Bangladesh's chemical imports have nearly tripled in the past decade, spurred by the rising demand from various industrial sectors catering to domestic and foreign markets.
Sector operators said garments and textile sectors are the main consumers of the imported chemicals followed by pharmaceuticals, food processing, cosmetics and toiletries, leather, plastic and other sectors.
Businesses brought in Tk 17,548 crore worth of chemicals in 2017-18, which was only Tk 6,103 crore in 2007-08, according to Bangladesh Bank (BB) data.
Imports rose 12 percent year-on-year to Tk 7,772 crore in the July-November period of the current fiscal year, according to the BB.
“This is a huge market and rising industrialisation fuels demand for chemicals and its trade,” said Arif Hossain Masud, general secretary of the Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchant Association based in Old Dhaka.
Old Dhaka garnered attention last month when a devastating fire in Chawkbazar took 70 lives -- the second biggest chemical-fuelled disaster after 2010's Nimtoli blaze when the death toll hit 124.
Stakeholders and operators said the city's old part, particularly Lalbagh, Hazaribagh, Sadarghat and Siddique Bazar area, was the main hub for chemical business, including for the inflammable ones. These stores and warehouses cater for demands of various industries.
Masud said they have already shifted 29 types of risky chemicals to other places from the old part of Dhaka in line with a government directive.
“We will shift the rest of the chemicals and our business if the government allocates a designated area for us,” he said.
He said textile and apparel sectors were some of the major consumers of imported chemicals that are used for dying and washing fabrics.
Besides, a lot of chemicals are used in pharmaceuticals and food processing industry, fertiliser and agro sector, leather and plastic products.
Chemicals are necessary for making paint as well as cosmetics and home care products, he said, adding that a portion of the domestic requirement was met by some local chemical industries. Appliance and foam industries are also relatively big consumers of chemicals, according to operators.
A top official of a leading multinational company operating in Bangladesh said the market for chemicals has been growing by around 8 percent annually in the last eight years. The market here is of about $2.5 billion, he added.
“There is no industry where chemical is not required. It is required in almost every industry beginning from making bread, chocolate, paper, electronics to crop and fish farming,” said Anayet Hossain Maruf, adviser of the merchant association.
Several thousand tonnes of boron—a mineral—is imported to address its deficiency in the soil, he said. “Use of boron has contributed to the increase in crop production.”
“We have many successes but the devastating fire at Nimtoli in 2010 overshadowed many of that,” he said.
Export-oriented mills import chemicals under the bonded warehouse privilege and chemicals needed for textile factories and such chemicals were not involved in the old town incident, said Mohammad Ali Khokon, president of Bangladesh Textiles Mills Association.
“The chemicals in Old Dhaka are needed mainly for small industries. Safety and security is very important in this trade and but there is no compliance in chemical trade in Old Dhaka,” he said.
“Prospect of chemicals is good,” he said, suggesting that the government relocate businesses from Old Dhaka.
Syeda Sultana Razia, professor of chemical engineering at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, said expansion of the textile industry fuelled the demand for chemicals in the country.
“Requirement for chemicals will increase with the growth of the sector,” she said, “Pharmaceuticals sector is also booming.”
As requirement and use of chemicals is rising, everyone should be taking a life cycle approach for management of chemicals. Coordination and monitoring should be strengthened to ensure safety and security, she said.