Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio


Outbreak (with Saad Hammadi)

Ever since the news of an outbreak of avian influenza broke on January 22, the prices of farm chicken and eggs have marked a sharp decline. Although there has so far been no report of transmission of the H5N1 virus to human in any of the districts where avian influenza was found in poultry farms, the customers have stopped buying chicken. As an immediate precautionary measure, the government has asked people not to buy chicken from street vendors or hawkers. The government has also quarantined affected farms, culled chicken and destroyed eggs by the thousand.

Meanwhile, poultry experts, researchers and epidemiologists have sought to calm widespread fear of bird-to-human transmission of the deadly virus. They have prescribed ways and manners in which farm chicken and eggs should be handled to keep off the harm’s way. They say eggs should be washed with soap or detergent and then boiled while the chicken should be handled with gloves on, skinned properly and boiled for a few minutes before dressing. The chicken should be cooked in temperature not less than 70 degrees Celsius, they say quoting the World Health Organisation recommendations.

Such advisories have not calmed the fear, though, and people have largely stopped buying chicken and eggs, sending the poultry market on a downward slope. The prices of broilers have gone down by at least Tk 10 in only three days since January 29. Poultry farmers have been hit hard, as the spread of avian influenza is no longer confined to one single specie.

Sources in the poultry industry claim that the initial outbreak of avian influenza in 2005 was limited to ducks but the government suppressed information of the spread of the H5N2 strand of the virus. ‘Had such secrecy not been maintained and had proper actions been taken by the government, the problem would not have snowballed into a crisis,’ says Dr MM Khan, technical adviser to the Bangladesh Poultry Industries Association. ‘Lack of surveillance has also contributed to the crisis, as bird flu was first reported in February 2007.’

Experts claim that a few thousand ducks and crows have died of avian influenza in the past ten days. Allegations have it that although the industry insiders had voiced concern about a possible outbreak as early as in 2003 the government was not convinced and did not take any precautionary step. Until the last official report on January 30, 97 poultry farms were identified with the deadly disease in 48 upazilas and 30 districts. Over three lakh chickens were culled in the process in 134 farms abiding by the radius calculation for culling.

Apart from culling, every day there have been reports of fowls and crows dying in different parts of the country. Although Bangladesh’s testing laboratories are not equipped to the extent of identifying the pathogens, the death symptoms of the fowls reveal that the H5 avian influenza has taken the form of high pathogenic. In case of high pathogenic influenza the fowls usually die within 48 hours of the outbreak and such has been happening, MM Khan says. ‘The Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute is the lone laboratory capable of detecting H5N1 but cannot specify its pathogen,’ he says. The high pathogenic H5 is vulnerable of getting transmitted to human through air and in close contact between the person and the infected bird.

The reason why the H5 influenza is at an alarming level is that it has transmitted among crows – one of the predominant local birds, fear experts. ‘At this stage the wastes, blood and organs of chicken should be dumped at a safe location so that crows or other animal species do not suck them and become infected,’ says Dr Habibur Rahman of the pathology department at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh.

‘Hygiene for chick feeds should be carefully maintained. It is high time the poultry farms quarantined their chickens as the disease is spreading through the air,’ he says.

‘The virus has not become contagious to humans but has managed to persist in parts of Asia, Africa and probably Europe. It could still trigger a human influenza pandemic,’ says Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Rampant irregularities in surveillance and misuse of funds by the government’s Department of Livestock Services have allowed the disease to spread within the country, allege poultry industry insiders.

‘The government has prepared a number of projects on bird flu prevention and surveillance. Although funds were received, their implementation has hardly taken place,’ says a source.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has agreed to provide the government with $16 million for a five-year ‘Avian Influenza Preparedness and Response’ project. ‘Half a million dollar has already been sanctioned by the World Bank for 2007-2008,’ says a World Bank source. The government has also received $150,000 on January 18 from the Multi-Donor Trust Fund out of $2 million for a project styled ‘Avian and Human Influenza Facility’.

‘It is high time the government introduced vaccination in the country to protect the poultry market, which is worth more than Tk 4,000 crore,’ says Kazi Zahedul Hasan, managing director of Kazi Farms Limited.

Since 2004, culling has no longer been considered acceptable on economic and ethical reasons for developing countries, MM Khan.

The government has, meanwhile, put a bar on importing vaccines and other logistics in the country on independent initiative, say poultry farmers.

The deadly virus is spreading inside the country but Bangladesh is in a better position than India, says Dr Salehuddin Khan, a director with the livestock department. ‘The surveillance is a continuous process and had we not been on the ball to control the situation it would have turned into havoc,’ he says.

Government officials claim that winter is conducive for the spread of the disease. Salehuddin is hopeful that by February its intensity will decline. He says the government is in the process of beginning door-to-door surveillance for the country 1.50 lakh poultry farms.

‘The steps taken by the government are for one not being explained properly,’ says MM Khan. ‘Secondly, they are not immediate and concrete enough to put an end to this alarming state. There is an absence of technical knowledge and awareness among the government about effective vaccination to control the bird flu,’

The livestock ministry is, however, not convinced about the effectiveness of vaccination. ‘Considering the strain of the virus, vaccination may not be an effective tool,’ says Sunil Chandra Ghosh, director general of the livestock department. ‘It is also a fact that once the vaccination is applied the disease will gain permanence and has the chance to become endemic.’

‘A number of poultry farms have recently started exporting poultry products to some Middle East countries, the north-eastern region of India and Nepal, and the present outbreak will hit hard this effort,’ says MM Khan. ‘Moreover, for the thousands of farms across the country, the livelihood is certainly at stake. While chickens are being culled, there has not been any effort to provide provisions for these farms to recoup the losses.’

‘The government is providing compensation to every farms culled counting on the number of chickens. The compensation is between Tk 70 and Tk 80 varying on the criterions like backyard poultry and commercial layer,’ says Sunil. Compensation is never made at 100 per cent and following the international standard culling compensation is no more than a dollar, he adds.

However, industry insiders point out that there is enough scope for corruption in the compensation process. In the process of disbursing compensation, field officials not only take bribe for disbursement of compensation but also allow farmers to market unchecked poultry chicken.

According to BRAC officials, different micro-credit providers have provided credit to the industry and these people are likely to face recovery crisis in the wake of the recent invasion of bird flu in Bangladesh.

Amidst all the aides and assistance the bird flu outbreak has put Bangladesh’s poultry industry in an unstable situation.

A more alarming situation has been noticed across the border areas. While India has been hit hard by bird flu, Bangladesh has more risk to face. At least 17 out of the 26 affected districts border on the Indian state.

The livestock ministry has informed the border forces to seal entrance for poultry and eggs from India. ‘Smuggling of Indian chickens in this season cannot be eliminated completely,’ said a BDR source.

‘The border between Bangladesh and India stretches to around 4,500 kilometres while this whole distance is covered by 500 border outposts each having only 15 persons,’ said an official of the BDR. He pointed out that around eight to nine kilometres is covered by only 15 persons and that also without any vehicles to aid them.

