Bangladesh is dominated by a vast river delta of rich, fertile and flat land no more than 40 feet above sea level. That makes it especially susceptible to climate change. Scientists estimate that rising sea levels will claim as much as 17 percent of the country by 2050, displacing as many as 18 million people.
Bangladeshi photojournalist Probal Rashid was born in the rice-growing district of Gazipur in 1979, and has seen this threat first-hand. He’s made it his mission to document the threat industrialization, pollution and climate change pose
to his homeland. “I have witnessed the change from the beginning,” he says. “I noticed how a completely pristine rural area was swallowed up, how natural water reservoirs became poisonous, how extremely fertile agricultural land became unproductive along with the devastation of the natural forest.”
Rashid’s riveting photographs document the lives of those in Gazipur, Narayangonj, Keraniganj and Savar districts where mills and factories often pollute the air and water. “I always had to play hide and seek, so that I was not caught by any agent of factory-owners,” he says.
The garment industry wields tremendous influence in Bangladesh, where some 4,200 garment factories employ 4 million people and produce clothing for many western retailers. The industry has been under tremendous pressure to improve safety and workplace conditions in the wake of a building collapse that killed 1,100 people two years ago.
The photographer made a point of talking to those who live and work alongside the factories. Although the factories provide much-needed jobs, lax regulation threatens their health and safety. At a factory in Gazipur, Rashid said he saw teen-age boys working with black iron oxide–often used as a pigment—without goggles, masks, or other protective equipment. They often breath in pollutants while earning between $7 and $29 per month. Others he met lived near rivers, streams and reservoirs so polluted they couldn’t use the water. Rashid heard of people suffering from tuberculosis and cancer.
Bangladesh produces 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, but will be disproportionately impacted by effects of climate change. As temperatures rise, summers will grow hotter and the monsoon season more violent. “The regular and severe natural hazards that Bangladesh already suffers from—tropical cyclones, river erosion, flood, landslides and drought—are all set to increase in intensity and frequency as a result of climate change,” Rashid says.
Rashid already has seen the devastation this will cause. He was in Satkhira four years ago when torrential rains caused the Kapotakka River to overrun its banks. His photos humanize the tragedy by drawing attention to those directly impacted. He hopes his images raise awareness of challenges his country cannot tackle alone. “If Bangladesh’s government, along with the international community, is proactive to force the Bangladeshi factory owners to properly maintain environmental codes, industrial pollution will come down,” Rashid says. “Climate change is a global issue. Bangladesh is the victim. So, to mitigate this problem in Bangladesh is the responsibility of the global community.”