which hasn’t just poisoned the country’s airspace, but also its rivers and soil. Apparently if you visit much of Bangladesh in 2019, you’ll find a country choked with photochemical smog, household trash, and untreated sewage.
Photographer Probal Rashid, who grew up in Bangladesh, has made it his goal to show the world what this pollution looks like for the people who live there. Here, he describes the places he photographed and what he learned along the away.
VICE: Hey Probal. Can you tell us how you got started on this mission?
Probal: So I was born in Gazipur, Bangladesh. It's a newly developing area—a vast industrial zone in Bangladesh. This area was historically important for rice farming, but its proximity to Dhaka has meant more industries have relocated there over the past 20 years. I watched this change with my own eyes. I saw pristine rural land getting consumed by industry; natural water reservoirs becoming poisonous, fertile agricultural land becoming completely unproductive, and forests getting destroyed. As a witness to this change, I was compelled to start photographing industrial pollution in 2009—so I visited the other industrial areas of Bangladesh, such as Narayangonj, Keraniganj and Savar Districts.
Where's all this pollution in Bangladesh coming from?
Just a lot of hazardous and dangerous industries: tanneries, textile manufacturers, dyeing and printing factories, chemical factories, poultry farms, and pharmaceutical industries. They're all situated in densely populated areas within two regions of the country.
The River Buriganga, which runs past Dhaka City, is one of the most polluted rivers in Bangladesh. Nearly four million people suffer directly from the consequences of poor water quality of the river system, which is polluted by untreated textile waste. In addition, Dhaka city discharges about 4,500 tons of solid waste every day, of which a maximum 30 percent is disposed at designated dumpsites—making the water unsuitable for humans and livestock.
How have locals adjusted to living around this kind of pollution?
Because of all the toxic industrial waste dumped into rivers, people living along waterways suffer because all the fish die off. In other areas, black smoke from the brick kilns has compelled people to move, with many people facing diseases like tuberculosis, lung cancer, skin cancer, and so on. Pollution in Bangladesh is a big threat to people’s lives.
What was the worst site you saw?
It must be Hazaribagh area, a neighbourhood in the old part of Dhaka that is widely known for its tannery factories. It's listed as one of the top 10 polluted places on earth. Following an order from the Bangladesh High Court, 270 of the registered tanneries in Bangladesh recently had to move to an industrial park in Savar, and the factories are discharging untreated chemicals into water bodies of the River Buriganga.
How did you go photographing this area? I can't imagine the factory owners would be thrilled to see you sniffing around.
Yeah, factory owners are extremely hostile to photographers and journalists. When people take photos or write about the violation of environmental codes they become furious towards photographers and journalists. Because of this I always tried to work undercover.
How do you hope your photography will make a difference?
Well I believe photographs draw people’s interest. This project is the visual evidence of the changing landscape in Bangladesh. I hope the photographs can train people’s gaze towards the devastating effect of all this unplanned industrial expansion.