However, a spokesman for the Bangladesh Rifles claims strict restrictions on cross-border movement of poultry and eggs are in place and vigorously enforced.

India’s West Bengal state is currently struggling to cope with its own bird flu outbreak – described as the third and worst outbreak to strike in India since 2006. Eleven of West Bengal’s 19 districts have now been affected, resulting in over 50,000 birds being culled.

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Coping with Climate Change

As the storm gathers in the distant dark sky, Mojirun Khatun looks at what used to be her home – a little bamboo shack on the edges of the river Jamuna in Gaibandha. Hardly anything is left. The flood has robbed her of whatever belongings she had, even the kitchen utensils. All she is left with is a little polythene bag and the dry bread in it. Nature has never been kind to her. In the past ten years, Mojirun Khatun, now 45, has moved from one char (silt shoal) to the other. ‘Every time there was a storm or flood, I had to move out. I have so far lived in 30 different chars in my life,’ she says. ‘My family has suffered greatly but we have never given up, although it has become so much more difficult in recent years.’

Floods and storms are regular phenomenon in Bangladesh. Every year the country, which is almost the size of the US state of Ohio but has a population of 150 million, is visited by flood and storm of varying intensity. In the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in both their intensity and frequency. Hot on the heels of back-to-back floods, cyclone Sidr hit the south-western coast, accompanied by a tidal bore. As of November 21, the official death figure stood at 3,167, with hundreds of people still missing in 15 coastal districts. Hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless. Telecommunications and electricity supply were disrupted for at least 36 hours after the cyclone made its landfall.

Storms batter Bangladesh each year causing hundreds of deaths. Cyclone Bhola, perhaps the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded, hit the Ganges Delta in November 1970 leaving up to half a million people dead. Another powerful storm killed over 100,000 people in 1991. In between 1961 and 1998, Bangladesh has seen more than 30 cyclones. And then there have been frequent floods – eight major floods in the same period. In 1998, more than half of Bangladesh’s surface area was flooded, affecting over 30 million people. More recently, in 2004, floods inundated 38 per cent of the country, killing over 800 people, destroying three quarters of the standing crop and leaving 10 million people homeless.

‘The last two decades have witnessed abnormally frequent and intense flooding,’ points out Dr Ainun Nishat, country representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Bangladesh. ‘This year, flooding continued for a longer period of time. One of the major symptoms of climate change – more concentrated rainfall in fewer days – was also observed. This year the country experienced 300.5 millimetres of rainfall and it took months for the water to recede. Moreover, we saw flooding in three phases, which is extremely unusual.’

He says ongoing warnings concerning the impact of global warming and the previous claims have been strongly established in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the UN taskforce on global warming. The report says: ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal; most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations; and anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilised.'

‘The link between climate change and Bangladesh’s natural disasters is proving to be extremely robust,’ says Dr Saleemul Huq, an IPCC scientist and director of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. ‘Floods of the magnitude Bangladesh has been experiencing recently have historically occurred at most once every 20 years.’

In the past two decades, Bangladesh has experienced five floods of such magnitude, indicating a five-fold rise in frequency.

‘If we analyse the Met Office data in the last 30 years the total rainfall has not changed. However, the number of days with heavy rainfall has increased and hence the concentrated rainfall has gone up – one of the affirmations of the existence of global warming,’ points out Dr Mozaharul Alam, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. ‘Now, it is expected that the phenomenon of flooding along with tidal waves, cyclones and erratic weather behaviour will increase.’

While the central and southern regions of the country are prone to frequent floods, the north-western region, which is already prone to drought, is likely to experience a slow desertification, say researchers. ‘Due to the erratic weather, even during the monsoon months, while some parts are hit by flood, others are experiencing drought. While this year saw three peaks of flooding, last year we also saw droughts in the north-western regions, culminating in a mild and short-lived winter,’ says Atiq Rahman, the BCAS executive director.

A significant number of people live on an elevation of less than 3 feet (1 metre) above sea level and inhabit the flat banks of the rivers Ganges and Brahmaputra. While it is expected that average global rainfall will increase as a result of global warming, not every point on the planet would experience greater rainfall. Evaporation and precipitation occur at different places, and while wet regions could receive even more rainfall if the planet warms, drier regions may have even more acute shortages of water as evaporation is accelerated in those areas. The Sahel, for example, has become drier over the past several decades, accelerating desertification and placing an even greater premium on already-stretched water supplies.

Experts further point out that the most profoundly damaging impact of climate change in Bangladesh will take the form of salinity intrusion and droughts along with flood – all of which will drastically affect crop productivity, food security and livelihood. ‘We will face increased riverbank erosion, a rise in the level of seawater and the lack of freshwater in the coastal zones. The prognosis is more extreme floods in a country already devastated by them; less food for a country in which half our children already don’t have enough to eat; and less clean water for a country where waterborne diseases are already responsible for 24 per cent of all deaths,’ says Atiq.

Contributing to this prognosis is the gradual recession of the country’s seafront, causing saltwater to enter further inland, thereby making large tracts of agricultural land unsuitable for crops and resulting in undrinkable ground and surface water. ‘The salinity increase will not only impoverish coastal populations, but the accompanying water-logging inside areas lined with embankments is going to become a long-term problem,’ Nishat says. Experts say this phenomenon is already discernable in Bangladesh, particularly along the coastal belt.

Global temperature data indicates that earth’s surface temperature has risen by between 0.4 and 0.8 degrees Celsius, whereas the sea level has risen by 0.10 to 0.25 metres, all within the past 100 years. Experts believe this is the largest change in global temperatures in the last 1,000 years. This has increasingly dire consequences for Bangladesh. According to the UN Environment Programme, a 1-metre rise in sea levels could displace over 17 million people — roughly 15 per cent of the total population.

Some of these consequences are already visible. Three primary ways in which extreme weather events are manifested in Bangladesh include increasing frequency of cyclones and storm surges, droughts and flash floods in hilly regions. Such phenomena can have a severe impact on agriculture – for example, in Manikganj, floods and water-logging this year have damaged the entire crop of aman rice, one of the staples of the Bangladeshi diet. This has severe implications on the livelihood and food production in the entire country, and is estimated to affect between 5 and 7 million people. In addition, it is estimated that climate change can result in the displacement of approximately 13 crore people across the country.

The Kyoto Protocol, one of the earliest global initiatives to counter global warming, is now in doubt, as the funding of the programme has been halted indefinitely. In this context, it is now necessary for countries to develop their own strategies to adapt to climate change that results from global warming.

‘Adaptation’ can mean anything from building dams to experimenting with crop varieties for better harvests. ‘In Bangladesh, we are preparing the national adaptation plan of action which will be a detailed blueprint of how we will respond and adapt to these changes in climate patterns,’ says Nishat. However, Mozahar points out that, for the success of any strategies for adaptation, it is necessary to generate information that is relevant to the agriculture industry. This requires intensive capacity building initiatives for all stakeholders. ‘Bangladesh needs to be more responsive to the erratic behaviour of climate change.’

