Is Bangladesh on the right path centring environment?


Climate change-disaster by syed zakir hossain
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

The government is moving ahead with its priority on the climate change issues. Though climate change is a slow process, we’ve already been experiencing the impacts. The efforts taken now for adaptation and mitigation would be better for the country in the future only if those are executed properly.

Bangladesh in the last couple of years raised the issue of its vulnerability to global warming that may put the lives of millions of the coastal people at risk due to the remarkable rise in the sea-level.

At several global talks on climate change, it has been discussed that Bangladesh is a disaster-prone country where the climate change impacts would hit hard. Moreover, because of its geographic location, most parts of it are vulnerable due to many rivers.

Over half of the population, being poor are highly vulnerable because of lack of adaptation methods to fight natural calamities. People in the coastal, flood-prone and some relatively dry areas are also facing changes in weather pattern.

Frequent flooding and increased salinity are putting agriculture, fishing and other related economic activities at more risk.

Moreover, reports coming out every now and then over the probable impact of the changing climate and global warming justifies the government’s prioritising the issue of capacity building of the authorities concerned and adaptation, which means preparedness for possible disasters.

The government, like many other least developed countries, is seeking compensation funds from the rich and industrially developed countries to conduct the programmes.

But the irony is, it is neglecting the mitigation issue by initiating and continuing projects that emit carbon: setting up more and more power plants run by petroleum and coal, and showing reluctance over preventing pollution from the sprawling brickfields, vehicular emissions, deforestation – which adds to the global warming and hence, destruction of the environment.

The government’s policy and activities over taking into account the environmental issues – health impacts of unabated environmental pollution, destruction of land, wetlands and ecosystem across the country – is not satisfactory.

Degradation of nature through pollution, mainly industrial, is a catalyst of global warming and it’s worsening the vulnerability of people and environment. It puts lives of humans and other living beings in peril by contaminating the atmosphere and water resources.

the tannery waste runs to Buriganga
the tannery waste runs to Buriganga

Hence, it’s a public demand that stern and effective measures be taken by the government, in policies and action, to curb every type of environmental hazards.

Even though there are over 200 countries with the same number of government heads and ministers with different policies concerning their environment, we shouldn’t forget that the Earth is one and we all share it from wherever we are.

We all should take the responsibility to use and conserve nature in a caring manner for the present and the future generations to come.

Continuing alarm

A recent report of the World Bank gives a shocking idea of the possible severity in the coming decades. Peer reviewed by 90 scientists worldwide, it depicts life in a not-too-distant future shaped by already present warming trends.

Even 20 to 30 years from now, shifting rain patterns could leave some areas under water and others without enough water for power generation, irrigation or even drinking.

Cyclones in 2050 could expose 9.7m coastal people to more than three metres of inundation affecting agriculture and lives whereas cyclone Sidr affected 3.45m households. In Bangladesh, 40% of productive land is projected to be lost in the southern region of Bangladesh for a 65cm sea level rise by the 2080s.

The consequences for South Asia of a warming climate are even worse if global temperatures increase by an average of 4°C by 2090.

About 20 million people in the coastal areas of Bangladesh are already affected by salinity in drinking water. Rising sea levels and more intense cyclones and storm surges could intensify the contamination of groundwater and surface water causing more diarrhoea outbreaks.

A CARE Bangladesh report says people from Kurigram, a north-western district, said they had experienced climate-induced changes over the last three decades. Most of them said rainfall was becoming more erratic and unpredictable, with longer periods of wet and dry weather. They also reported a rise in the frequency of extreme weather events like cyclones.

People say they could no longer distinguish between the six seasons of the Bangla calendar – the traditional calendar followed by the rural populace for economic and agricultural activities.

The finance minister in his budget speech, while talking about the success stories of the government with regard to climate change, has portrayed the sorry state of the country’s rural people who are highly exposed to climate change impacts.

It’s good to hear that the government also highlighted its plans to prepare and enforce strategies to cut loss, and has prioritised disaster management.

He also mentioned issues to assure people that the government was working relentlessly to protect the environment too. However, the claim is not reflected in reality.

Moreover, it’s still not clear whether the government agencies and ministries concerned are working in a concerted manner. Ministries of agriculture, fisheries and livestock; industries; local government; power, energy and mineral resources, and land have their own environment agenda.

But they were supposed to be brought under an umbrella, as the minister said in his previous budget speech, to ensure better result from the government’s action plans.

“Many of the climate change impacts in the region, which appear quite severe with relatively modest warming of 1.5–2°C, pose a significant challenge to development.

Major investments in infrastructure, flood defence, development of high temperature-and drought-resistant crops, and major improvements in sustainability practices, in relation to groundwater extraction, would be needed to cope with the projected impacts under this level of warming,” the WB report says.

