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Poisoned Water

How our clothing choices affect a Bangladeshi river.

The water in the Buriganga River that flows right through the heart of Dhaka is thick and looks black, like oil. The river used to be the main source of drinking water for the city and its people, but now you will not find a single sign of life in it. When I ask if there are any fish in the river, the tour guide laughs. Life in the Buriganga is unfathomable to Bangladeshis. The government has declared three rivers in Dhaka “biologically dead” due to pollution. 

Etched forever in my memory is the sight of a young girl wading knee deep in the water to collect oranges that had fallen from one of the cargo ships, in hopes that she might be able to salvage a few and sell them at the market to bring some income home to her family. If she does this often, she will end up with chemical burns on her legs and maybe other health issues that will affect her for the rest of her life. I am overcome with a wave of helplessness and despair. 

What are we doing to God’s creation? How could a blessed source of life become so perverted from its original purpose? Some of the sources of pollution in the Buriganga include oil, plastics and raw sewage, but the main pollutant is industrial chemical waste from the garment and textile factories that employ over four million people, mainly women, for a daily wage 15 times lower than we would consider an acceptable minimum here in Canada.

The Buriganga River is “biologically dead” from factory effluent and chemical waste.

The luxury of choice
Environmental justice was a recurring theme throughout my Environmental Studies degree at King’s, but not something I could fully grasp or understand until witnessing real environmental injustice firsthand. Last January I had the opportunity to accompany World Renew consultant Roy Berkenbosch to Bangledesh. I went to learn about World Renew projects and development work happening there, and to co-facilitate a workshop on creation care. On the other side of the world, I fully realized the impact of our consumer lifestyles at home in Canada. 

Driving out of Dhaka, I witness thousands of women walking alongside the highway on their way to work. These factories produce clothing for companies we know well – H&M, Calvin Klein, American Eagle. But at what price? Not only are Bangladeshi people getting paid one of the lowest wages on earth in some of the most dangerous sweatshops that exist, but their land and water – their sources of life – are being obliterated as a result. I am sinking into despair. How can I begin to reconcile the sins of my society and culture, the sins of my fellow Christians, and the sins of my own ignorant choices with what we’re called to in the Bible?

But there is hope. I spoke to 40 university students during a workshop about environmental issues and the biblical mandate for creation care, and was blown away by their knowledge, enthusiasm and passion about and for environmental issues. They care, perhaps because they have to, since their country will be severely affected by climate change. It is not a question about “if” but “when” for them. In Canada, we have the luxury to choose to live in our self-enclosed, conscience-soothing bubbles of ignorance, and to debate whether climate change is something we “believe in” or not. Bangladeshis do not have that option. The faith I have in the next generation, in my generation, lies with the students I met at these workshops.

Learning about organic pest management and other sustainable agricultural techniques from a Bangladeshi women’s self-help.

Creation groans
“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in pains of childbirth right up to the present time . . .” (Rom. 8:19-22), waiting for God to liberate it from the destruction and wrath we have subjected it to. And so we wait. But not idly. We must do our part to bring a bit of the kingdom to the presently fallen state of creation, knowing that we cannot reconcile the entirety of sin to our creator. We can do justice now, love mercy now, and walk humbly now. So I press on, and do not let myself become overwhelmed with the daunting task of “making a difference.” As Roy Berkenbosch says, “Sometimes it is not about making a difference, but living with integrity.” And that is what I strive for.

  • Erin graduated from The King’s University with a BSc in Environmental Studies.

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