Nishat concurs with this need for capacity building. ‘In addition to stronger capacity, Bangladesh needs more funds to adapt the protocols. Global warming and the resulting climate change are both very important global issues.’

As Bangladesh strives to achieve its Millennium Development Goals, climate change and extreme weather events have become increasingly pertinent in the development agenda, especially since they impact livelihoods and food security of the poor by causing severe damage to agriculture, the life blood of the poorest. For millions of individuals like Mojirun across the country, an effective strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change is a prerequisite to ensuring their survival and sustainability in the face of such adversity.

Filed under: Environment No Comments

The difficult road to recovery (with others)

‘Please include my name in your list, I haven’t gotten anything yet,’ wailed 35-year Shorupjan to journalists. ‘All of my belongings have been washed away by the tide. In last few days I didn’t eat anything,’ said the resident of Shoronkhola union of Bagerhat district.

People of Shoronkhola union did not receive any relief food until the second day after the tropical cyclone ‘SIDR’ destroyed the whole area.

On November 17 and 18, a NGO distributed some relief food among the survivors near the cyclone shelter of Tafalbari. The villagers, however, alleged that only the loan members were on their list.

On November 19, the army distributed food along the river next to Bogi and Gabtola village at Shoronkhola. The relief efforts ended in chaos with many people left disgruntled not having received any food. ‘Only the strong ones in the crowd can push forward in this huge mass of people. It is impossible for women like me or the elders to get anything,’ said Shahera Khatun (35), who came to get aid with her two children, Munni (9) and Sohrab (2)

By the end of the day, three people were seen walking off with a full sack of rice while most victims received no more than a kilogram. ‘We have helped the army in distribution,’ was their explanation.

Shoronkhola finally began receiving attention after three to four days of the disaster. Both sides of the main street, from Rayenda to Lakurtola, filled up with temporary shelters built by Red Crescent Society who distributed cooked food, blankets and candles to the villagers. ‘I was able to give some rice to my son after two days. During these days we drank filthy water,’ said Wahidul Islam (45) standing among hundreds of people, queuing in the dusk.

In Lakurtola, Muslim Aid and Bangladesh German Friendship Organization (BGFO) also set up temporary shelters. The victims, who gathered from far-flung villages, received two meals a day on a regular basis. However, those who could not travel three to four miles up to the main street went without food.

Scores of people in the insides of Gabtola and Bogi live under the open sky and starve for food. Many women either failed to go to the shelters or did not get a ‘card’, while many children and elderly people are close to death from the cold weather. At Bogi, all the ponds have been damaged and there is no tube well to get water making the scarcity of drinking water acute. ‘Lots of people from our village took shelter beside the main street in Lakurtola and Tafalbari. They are getting everything but no one is coming inside the villages to see our misery,’ said 24-year old Shahinoor Begum.

Different organisations, from nearby villages to far-away cities, are gathering everyday with huge trucks and buses and distributing clothes, food and drinking water to the suffering people. ‘We received an unbelievable response while raising funds for Sidr victims,’ says a volunteer of Echakhata Grambashi, a local organisation who came to Shoronkhola with aid. ‘An old woman gave one of her few blouses for relief.’

Mismanagement of relief is, however, strongly evident. On relief party was seen throwing clothes from the top of a bus. People who have established temporary living places besides the streets are receiving most of the aid, on some occasions, a few times over. ‘I have received just two rounds of relief in the last seven days. There is no way to get any work either. But my children are starving,’ says Mosammat Nurjahan Begam (35) from Bokultala village of Shoronkhola.

Till date, when on walks the streets of Shoronkhola, the stench of decaying flesh buried under the fallen trees and houses is still very strong. ‘We have heard that a few bodies have been recovered from the sea today. Who knows what is lying underneath here- dead animals or human beings,’ said Abdus Sattar, a Red Crescent volunteer, on November 26.

The destruction left by Sidr in terms of the dead, the injured and sick, the starving and homeless, the loss of crops, houses, animals and infrastructure is gargantuan compared to the efforts for relief and rehabilitation that have begun.


Updated official report from ministry of food and disaster management (MOFDM) illustrates that the number of death has risen to 3060 affecting 6.8 million people of 1.6 million families. These casualties and damages of houses, livestock, crops, educational institutions, roads and embankments have been reported from 1811 unions of 200 upazilas of 31 districts. According to the Disaster Management Control Room (DMCR), 1180 people are missing, and roughly 7000 persons are injured. The total number of damaged houses stood at 1210685.

Different economists are assessing the economic loss using diverse techniques, but most have found the damage to be around Tk 6,000 crore. But the figure is sure to increase once the government prepares the final report of devastation. According to the primary estimation of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Sidr caused property loss of Tk 6,500 crore. On the basis of data available from the MOFDM up to November 21, CPD calculated the loss of roads and bridges at Tk 1,100 crore, houses at Tk 750 crore, and trees at Tk 500 crore.

According to the primary assessment of ministry of agriculture (MOA), around 10 lakh tonnes of Aman rice production may be lost due to Cyclone Sidr along with other standing crops in an area of eight lakh hectares of land. Sidr has partially or totally damaged standing crops on around five lakh hectares of land in the south and south-western districts, causing a loss of around six lakh tonnes of food-crops, particularly the aman paddy, which makes up 41 per cent of the total rice production of the country.

MOA officials inform that the cyclone damaged standing crops of winter vegetables, oil seeds, pulses, transplanted aman paddy of local and high yielding varieties and seedbeds of boro rice on vast tracts of land. Among the damaged vegetable crops are cauliflower, radish, cabbage, lal shak, mustard seed and various varieties of pulses. Many fruit trees, mostly papaya and banana, have been flattened by the cyclonic winds.

‘Sixty per cent of the crops ravaged by Sidr have been completely destroyed. The total production of aman is likely to be decreased by 16 lakh tonnes as the recent flood caused a loss of 10 lakh tonnes of food-grains this year. The government had set an optimistic target of 1,30,00,000 tonnes of aman this year,’ says an official of MOA.

The country’s shrimp or frozen food industry, the second largest foreign exchange earner, fears an estimated loss of Tk 250 crore. As per Maqsudur Rahman, vice-president of Bangladesh Frozen Food Exporters’ Association (BFFEA) shrimp farms are likely to suffer 70 percent or Tk 175 crore of estimated loss in the three southern districts of Bagerhat, Satkhira and Khulna, which were severely ravaged by Sidr. Farms in this region are well known for their Black Tiger shrimp, also called Bagda shrimp locally.

Such a massive loss comes hard on the heels of TK 150 crore loss which shrimp farmers faced due to drastic fall in prices and demands on the international shrimp markets. ‘The rest of the loss, 30 percent or Tk 75 crore, is likely to be incurred by shrimp farms located in Barguna, Patuakhali, Firojpur, Madaripur and Gopalganj where fresh water shrimp, locally known as Golda, are cultivated. Bagda shrimp is cultivated on 1,30,000 hectares of land in the region while Golda is cultivated on 40,000 hectares of land. The farmers will not be able to sell their product to the exporters now as the hurricane washed away most of the shrimp enclosures and hatcheries,’ said Maqsudur.

