Fabric emerges from a dyeing machine at the Hamza Textiles wet processing plant near Dhaka, Bangladesh. The plant has cut its water use in half, something more of Dhaka's textiles industry needs to do to avoid a water crisis. Syed Borhan Uddin

Workplace safety in garment mills gets most of the attention, but the industry's environmental impacts are also a huge concern.

DHAKA, Bangladesh—A mob attacks the pumps of the local water agency. Angry city dwellers march in the streets carrying empty pitchers. The Army is deployed to quell a water revolt. Such scenes are not uncommon in this megacity of 15 million, especially during dry season when water shortages turn acute.

Dhaka struggles to provide enough drinking water for its people despite the fact that it sits on or near four major rivers in a wide delta region. There is plenty of blame to go around for this paradox. But one of the key culprits is the 1,700 factories producing fabric for Bangladesh’s booming textile industry. Most of them are located in Dhaka and on its fringe.

These factories, known as “wet processors,” consume as much as 300 liters of water to produce one kilogram of fabric. That’s about six times more water than what is considered international best practice. All told, the sector devoted to washing, dyeing, and finishing fabrics consumes 1,500 billion liters of groundwater a year. According to a recent World Bank report, the textile mills in and around Dhaka may consume as much groundwater as goes to all of Dhaka’s residents.

Since the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza textile mill here killed more than 1,100 people, there’s been a lot of international scrutiny of working conditions in the factories where garments get made. Most of those clothes get exported to the United States or Europe.

Less attention is being paid to the toll the industry is taking on water supplies—a situation that could easily turn just as deadly.

According to the Dhaka-based Institute of Water Modeling, underground water levels around the city center are dropping at an alarming two to three meters per year. That not only portends future water shortages but also increases the risk of landslides. The city’s water agency pulls 78 percent of its water supplies for both domestic and industrial uses from underground and many textile factories take their own water from underground without any oversight.

Dibalok Singha, executive director with Dhaka-based water and health charity Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (Center for Healthcare for the Distressed), says the textile factories need to make big changes fast to avert disaster. The mills extract groundwater by installing wells, he says, “but they never give back what they exploit.”

Singha says a landslide triggered by the falling water table—below one of the most densely populated cities in the world—would be devastating. “This is terrible,” he says. “We can’t wait for another Rana Plaza disaster to happen.”

Leadership within industry

A model for what needs to happen in the wet-processing industry lies just north of Dhaka in the city of Gazipur. At the end of a potholed road sits Hamza Textiles Limited, part of a larger conglomerate known as DBL Group. Inside the factory, heaps of raw gray fabric are fed into huge metal vats for boiling, scouring, bleaching or dyeing—every step requires water. Fabrics finished here go to other garment-making units of the company to be cut and sewn into finished clothing.

For several years, DBL has been investing in low-cost upgrades that save a lot of water, especially in its dyeing processes. The company has upgraded boilers, dyeing, and rinsing machines, and connected all of them to software that tracks water use on a daily basis. It’s also stepped up use of dyes that adhere to fabric better. That means fabrics require only two or three rinses after dyeing rather than six to eight. Sensors fitted to dyeing machines automatically stop machines once rinsing reaches its peak.

At the Hamza Textiles plant, fabrics are stretched by a machine known as a Bruckner Stenter. (Syed Borhan Uddin)

New equipment has also made a difference. For example, the factory has installed devices to prevent water seepage from its large dyeing machines. This has substantially decreased water waste. Another device fitted to a boiler captures condensation so that water vapor is reused rather than lost into the air.

The investments in equipment cost just $80,000 but according to DBL, they save the company $500,000 per year. Despite substantially increasing its fabrics output in recent years, DBL says its water use has decreased by nearly half—the company now uses only 60 liters of water to produce a kilogram of fabric. Electricity consumption is down by almost a quarter.

“Saving water is a smart way of saving money,” says Mohammed Abdul Jabbar, managing director of the clothing conglomerate. “We’re now getting its benefits.”

DBL is part of a broader effort to decrease the environmental impact of textile production in Bangladesh. It’s called the Bangladesh Water Partnership for Cleaner Textile, or PaCT. The campaign is bankrolled by the Dutch government and some global retail behemoths, including H&M and Inditex. The International Finance Corporation—the World Bank’s private-sector funding arm—advises factories on efficiency upgrades and can act as an intermediary when it comes to financing.

