Shehzad Noorani has a deep interest in social issues that affect the lives of millions of people in developing countries. He has covered major stories resulting from man-made and natural disasters in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. Other assignments for agencies like UNICEF have taken him to over 30 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
His photography has been exhibited and featured in major international magazines and publications around the world. Noorani received a grant from the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography for “Daughters of Darkness,” his photography project on the lives of commercial sex workers in South Asia. He has also received an honorable mention from National Geographic’s All Roads Photography Program for “Children of Black Dust.”
This is a story about the Buriganga, a river that flows through Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It is a local story with huge international implications. The Buriganga has always been a hub of commercial activity, busy, vibrant, and full of life, but never really clean. Today, the pollution in the river is at its worst.
Dhaka’s industries produce about 40,000 tons of untreated toxic waste daily. Its 12.6 million people produce another 3,200 tons of solid waste each day. The industrial waste and approximately 80 percent of the city’s sewage are released directly into the river, making much of the Buriganga biologically dead. The river has become so polluted that the water has turned black and thick like glue. Lacking government services, thousands of people living along the river have little or no choice but to use this highly contaminated water to wash, bathe, and even drink.
Bangladesh is a country of poor people, except for a few industrialists who recognize and exploit conditions to make huge profits. Labor is cheap and environmental regulations are weak. Some of the world’s largest garment and leather industries thrive in Bangladesh, free to dump their toxic waste into its rivers.
These polluting industries survive on orders from big Western manufacturers, taking shelter behind a self-serving argument: since the countries in the West have been industrializing and polluting for centuries, it is only fair that poor countries should now have the right to do so. The idea that developing countries need to pollute to escape poverty is just an excuse for moving polluting industries from one place to another.
We live in a global village, connected with each other in every possible way. We understand that bad environmental practices in one part of the world can have fatal consequences for people in other parts of the world. To allow industries in developing countries to pollute is not just wrong, but criminal. It does not make sense to control emissions only in the developed world and let developing countries pollute indiscriminately.
What is happening in Bangladesh is happening in countries like India and China on a much larger scale. Developing countries are responsible for about one-third of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, but experts predict that if the pace of industrial growth continues, by 2100 they will emit almost three times more than their developed counterparts. According to a study by the University of California, China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s largest carbon polluter. If we don’t improve environmental practices in developing countries, everyone will suffer.
—Shehzad Noorani, November 2008