In the meantime, Directorate of Fisheries (DOF) is assessing the loss caused by Sidr, especially the loss incurred by farmers. The DOF say that its teams are working in the field to measure the extent of loss and their final assessment would be available soon. But a top official of DOF points out that the losses may have been limited to a certain extent as this is the off-season for certain types of shrimp farming. ‘Fortunately, since this was an off-season for Bagda cultivation in the costal areas, according to our rough estimates, the loss may be around Tk 50 crore,” said a top official of DOF.

According to a primary assessment of the forest department (FD) about one fourth of the four lakh plus hectares of forest area of Sundarbans, has been damaged by Cyclone Sidr. The forest department officials inform that are yet to get a complete estimate of the damage inflicted upon the wildlife of the forest that provides livelihood for more than two million people. So far the department has found only 30 carcasses of deer, along with two human bodies. The department has also found a single evidence of death of Bengal Tiger.

Forest department officials say that the monetary value of the damage however has not been assessed yet. The forest department also has yet to start assessing the damage done to the trees in the affected areas outside the forest. However, the DMCR says that 3369366 trees have destroyed by Sidr. Sidr hit the eastern parts of the forest, especially Chandpai range including Kochikhali, Kotka, Hiron Point, and Dublarchar, leaving a trail of severe devastation.

Forest department officials say the south-eastern part of the forest sustained the main blow of the cyclone, saving human lives by slowing down the nature’s wrath. ‘The area of the Sundarbans is six lakh hectares. One fourth of the Sundarbans forest area has been damaged by the cyclone. Eight to ten percent of the forest has been damaged completely, and those trees will not grow, while fifteen percent has been partly damaged, a part of which will grow back,’ said a forest department official.

Officials of the ministry of health and family welfare (MOHFW) admit that the ministry fears an outbreak of diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases in the Sidr-affected areas which suffer from acute shortage of safe water and trained manpower to tackle such disaster.

‘The areas facing the most acute drinking water crisis are in most of the inaccessible areas, where relief agencies have hardly set foot. The pond is blackened by now-rotting trees that fell on the water during the cyclone. The poor quality of the water is evident as dead fishes are floating on the surface. Since all deep tube-wells are malfunctioning and all but two shallow tube-wells have been destroyed, people might drink water from unsafe sources,’ says an official of MOHFW.

Officials of MOFHW insist that outbreak of diarrhoea, pneumonia; eye soaring, typhoid, hepatitis and skin diseases are now major concerns for the government. ‘It would become an epidemic if any of the infectious diseases breaks out in shelter homes crowded with hundreds of homeless people,’ the official admits.

MOHFW officials admit that thousands of cyclone-affected people are being haunted by memories of family members killed by the deadly cyclone and may experience traumatic disorders. The people in the cyclone-ravaged areas may also suffer from stress-related disorders that might take a long time to cure. Therefore they need special treatment by psychiatrists. Dr Abul Barakat, professor of economics at Dhaka University also said that psychological trauma and the cost of treating injuries should also be included in the calculation of the property loss.

Nayeem Gawher Wara, emergency focal person of Save the Children-UK points out that the children are suffering the most from psychological trauma as elders are busy jostling for relief. ‘How will they care for their kids when they do not even know if they would get the minimum food they need to live on. ‘Deaths of parents and family members have left most of the children traumatised. It is very important to help them recover from the psychological damage,’ he added.

Education ministry official say that academic activities of around 10,000 institutions in 30 districts have been seriously disrupted because of the devastating cyclone Sidr, which badly damaged schools, colleges and madrassahs and education materials in these areas. Around 4,800 primary schools have been affected by Sidr and around 1,000 of them have been badly damaged. The annual examinations of classes I-X are scheduled to begin from December 3 while the first year exams of HSC students will start in the first week of December. The government had to adjourn exams at many institutions that went under floodwater while others were used as shelters for the flood-affected people. But officials reassure that delays are not expected this time around.

‘1,335 educational institutes in 30 districts, especially Bagerhat, Barguna, Patuakhali, Pirojpur, Bhola, Jhalakathi and Barisal, were completely damaged by Sidr. Only a few brick-built institutions survived the cyclone’s impact while 7,893 were damaged partially. A good number of books for primary level students are stored in the district education offices and the ministry has already directed the district education officers to distribute them among the students of the affected areas. So we are not expecting a delay,’ says the ministry official.

Damages to the infrastructure have also been massive. Rural Electrification Board (REB) has not yet been able to restore electricity supply. About 20 thousand kilometres of power supply lines out of 25 thousand kilometres under different Palli Biddut Samity (PBS) supplies have been damaged. Power supply is yet to be restored eleven days after the cyclone ravaged the area. The area includes nine districts of Barisal, Patuakhali, Barguna, Pirojpur, Bhola, Jhalakati, Madaripur, Shariatpur and Gopalganj.

The effect

Economists say that the effects of Sidr may endanger food security at the household and compel the government to spend a much higher amount of foreign exchange to import food-grain to meet the huge shortfall. Wahiduddin Mahmud, a senior economist forecasts a negative impact of the deficiency of food-grain on the market prices and also said it would create a livelihood crisis in the cyclone-affected areas unless massive relief works and post-cyclone rehabilitation programmes are undertaken right now.

‘The devastating cyclone, coming in the wake of prolonged floods, has dealt a severe blow to the livelihoods of a very large section of the population. The shortfall in the harvest of Aman rice will now be too large to be recouped by even a bumper Boro harvest,’ said Wahiduddin.

Wahiduddin predicted that while taking on the job of post-cyclone rehabilitation, the government would be inhibited by the already escalating budget deficit caused by subsidies for food, petroleum products and fertiliser, which alone might cost the government exchequer up to Tk 9,000 crore.  ‘Not only would there be shortfall in food supply, the people would also lack purchasing power,’ added Wahiduddin.

Relief Operations

The Government of Bangladesh has swung into motion to rescue thousands of coastal dwellers, and has launched a relief operation with the support of international and local donors and volunteers. Yet, for people in remote villages, the relief has not arrived on time, and there is still uncertainty as to when it will actually arrive.

According to witnesses and volunteers, despite intensified relief operations by the government and local and foreign groups, thousands of survivors hoping for food were crowding river banks and roadsides. A number of data further point towards the fact that relief had not reached to countless worst affected areas.

‘There are still a number of worst hit areas which have not been reached,’ points out Dr Ainun Nishat, country director of IUCN Bangladesh. ‘That is simply because more relief goes into accessible areas rather than the remote ones. It is the responsibility of the Disaster Management Bureau (DMB) to ensure that it coordinates the whole operation and also links the community so that they can work together.’

The DMB officials on the other hand stress that they have been reaching out to the worst affected areas and their relief operation has been intensified. ‘We have reached to the four worst hit districts and continue our operations extensively,’ says G.M. Monsur Rahman, Director, Relief and Operations, DMB. According to Rahman, five thousand people have been given relief. ‘Starting from the beginning of next month, we will be supplying 38,850 metric tonnes of rice till March.’

