New Report Finds African Rivers “Bleach-like” Due to Fast Fashion Textile Factories

Image: flowcomm via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new report from Water Witness International (WWI) found that the world’s fast fashion brands contribute to the bleach-like pollution of Africa’s rivers. Rivers surveyed were found to have been dyed blue or made as alkaline as bleach, creating environmental and public health threats to local communities. WWI is calling on fast fashion companies to take the lead on eliminating such pollution from their practices and using fashion as a force for positive environmental change. 

Why This Matters: The world’s rivers are being bombarded by pollution, development, and drought, and it’s driving water resources to the brink.

Significant changes to the water composition can eliminate all access to drinking water, harm agriculture, and create public health crises. For communities across the world, including in Africa, long-term drought brought on by climate change only further limits access to water. Environmental experts say that protecting Earth’s waterways will be essential to fighting climate change, but only if corporate polluters step up to the plate.

Basic Science: Researchers analyzed rivers in Lesotho and Tanzania and found extreme results. In Lesotho, one river was visibly tainted by blue-jean dye. Tests on a stretch of Tanzania’s Msimbazi river near a textile factory resulted in a pH of 12, the same pH as bleach. Drinking water with such a high pH can lower the acidity of stomach acid, leaving people more vulnerable to pathogens or cause metabolic alkalosis, which can cause symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and tremors.

The study reported that Zara, ASOS, and H&M have all sourced textiles from Africa, although it did not link the companies’ supply chains to the pollution in the rivers tested. Katrina Charles, an expert on water security and quality at the University of Oxford, says that the key to forcing environmentally sustainable change in the fast-fashion industry is consumer pressure, but that solutions must include both the economic and environmental needs of textile workers and communities in places like Lesotho and Tanzania. “Making the textile industry a force for good in Africa is a very delicate balance,” she said.

Governments can help communities protect their water sources from industry by investing in updated, sustainable water treatment systems. Still, many lower-income nations are unable to afford this potentially lifesaving technology. Environmental groups have urged wealthy countries like the U.S. to invest in preserving essential resources threatened by climate change across the world. The U.S. and Germany recently announced a partnership aiming to support countries in need and raise global climate ambition in the run-up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow this November.

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