A total of 19 factories are part of PaCT. According to the IFC, those factories are reducing their water consumption an average of 30 percent by taking steps similar to what DBL has done. By 2016, PaCT aims to reach 200 wet processing firms, reducing water usage by as much as 1.2 billion liters per year.

Water shortage

Impressive as that sounds, Dhaka’s water challenge remains immense. While PaCT has catalyzed about $18 million in efficiency investments at wet processors, that’s only one-third of the goal it is trying to reach by next year.

And while PaCT is targeting many of the mid-sized and large wet processors, more than a thousand smaller factories remain outside the program. It’s a lot harder for them to cobble together the upfront financing. And in the wake of the Ranza Plaza factory collapse, improving safety is a higher priority than reducing environmental impacts.

New demands for water are only increasing. According to a recent World Bank report, Bangladesh’s growing garment sector will double its water demand by 2020 if no efficiency gains are made. Meanwhile, Dhaka’s population is projected to grow to 20 million in that time.

Dyeing machines use a lot of water but Hamza Textiles has made several changes to make its processes more efficient. (Syed Borhan Uddin)

On the industrial side, water pricing—or the lack of it—is a big problem. There’s no effective licensing regime for accessing groundwater, so many of the textile mills tap underground supplies without paying for it or measuring how much they’re using. Even where commercial water fees are levied, consumption from private wells is generally not metered, and the rates are flat so there’s little financial incentive to conserve water. (This is not the case with electricity: DBL’s return on its efficiency investments come largely from using less power.)

Finally, river pollution limits Dhaka’s options for finding new freshwater sources. Each of the four major rivers near the capital—the Buriganga, Sitalakhya, Turag and Balu—is tainted by untreated industrial discharges. Here, too, the wet processors are one of the biggest culprits, dumping used dyes and chemicals directly into the surface waters.

“The Buriganga is biologically dead and the Sitalakhya is dying,” says Professor Mujibur Rahman, who researches water and sanitation issues at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. “Had we protected the Sitalakhya, we could have got at least half of the city’s water from it.”

Instead, Dhaka’s public agency in charge of water supply, known as Wasa, is turning to faraway rivers for sourcing water. The agency is looking to pipe water from the Padma and Meghna rivers at points 25 to 36 kilometers (15 to 22 miles) from Dhaka. The project will cost as much as $1.7 billion.

“Groundwater is not a sustainable source,” says Ataur Rahman, a deputy managing director of Dhaka Wasa. “And the Buriganga water is like poison.”

Attracting buyers

Reducing water pollution is another place where DBL is ahead of its peers. The Hamza factory has two wastewater treatment plants, installed at a cost of $3.7 million, within the factory compound. They look like swimming pools where wastewater from dyeing, finishing, and printing fabric is stored; solid particles are screened, de-colorized, and cleaned before being discharged.  Many firms have set up similar plants under regulatory pressure, but they often don’t operate throughout the day in order to save on energy costs.

The wastewater treatment facility at Hamza Textile treats water used in dyeing, finishing, and printing before it is discharged. (Syed Borhan Uddin)

DBL's Jabbar, a U.S.-educated engineer, says he’s pursuing more ways to give the plant a smaller environmental footprint. His next plan is to put in place a hot-water recovery system in dyeing machines. That will result in more water and energy savings while shortening production time. Going forward, the company will nix chemical use for de-colorizing wastewater, part of an initiative to get its chemical discharges down to zero. Eventually, DBL hopes to recycle all wastewater so that it’s not discharging any liquids at all.

Doing business in a sustainable fashion has been financially rewarding for DBL. The company is securing larger orders from existing clients, such as H&M, George, and Esprit. It has also roped in Marks & Spencer, Next, and Gymboree as new buyers of its garments. The company’s overseas sales have more than doubled since 2010.

And that may be the best hope for Dhaka’s water woes—that Western consumers demand not just garments that are low in price but also produced in an environmentally sustainable way. “Environmental awareness,” says Jabbar, “helps us in creating and enhancing sustainable relationship with buyers.”

This post originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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