‘The more effective rehabilitation program lies in ensuring the long term solvency for the worst affected people,’ says Dr. Nishat. ‘There is no point supplying them with only food for a few months, they need longer term solvency. What will happen to these people after a few months?’

According to aid workers, getting fresh water to victims remains to be a priority as the prospect of outbreaks of water-borne diseases looms. Many of those in coastal districts have seen their traditional sources of drinking water contaminated by saline water, which cannot be treated by water purification tablets. ‘Very few water purifying plants have been set up,’ points out Dr. Quasi Quamruzzaman, Chairman, Dhaka Community Hospital.

US marines from the USS Kearsarge, anchored off the southern coast, joined the aid effort last Friday with medical evacuations and air lifts of water supplies to some of the worst hit areas like Barguna.

Officials from the UN World Food Programme say they have been providing extensive food and relief assistance. They are also sending energy biscuits for 400,000 people.

Apart from this, several international organisations and donors have also poured in aid within the country. The German government offered 731,345 dollars, while the European Union released 2.2 million dollars in relief aid. The Rome-based World Food Program has sent out food, and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has sent a number of workers to the remote areas. ‘100,000 households will be provided with packages consisiting of 20 kgs of rice, 4 kgs of dal and 4 litres of Soy bean oil,’ said officials of Red Cresent. ‘Already total relief worth 74 lakh has been sent out.’

Washington has sent two US Navy amphibious assault craft to help authorities in relief and rescue operations.

Despite intensified relief opeartions, experts feel it is yet to be effective and reach out the worst areas, ‘Morover, more concrete and long term steps need to be taken,’ says economist Anu Muhammad. ‘The quality of packages of food that are coming in is again questionable. They are dropping packs from aircrafts into the water and, from past experience, we know that most of these are also rotten.’

Anu also mentions that the livlihood of those affected need to be taken into consideration.

‘They were in a distressed state long before the cyclone had hit these regions. After such disasters, it just becomes clear that the many NGOs poverty alleviation programs have not brought any change at all. If we need to take long term and concrete steps, it should start with the rehabilitation of these areas- restructuring and builiding infrastructure and creating opportunities.’

Health remains to be a major issue to be taken into consideration. ‘There are too few shelter homes and medications to treat the countless people across the affected areas. At the moment, a major concern remains to be the infections that are spreading,’ says Dr. Quamruzzaman. Apart from the infections, the cyclone has brought diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and more.

Relief Coordination

Up to November 26, the official statistics charted more than seven million people affected in the devastating hurricane SIDR. Due to a lack of coordination as Lieutenant General Masud Uddin Chowdhury, principal staff officer of the Armed Forces Division pointed out on November 25, the relief arriving from all across the world for people in the affected regions is however, not effectively distributed among the sufferers. Some of the areas are having repetitions of relief distribution while some are going without any relief at all. Organisations distributing their relief goods in awareness of the district administration have witnessed others distributing relief in same areas without keeping any coordination with the local administration, he observed.

The caretaker government, the armed forces division, private organisations, associations, businessmen and many other donor agencies have come forward with their relief substances but they are having a difficult time in the coordination process, sources admit to New Age.

The director general of Department of Relief and Rehabilitation, Sadaruddin Ahmed, mentions that all government funds and materials are effectively distributed with proper channel of coordination.

Because of the earlier floods this year and having experiences with previous cyclones, the relief department has been well prepared this time. ‘We have relief foods stocked in district and upazila levels, which people are not aware of,’ says Sadaruddin.

Whatever problems are arising in the distribution process is happening more due to lack of information than coordination, he says. That the deputy commissioner should be the medium for any relief distribution, was decided in a cabinet meeting on November 24.

Since the middle of 1960s the relief department was established following a relief manual, which was later renamed to relief code. During disaster and crises periods, the deputy commissioner has always coordinated the relief efforts. However, in the current situation, an effective coordination is not possible without empowering the DCs, says Mohammad Asafuddowlah, a former bureaucrat. ‘This is exactly the reason why in some areas there are multiple donors distributing relief and in some, there is none.’

From this week the District Administration, Armed Forces Division (AFD), Department of Relief and Rehabilitation and the Chief Advisor’s Office are separately collecting relief. However, except for the Chief Advisor’s Office none are authorised to collect cash grants or relief funds.

The AFD is responsible for transporting the relief materials in coordination with an approximately 2,300-member US marine and defence team that has arrived in the country with its navy ship USS Kearsarge. Although Kearsarge is expected to be replaced by another navy ship USS Tarawa in a few days, officials have confirmed that it will have the same services available.

A total of three hovercrafts, two C130 fixed wing aircrafts and 20 helicopters of the US defence are being utilised for relief transportation in the affected regions. A coordination centre has been opened in Barisal this week which is acting as the hub for relief distribution, says Major JM Emdadul Islam of AFD.

The Defence forces have established 92 helipads in the affected regions for quick access and relief distribution, General Moeen U Ahmed, army chief said on November 25 at a press conference. More helipads are on the process to be made wherever relief materials are not reaching the affected people, said Emdadul Islam at a meeting on Sunday at the AFD.

‘We are regularly exchanging information between the government organisations working on the relief efforts and therefore any repetition is unexpected,’ says Sadaruddin.

A foreign aid coordination cell has been opened at the airport where we have six of our officials deputed. All the funds and relief materials that are arriving from the foreign governments are received and dispatched in coordination with the Disaster Management Bureau, he tells New Age. So far, relief has been received from India, Pakistan, Italy, Spain and USA through the government channel.

‘Any projection on the time to cover the relief distribution and rehabilitation will require at least three months for determining,’ says Sadaruddin.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society supported by the International Federation of Red Cross is however, running its independent relief operation in coordination with the district administration and Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) to ascertain locations where people require relief.

The Red Crescent has selected 18 districts to concentrate on out of the 31 affected districts. Relief substances worth Tk 74 lakh have so far been disseminated across the 18 districts while there are more funds waiting in the pipeline. It is now working out the disbursement of 2, 50,000 Swiss Franc from Emergency Disaster Response Fund of the Swiss Red Cross, said an official of the Red Crescent on November 25.

‘We have made an emergency appeal of Tk 140 crore to the Secretariat in Geneva which is in the process to launch an appeal centrally,’ says Captain BN (Retd) Mostafa Kamal, deputy secretary general of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society.

In addition, a number of foreign Red Cross and Red Crescent societies that have arrived in the country are independently conducting their assessments for relief grants.

‘Although the initial food relief were made in small quantities, we are on the verge to distribute a package of 20 kilogramme rice, 4 kg lintels and 2-litre soybean oil to 100,000 families in the nine worst affected districts that the government has divided in two tiers.’

‘Initially we could not reach the remote places because of road blocks and lack of transport but the situation has improved since the incident happened,’ says Mostafa. The Red Crescent is transporting its relief materials through its six trucks in Dhaka which offload the goods to its local units.

‘The doctors of our medical teams are at the job throughout the day as long as service and drugs are available. About 203 patients on average are visiting the Red Crescent clinics in the affected regions.’

