Addressing our environmental challenges
THE government, sections of the civil society as well as the country's major universities have been following the evolution of the environmental paradigm in Bangladesh with great care and seriousness. This has been reflected in the convening of several workshops and meetings since the beginning of this year, and also with the cabinet approval of laws related to the newly instituted Climate Change Trust Fund.
This concern has grown out of the realisation that protection of environment is a huge challenge that endangers the country's future economic growth and development. There is cognisance and unanimity within Bangladesh, irrespective of political affiliation, that the incidence, scope, and intensity of extreme weather events will increase and that this is bound to affect this riverine country in various sectors, particularly to the prospects of submergence, salinity intrusion and destabilisation and aggravation of fluctuation of river flow across seasons.
At the same time, despite disappointment over the 15th COP held in Copenhagen in December 2009, optimism is again being expressed about the possibility of a binding agreement on reduction of GHG emissions being reached at the 16th COP to be held in Mexico in 2010.
Bangladesh has taken some steps towards adaptation to climate change and has already allocated the equivalent of $100 million from its own resources to deal with emergencies. It has also decided to play an active role in the UNFCCC process for projecting the viewpoint of the MVCs and LDCs regarding both mitigation and adaptation.
The most significant area of engagement has been directed towards more efficient water management. Aware that the catchment basins of major rivers of Bangladesh lie mostly in her neighbouring countries, Bangladesh has initiated action at the regional level. We have affirmed the urgent need for a basin-wise development of water resources of the Ganges-Brahmmaputra-Meghna region comprising India, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. This is being done not only to ensure harmonious use of the shared rivers but also to deal with the rising problem of river pollution affecting lower riparian countries. Both the government as well as the civil society groups associated with environmental issues are carrying out lobbying and sensitisation in this regard.
There has also been another movement forward among those involved with water supervision. They are finally recognising that the current water development strategy of attempting to cordon off floodplains from adjoining rivers by creating polders has proved largely unsuccessful, and that it has rather aggravated problems of flood, drainage, soil quality, sanitation, preservation of fresh water fish stock, functioning of waterways and temperature balance.
This awareness is leading them to the view that building of polders and embankments for flood management should be considered with great caution as they might create many environmental concerns. They are consequently now advising the open, ecological approach. One hopes that this dynamics will result in positives in the coming years.
The domestic consensus on protecting the environment, the flora and the fauna has also led Bangladesh to take steps to ensure regional cooperation necessary for protection of forests and various animal species. It is heartening to note that consideration is being given to the possibility of creation of contiguous forest areas between Bangladesh and her neighbours, not affected by political boundaries, consistent with the model established by countries of South Africa. One hopes that implementation of such a concept will lead towards conservation, protection of animal species, and bio-diversity. I believe that regional civil society activists can further complement such inter-governmental efforts to achieve these goals.
Bangladeshi economists today understand that environmental issues are not only closely intertwined with general issues of overall socio-economic development but also that pollution is generally a by-product of the production system. They have also suggested that pollution is often the negative externality of private consumption, and one way of internalising this externality is to switch from private to social or collective consumption. I agree with them that this might create a lighter ecological footprint due to lower levels of material consumption.
A good idea, the practicality of this is however largely untested in Bangladesh and will depend largely on facilitating overall socio-cultural transformation. Such change, I believe, can only be brought about by accepting protection of environment as an integral development goal, mainstreaming environmental concerns in all development projects and activities and promoting an environment friendly consumption pattern.
Another area that is receiving quite a bit of attention, thanks to both the print as well as the electronic media, is the question of effectively tackling pollution through industrial waste to both land and water in this country. The government, particularly the prime minister, has quite often referred to the need for strict enforcement of effluent treatment facilities (ETF) and referred to the Industrial Effluent and Emission Quality Standard promulgated in 1997 under the Environmental Conservation Act of 1995. Nevertheless, industrial units have continued to be irresponsible in this regard.
Time has now come for zero tolerance in this regard. Those responsible for monitoring industrial enterprises must ensure strict compliance, if necessary through the precept of a "neighbourhood watch scheme." Pollution prevention programs and environment management systems must also be encouraged in agriculture, particularly with regard to using chemical fertiliser and pesticides. This will help control surface water pollution.
Energy scarcity and the provision of clean electricity as a major development goal has also led both the public as well as the private sector to take measures towards greater adaptation of renewable energy sources. This has included the efficient use of bio-mass for cooking in rural areas and promoting electricity production through solar energy. We, quite correctly, are hoping that some of the international fund being made available for adaptation will help to finance growth in this sector. Solar industry could be the growth industry for Bangladesh in the 2000s as the garments industry was in the 1980s and 1990s.
There is another aspect that is receiving special attention from the strategic planners. It relates to more comprehensive efforts towards the feasibility of conversion of household waste into either bio-fertiliser or energy. It will mean municipalities being made responsible for picking up garbage from community bins and its recycling, resource recovery and disposal by appropriate means. It will also pre-suppose that medical waste and electronic waste, some of which contain radioactive material, being kept separate and appropriate disposal systems being instituted. This will require capacity building and training. Hopefully, the necessary resources will be found from our development partners for making this possible.
All the above will be possible if we can strengthen the legal, management, and administrative aspects and the related institutional frameworks. An optimal mix of market-based instruments and control for protection of environment will have to be devised along with a comprehensive and easily accessible database. This can then help the Environmental Courts (to be especially set up) to strictly enforce the appropriate standards.
Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador. E-mail: [email protected].