Preparedness now crucial

The finance minister said in parliament that the country sustained loss of around $3bn due to natural disasters during 1990-2008 which was equivalent to around 1.8% of the GDP. But if we look into the extent of the disasters, we would see that it’s due to lack of capacity for preparation by the authorities and lack of awareness in the affected areas where mostly poor people reside.

Even recently, the steps taken with regard to capacity building of institutions for teaching the people adaptation methods, facilitating the people of the coastal areas, conservation of flood protection dykes and regular maintenance of river navigability, increasing disaster management awareness, and equipping the agencies concerned for quick response with sufficient tools are not noticeable.

A drain managed by the Dhaka Wasa
A drain managed by the Dhaka Wasa

“We have formulated Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan [BCCSAP] 2009 to mitigate impacts of climate change. We have created Climate Change Trust Fund with our own resources to implement this action plan. Climate Change Trust Fund Act, 2010 has already been passed. We have allocated a total of Tk2.4bn to the trust fund from FY 2009-10 to FY 2012-13. As many as 194 projects have been taken up under this fund until February 2013. Besides, Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund [BCCRF] has been created with the assistance of the development partners. So far, the total amount of assistance to this fund is $189.5m,” the minister said.

The objective of the resilience fund is to support the implementation of the 2009 action plan, the key of which are: (i) food security, social protection and health; (ii) comprehensive disaster management; (iii) infrastructure; (iv) research and knowledge management; (v) mitigation and low carbon development; (vi) capacity building and institutional strengthening.

Under the trust fund, many government agencies and non-government organisations have been funded to operate projects on the abovementioned areas. But the efficiency of the government officials concerned, and experience and expertise of the funded NGOs are still questioned.

Thus, reaching a satisfactory level of improvement from the current scenario is unlikely in the near future unless the government checks the misdeeds and take the most important issues as its priority. The whole government machinery has to be alerted about the environment.

The short- and long-term steps to save the nature must be executed efficiently and kept free from corruption. Otherwise, the impacts on people and the nature would be worse only.

It is, however, praiseworthy that the government has taken initiatives to bring disaster management activities under a legal and institutional framework.

Disaster Management Act, 2012 has been passed, the building, maintenance and management of cyclone shelter policy 2011 has been circulated and the National Disaster Management Plan 2010-2015 has been approved.

With an objective to strengthen disaster management, 48,000 volunteers have been trained under the cyclone preparedness programme.

But the current capacity and trend of response from the government in disasters is not as quick as is necessary.

Activities related to construction work of flood shelters in flood-prone and river erosion areas, and cyclone shelters in coastal areas and renovation of embankments are going on at snail’s pace despite having funds and capacity.

In most cases, reliefs take a couple of days to reach remote areas. Moreover, the mismanagement in distribution of funds and aid is very unfortunate but a common phenomenon.

The need for procurement of high-end rescue equipment and distributing those in the hotspots is very slow in comparison to the extent of vulnerability due to “negligible allocation of budget.” For that, risks from natural calamities are still high.

Manpower and skill shortage in the government agencies is one of the key obstructions to development while negligence in enforcement of law cripples the whole system as the offenders move scot-free.

However, a good news is the government plans to revise the building codes to check unplanned and illegal buildings. The regulators are strengthening monitoring and enforcement drives against the people violating environmental and other related laws.

Checking degradation

Afforestation has been a higher priority in the government plans to maintain ecological balance. In the last four years, the government says it increased the coverage of afforestation from 7-8% to 17.08%.

But at the same time, large scale destruction of natural forests by smugglers with the help of unscrupulous forest officials, merciless felling of trees to set up industries, to feed the brick kilns, cooking stoves, and furnitures could not be contained accordingly.

It results in severe air pollution, high emission of green house gases and endangers other species that rely entirely on nature. Low presence of greenery has adverse impacts like rising temperature, droughts, landslides, air pollution and less-oxygen in the air.

The beachside hills at Himchharhi, Cox's Bazar
The beach-side hills at Himchharhi, Cox’s Bazar

In the recent decades, unplanned urbanisation and industrialisation have caused massive loss of greenery and marshlands. Plantation of foreign species in social forestry is changing the biodiversity.

The plan to install a 1,320MW coal-based power plant close to the Sundarbans mangrove forest, a World heritage site, and adjacent to a river which is a sanctuary for freshwater dolphins, is unacceptable since coal would pollute the air and add to the global warming.

Power is a must for the human development, but at what cost? Why not set it up relatively far away from the world’s largest mangrove forest? Why not scrap the idea of carrying coal-laden ships and large vessels plying through the Sundarbans’ rivers and canals to feed the plant? Decisions on such sensitive schemes should come out from long-term plans, which are result of proper assessment.