A total of 18 medical teams have been formed and by the next two months another 12 will be added. The medical teams are working in coordination with the administration regarding the location for service, he says.

‘The next two months of the winter will be required entirely to provide medical treatment to the affected. Our plan is to continue this effort for at least the next six months which may be extended as per requirement,’ says a health coordinator of the Red Crescent.

The relief funds that we are receiving will take at least the next six months to fully utilise among the affected while the total rehabilitation process will require two years.

‘We have not studied the relief requirement in different areas but we are trying to meet the demand on priority basis,’ says Emdadul.

The DRR has selected 12 districts out of the initial 31 affected for distributing one and a half lakh metric tonne rice to 25.90 lakh families, says GM Mansur Rahman, director, relief and rehabilitation of the Disaster Management Bureau. ‘Relief requirements are gradually coming down. The remaining 19 districts can serve with the existing relief sanctioned from their regional relief stocks,’ he says.

Every family will continue to receive 15 kg rice up to March next year. In the worst affected districts like Bagerhat, Barguna, Patuakhali and Pirojpur, the distribution will be made among 5,000 people per union while the remaining eight districts will have grants for 2,500 people per union.

‘The effective population for the distribution will be ascertained by November 30 and the programme will begin from December 1,’ says Mansur. Food relief is available in every district as soon as it is sanctioned from the DMB and does not require to be transported as they are regionally stocked.

Any location for distribution is opted based on ground officials’ information. ‘The bridge failure on November 24 at the Kalapara upazila of Patuakhali district has been a lesson for us and we will be more careful from the next time,’ Emdadul told the media on Sunday.

‘However, the relief distribution carried in that area was not conducted by any government organisation,’ says an official source. ‘It was a private organisation that chose the location without informing the deputy commissioner of its relief work.’

‘The unions in every upazila have begun listing the victims in three tiers as the worst affected, affected and partially affected which will later be forwarded to the Upazila Nirbahi Officer to make decisions for relief distribution,’ says Sufi Zahiruddin, a former chairman of the Madbari upazila in the Pirojpur district.


The government has created a three-phase post-cyclone relief and rehabilitation programmes so that the Sidr victims may return to normal life. The MOFDM sources say that they have created both short and long term rehabilitation programmes for the cyclone-hit areas, which include repair of damaged roads and houses as well as saving the Sundarbans. ‘The one-month, short-term plan includes rescue, burial services, disposal of corpses, emergency service restoration, emergency relief, repairing drinking water sources and damage assessment. The four-month, medium-term rehabilitation programme, between December and March, focuses on house building, continuation of food support, reopening of educational institutions, preventing outbreak of epidemics and repair of roads, culverts and bridges,’ says the MOFDM official.

MOFDM officials inform that the government will run Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) programme from December to March in the 12 districts. Fifteen kilograms of rice will be given to every VGF cardholder per month free of cost. The government will distribute 5,000 VGF cards among the poor in each union and pourasava in the four worst-affected districts. In the eight other districts, 2,000 VGF cards will be distributed in each union and poursava. A total of 25,90,000 cards will be distributed in the districts.

MOFDM officials said the government needs at least 10.68 lakh metric tonnes of food grains for the next seven months for different relief programmes. It needs 32,000 MT for gross relief programme, 2.01 lakh MT for vulnerable group feeding (VGF), 1.5 lakh MT for Test Relief, 1.85 lakh MT for the food for work programme, 2.5 lakh MT for open market sale (OMS), and 2.5 lakh MT for other programmes. The current stock of food grains in the country stands at 7.37 lakh MT while another 3.25 MT is in the pipeline.

The government has asked for five lakh metric tonnes of rice from the international community as assistance for tackling any possible food crisis in the country.

Ministry of Finance (MOF) officials say that the government has decided to allow farmers in the cyclone-hit areas to reschedule their outstanding farm loans they took from the state-owned banks. Cyclone-affected farmers would also be provided with fresh loans so that they can recover from the losses.

The government has decided to ask non-governmental organisations not to pressure cyclone victims to repay instalments of loans. News reports say that micro credit providers of the country are considering writing off over Tk 600 crore outstanding loans of some 7.5 lakh borrowers, severely affected by the cyclone. Although the micro credit providers are not going to make an announcement of the write-off right now, they might finally write the loans off since the small borrowers lost most of their houses, businesses, and other assets. In 12 south and south-western districts, some Tk 1,159 crore in loan remains outstanding with 15 lakh people, with 42 micro credit organisations operating in the region.

The MOF officials say that they have directed the state-owned banks to expedite the process of loan disbursement. The government has decided to lend Tk 130 crore from the fund of the finance ministry in soft credit to cyclone-stricken small traders and fishermen as well as for livestock and poultry for the revival of shattered livelihoods. ‘The MOF will disburse the funds through PKSF, which will operate the fund through micro-finance providing organisations,’ says an MOF official.

The MOFHW officials say that roughly 690 medical teams are working in 57 upazilas. Besides, 90 medical teams from 32 private medical colleges are also working in the affected areas. DCRM says that 5,140 tubewells out of 10,200 cyclone-damaged units have been repaired. Some 568 new tubewells have been sent to the affected areas, he said. Some 3.3 million water-purifying tablets, 8,000 jerrycans and drinking water were sent to the affected people.

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A catastrophe not too far away

The low land spotted with more than 250 shanties looks like a sinking village. Relentless downpour over the recent weeks has left telltale signs on the Barkat Mian slum, located near the Beribandh (embankment). At the entrance, pieces of wood and wooden benches have been stacked to create an elevated platform in the waterlogged area. ‘The rain has washed away everything — food, clothes and most of the shanties,’ says Rokeya Begum. Last week, for three days, Rokeya spent the night on a bench with her three children.

Even though the rain has eased up and the water level started to decline, the pungent smell of garbage and sewage mixed with the rainwater has made life miserable, especially for children. There has already been an outbreak of fever and diarrhoea. ‘On the one hand there is no let-up in the downpour and on the other the water pump seems to have broken down,’ complained Abu Barkat.

Barkat’s shanty gave in to heavy rain last week. He has been trying ever since to get some money to build another shanty for himself and his five children. ‘The problem is the water takes long to go down because there is nowhere that the water can go. Even on the roads, just three hours of rain leads to heavy water-logging,’ he says.

Last week’s downpour virtually forced life in Dhaka into a grinding halt. Vehicles of all shapes and kind remained stranded in waterlogged roads for hours on end. Commuters had to wade through knee-to-waist-deep water. And, of course, the slums bore the brunt of it, virtually submerged in rainwater hours after the rain had stopped. The city-dwellers now continue to be threatened by yet another rainfall that will result in dreadful water-logging and paralyse city life.

According to experts, there is nothing abnormal about this year’s heavy rainfall. ‘There is nothing wrong with the rainfall. It is absolutely normal. If it had not rained, it would have been of concern. It would have been a matter of climate change had a month’s rainfall been cut down to a week,’ says Professor Ain-un Nishat, country representative of the IUCN. This, therefore, points directly to the problems in the city system and plan that is leading to severe water-logging and further problems.

‘The monsoon, it seems, is here to paralyse the entire city,’ says Mahbub Jahangir, whose compressed natural gas-run auto-rickshaw conked out after being stranded in a waterlogged road for an hour or so. ‘The government has to do something about water-logging, immediately.’

Majority of experts blame water-logging on poor city planning and ineptitude of officials in charge of drainage and water control. In other words, they hold Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha and the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority responsible.

‘The irony is that despite several flood episodes, the city planners and the government have not yet taken any concrete steps,’ says Nurul Islam Nazem, a professor of geography at Dhaka University. ‘Water logging is primarily due to water clogging. The water cannot go anywhere nor do we have a comprehensive plan or a proper drainage system to pump out the water. It is the responsibility of the major bodies in-charge of this system to take action.’

The city had a proper plan back in 1969 which was to be valid for 20 years, Nazem says. ‘After that, the city never had a ‘valid and concrete plan’, which could be effectively implemented. How do we expect a plan prepared decades back to be suitable now?’

Ain-un Nishat, however, begs to differ. ‘It is absurd to suggest that the city has no plans. It does have plans and much has been done to combat natural calamities. It is just the technical aspects such as control and maintenance of the system that could be flawed.’

According to experts and urban planners Rajuk’s delay and insincerity in presenting the Dhaka’s detailed area plan has resulted in the filling up of low lands in the city, hence increased water-logging and the danger of flood.

The plan is crucial for planned urbanisation and development of the city and conservation of environment through proper implementation of the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan, which is better known as the master plan. ‘Rajuk does have a detailed area plan but whether or not it is combining the aspects of the master plan is a matter of grave concern,’ says Bahreen Khan, a Supreme Court lawyers and senior member of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.

The master plan which was initiated in 1992 was completed in 1995 and officially gazetted in 1997. But, experts constantly criticise Rajuk for taking more than a decade to complete the detailed area plan. According to sources, the plan has details of every structure, lake, canal, wetland, retention pond, road, open space and all other topographical features of the city. It also takes into account environmentally critical aspects in the areas of infrastructural development. Once it is completed, town planners will have a ready reference for development planning.

While the plan is due this month, some feel it is ineffective and others feel the plan should be done by consulting city planners and architects. ‘The plan is broad and vague,’ says Salma Shafi, an urban planner and architect at the Centre for Urban Studies. ‘They have not consulted anyone properly, nor have they completed half the plan, which has been pending for ages.’

Rajuk denies such allegations. ‘We are in the third phase of planning at the moment and it should be done by next month,’ sources in Rajuk say. ‘In fact, Rajuk has a detailed are plan and has hired four consulting firms — Sheltech Private Limited, Development Design Consultants Limited, Engineering and Planning Consultants Limited and Ganibangla Limited — for the two-year DAP project involving Tk 23.22 crore. Each of these firms will handle specific areas.’

The study area, which covers 1,158 square kilometres, was initially divided into five separate groups — Group A was to cover north-eastern, Group B south-eastern, Group C central, Group D south-western and Group E north-western parts of the city.

According to sources, while five firms were inadequate for the huge task in the first place, the number was reduced to four dividing the work of Group D among the four firms. ‘The idea of rashly dividing one group to four firms may not have been a logical decision,’ admits an official of Rajuk preferring anonymity.

Most environmentalists are concerned whether the detailed area plan will contain original and detailed positions of flood-flow zones, retention ponds, lakes, rivers, canals and strategic planning zones, as earmarked in the master plan.

Moreover, Rajuk faces repeated allegations of preparing the document while keeping the general people in the dark. In a meeting organised by Dhanmondi Poribesh Unnyan Jote and Dhanmondi Abashik Malik Kalayan Samiti at Drik Gallery this month, it was stressed that the plan should be made public before it reached the final stage and professionals needed to be consulted.

While experts and urban planners continue to question the credibility and efficiency of Rajuk, it is yet to make the plan public and take steps that could combat the problem of water-logging immediately. It is clearly due to the delay of Rajuk that the city is being exposed to the hazards of flood and water-logging, they say.

‘The Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority needs replacement of one-fourth of its total water supply pipeline network as it has been ancient and unusable,’ A Q M Mahbub, chairman, department of geography and environment, university of Dhaka, points out. According to experts, most of the city’s 43 canals have been filled over the years due to lack of authorities’ attention, exposing the city to severe water-logging during monsoon.

‘When it rains, the roads are blocked with water simply because the water cannot go anywhere — for one, the drains and canals are not being maintained and secondly, the low-lands and wetlands have been occupied,’ says Salma Shafi.

Savar, Ashulia and areas on the eastern fringe of the city are continuously being filled up in the name of city development, say architects.

‘Box culverts, which were constructed at different places, have also remained clogged for lack of proper cleaning activities,’ says Amanat Ullah Khan, a professor of geography and environment at Dhaka University. ‘We must understand that it is just not one reason that has led to the present circumstances. Often a simplified explanation for water logging or flood is the poor planning and drainage system. But in reality, factors are at work in different ways in different regions. The reasons for water-logging on the eastern side are not essentially similar to those of the central side.’

As the city expands, there has been a dire need for more skilled workforce and engineers, he adds. ‘It’s not that development must be stopped and urbanisation should just take a backseat. It’s just that there is a need to do things in a more culturally advanced way, taking into account various issues.’

Reportedly, some canals reclaimed from encroachers during recent drives, were partly re-excavated and those would be able to drain out stagnant rainwater from many parts of the area, a WASA engineer said.

‘If something significant is to be done then the illegal encroachment of surface drains needs to be stopped immediately and more ways of water pump need to be made available,’ stresses Mahbub. ‘Unplanned urbanisation coupled with encroachments on the outlet canals has destroyed the city sewerage network. Most outlets have either died or become clogged up as the canals have been occupied by private developers and public and autonomous bodies like Rajuk and WASA.’

According to experts, construction of sluice gates by the Water Development Board and sealing of manhole covers during road carpeting are also responsible for water logging.

While WASA faces serious blames in not taking any action concerning the drainage and water pump system, it announced last week that it would start operation of 28 pumps at Janapad to remove clogged water during heavy rainfall.

According to officials, the utility agency will also undertake a project to improve the city’s drainage system with funding from the World Bank.

Zahurul Alam, a WASA superintending engineer, tells New Age that they initiated installation of 25 pumps, each with a capacity of 5cusec, and 3 booster pumps with a capacity of 25 cusec each at Janapad at Kamalapur last month.

Officials have been asked to complete the installation work in two days so that all the 28 pumps can start working at a time.

As the controversy continues, WASA is expected to take immediate action and Rajuk complete its plan by the end of this month. Majority of the experts, however, believe the situation will remain as bad as it is. ‘Unless drastic steps like making developers, planners and engineers bound to make a proper plan, where there will be availability of space for water to recede, there is not going to be any respite for the people,’ says Mahbub.

‘What is important right now is the strict implementation of the laws — the wetlands cannot be filled up and the authorities need to take immediate actions against encroachers,’ says Bahreen Khan. ‘Moreover, the water-logging can only be combated through proper and planned urbanisation- which also takes into account of issues like proper canals and sewage system.’