The government’s mis-step in cancelling its support for a project to extract coal through open-cast method at Phulbari of Dinajpur is also surprising since it’s the Awami League that seven years back supported thousands of protesters – locals, rights and green organisations and individuals who fought against the scheme attempted by a US firm which considered the massive eviction and relocation of the locals, and destruction of the environment.

Phulbari protestThen the government allowed lawmen to charge batons and open fire on the agitators that left three youths killed and injured over 200 at Phulbari on August 26, 2006. The AL’s new stance – allowing resumption of the project through negotiation – came into light following the revelation of a US embassy cable released by wikileaks in December 2010 that revealed a communication between the prime minister’s energy adviser and the ambassador, who pushed for GCM Plc (formerly Asia Energy) for the Phulbari project, and got green signal.

In that July 2009 talks, the adviser agreed to build support for the project through the parliamentary process. Thus, in the last couple of years the parliamentary standing committee suggested open-caste method and Asia Energy reportedly resumed survey and reinforced negotiation with the government agencies.

The absence of an effective and acceptable coal policy has long been a weakness of the government and a loss for the whole country.

The recent moves on beginning the era of low carbon-emitting giant nuclear power plants by signing agreements with the contractor for construction of the country’s first such plant and the Russian government for a loan to finance the project are welcome.

But it is not clear why the feasibility study of the project began recently.

It implies that all these decisions have been finalised without a comprehensive assessment including evaluation of the risk factors like dumping of radioactive waste and measures to tackle a catastrophe, environmental damage in and around the site and the benefits we might be getting after a few years.

Location has been a crucial part of such schemes since the site in Rooppur of Pabna is dense, erosion of adjacent Padma river continues and the plant will need a large amount of water every day for heating and cooling.

No or minimum effort to promote and expand use of other renewables – solar, wind, biogas and biomass – by increasing availability and making set up and operation economically viable to the common people is another drawback of the subsequent governments.

However, we see diesel and furnace oil-fired power plants coming into force as a remedy for chronic power crisis to meet the growing demand from industries and increase the coverage of residential consumers. The government claims that 60% of the people are under the coverage of electricity.

The incumbent government in the last five years has also failed to enforce modern energy-efficient methods for the rapidly growing brick-making industry, which is a major source of carbon emission and other contents hazardous to human health.

Brickfields in DhakaIn addition to this, it has failed to ensure that the existing heavily-polluting plants are operated in line with the rules. A visit to the Dhaka’s outskirts Aminbazar and Ashulia areas will give anyone a story of gross violation of law that has been continuing, particularly over the past decade.

The sorry state of water resources is another indication of our lack of keenness to protect the environment. The Bay of Bengal, Buriganga and other rivers, and canals, marshlands and even artificial lakes are being polluted intensely and encroached on.

Unfortunately, many of these unlawful activities are done or certified by the government entities and the ruling party supporters, who are supposed to protect and conserve the gifted and one of the few life sources.

We have a National Bio-Safety Framework, a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan is being updated, while the government is working on a National Action Plan 2020. A contemporary government is supposed to be well aware of the importance of current environmental and ecological balance.

Comprehensive preparedness plans need to be executed properly to conserve our valuable biological resources and save the humanity from natural or man-made disasters.

We hope that the ongoing efforts would be beefed up and supplemented by effective and sincere future plans to ensure a cleaner and safer environment for the upcoming days. In this regard, the ground works, renovation of the nature, should be completed at the earliest.

The story was published in Dhaka Tribune on July 17, 2013

Black Buriganga - Dhaka

4 comments

  1. http://www.dhakatribune.com/environment/2013/apr/21/climate-change-locals-ignored

    Environment professionals allege the needs and knowledge of local people are not being considered in the initiatives led by the Trustee Board of Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund’s (BCCTF) in order to tackle the worst impacts of climate change in Bangladesh.

    “Most of the development projects initiated by the planning commission ignored local people’s concerns,” said a deputy director of Department of Environment (DoE).

    Consultation with locals could lead to better results from the implemented projects, he noted.

    In 2009, the government formulated a policy, the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP), as a guideline on priority projects that address the country’s climate change adaptation plan.

    In line with BCCSAP, the government formulated BCCTF with an initial fund of Tk700m from its own resources in the 2009-2010 fiscal year in order to battle the impacts of global warming.

    Currently BCCTF has a fund of Tk2.5bn, of which the government disbursed more than Tk1b for different climatic projects.

    BCCSAP has identified 44 different programmes within six thematic areas, including: food security, social protection and health, comprehensive disaster management and infrastructure.

    Mizanur Rahman Bijoy, coordinator of Network on Climate Change Bangladesh, said such segmentation is complicated, and urged the government to prioritise the themes are most urgent.

    Otherwise the anomalies, in terms of allocating fund for the projects, will surface, he said citing the example of funding for maintenance of the Parki Sea Beach of Chittagong.

    The government estimates the need of $5b yearly to implement the BCCSAP properly in 2009.

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