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Waste not, want not

The dumping ground at Matuail is a like wasteland of Biblical proportions. It is the only dumping site for Dhaka, a city of 14 million inhabitants that produces 3200-3500 tonnes of garbage everyday. Mountains of garbage that rot and produce a toxic brew of greenhouse gases and bacteria lie amidst scavengers and garbage pickers, the only signs of life in this desolate landscape. The 52 acres of land, overflowing with hazardous waste is a testimony to Dhaka’s indifference to the health and well being of its citizens. Predictably, the site is about 90 per cent filled up and according to experts, this grotesque ‘garbage bin’ in Matuail will be filled to its limit in about a year’s time.

Undoubtedly, Matuail is a living hell for those who work there. Having to work in unplanned conditions and untreated wastes, the waste pickers are exposed to extremely harmful, unhealthy and deadly diseases and chemicals. In spite of being aware of it, the workers are bound to carry on because to them these deadly wastes mean money. But they are not the lone victims of the effects of waste dumping. For years, common city dwellers have been the eventual sufferers of the wretched waste management policy of the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC).

From the enormous amounts of waste produced everyday, only about 42 percent is collected by DCC and disposed off in open crude landfill sites. The rest are simply not taken care of. Garbage lying scattered on streets is a sight common to all. There are even ‘unofficial’ dumping grounds in certain areas of the city which the DCC never bothers to take notice of. The city is faced with severe environmental degradation and public-health risk due to these uncollected wastes that are dumped in open places. The dumping of these has led to three major environmental problems — transmission of diseases, green house gas emissions and pollution of ground water through leakages.

At least, this was the case before the two urban architects, Maqsood Sinha and Iftekhar Enyatullah, came into the picture. Over the past 10 years, their model to turn the tremendous amount of waste that Dhaka produces into an asset has revolutionised the waste management problems of the city. Today, these two innovative researchers are the directors of Waste Concern, an organisation they had founded 10 years back to help solve the problem of waste disposal. From a small non-governmental organisation, Waste Concern has expanded to become a world-renowned firm for waste disposal and treatment solutions.

Had these two BUET architects not met about a decade back, the initiative to form the organisation would probably not have come true. ‘I came to Dhaka and was gathering information for a research, when my professor asked me to meet someone who was doing a research on Waste Management Technology. That’s how we first met,’ remembers Sinha. ‘From that point, it was all about combining our ideas together and looking for innovative solutions to waste related problems. Eventually we came up with the concept of Waste Concern – an organisation that would approach the treatment of waste in a new way.’

‘Instead of looking at waste as a hazard, we looked at it as a resource and that’s exactly how we started,’ recalls Sinha.

‘We appointed waste collectors, most of whom had previously worked in horrible conditions. They go from door to door collecting garbage from about 1,000 households and hauling it by rickshaw vans, bring it all to our waste treatment plant. There they sort out any inorganic material before placing the organic trash into five brick bins. With little help from micro organisms, the natural climate here takes care of the rest, turning heaps of organic garbage into valuable products such as fertilizers,’ explains Iftekhar. ‘The food habits of Bangladeshi people make the waste a resource as most foods are fresh and not packaged. This means the waste is 80 percent organic and perfect for composting.’

‘At the beginning, it was difficult for us to motivate the people to work with waste and none was ready to give us a piece of land to set up our plant,’ recalls Sinha.

‘It was Lions Club that finally gave us a plot of land near the city for setting up the plant and we commenced work straight away.’

When this model was implemented in small slums and other colonies and proved to be successful, the two men decided to go for it in a large scale.

‘The plant produces 3 tonnes of bio fertiliser, which sells for about $0.04 per kilogram. The revenue is enough to make the operation self sustaining, covering production costs and providing well paying jobs to employees.’

Creating more job opportunities in the waste management sector has been one of the basic objectives of Waste Concern from the very beginning. Besides conducting research and experiments on waste treatment and organic farming, the organisation also trained waste pickers and employed them on a full time basis. The end result is the improved life of many waste pickers who now have the opportunity to work in better conditions and with a better monthly income.

From the very beginning, the model adapted by Waste Concern has been so successful, that the government has helped it replicate this concept in 14 cities across the countries. ‘By diverting 50,000 tons of waste a year from dumping, it produces 400 tons of organic fertilisers a year, which helps farmers across the country,’ explains Iftekhar. In Bangladesh, there were previously no alternatives to chemical fertilisers. The use of organic fertilisers for farming is now common in many rural areas and, according to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), it has significantly boosted the annual output of crops in some areas.

Waste Concern and its operations have proven to be so effective that the governments of Sri Lanka and Vietnam have set up their own replications the organisation’s model of Community Based Solid Waste Management. Assisting these two countries with their waste disposal problems has been a major success for the two researchers. Moreover, South Africa has also taken up this model and is currently implementing it.

But this success is the fruition of years of struggle. ‘We faced various problems. Most banks were not willing to give us the initial loan to start off. Moreover, we did not receive the support from various bodies to put our plans into action.’ remembers Iftekhar. ‘Many people had negative notions towards what we were trying to do, but at the end of it all, we believed in what we were trying to do.’

What is today a breakthrough for Bangladesh is that these two founders of Waste Concern have shown that composting has even greater potential in the context of climate change. As the Kyoto protocol, an agreement made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), comes into effect, countries that have ratified this protocol have to deliver on their commitments to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases, thus significantly decreasing the adverse effects of global warming. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows developed countries — who are the worst polluters and hence the biggest contributors to global warming — to achieve part of their reduction obligations through investment in projects in developing countries that reduce green house gas emissions or fix or sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. CDM allows energy efficient (or less GHG emitting) technology to be installed in the country’s waste management sector. As a result, least developed countries like Bangladesh can not only earn from reducing global warming but also invest in its own waste management solutions.

Already, Bangladesh has made excellent progress in the highly competitive market of CDM. Currently, there are 4 CDM projects that are under development. Supported by developed countries like the Netherlands, Canada and Japan, these projects aim to earn a significant amount of foreign currency as well as contribute to the energy sector of the country through the efficient treatment of waste.

Two of these projects named ‘South North Project’ and ‘Composting of Organic Waste in Dhaka’ have already commenced. The Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies (BCAS), the SSN’s participating institution in Bangladesh, is in charge of the project supported by the government of Netherlands. Altogether, the different components of the project are expected to reduce about 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and earn a benefit of about $120,000 per year.

The second CDM project has been prepared by Waste Concern and the World Wide Recycling (WWR) of the Netherlands with support from the UNDP. This innovative project is now under implementation with an aim to reduce about 90,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. ‘We aim to reduce about 1 million tons of greenhouse gas over a period of eight years,’ says Iftekhar while talking about the goals to be reached via the second CDM project in the country. He further mentioned that the most significant fact about this project is that it is the first composting project using CDM globally. The main view of the project is to convert the waste dumping facility in Matuail into a productive waste treatment plant by reduction of odour, ground water pollution, saving of municipal land and fire hazard.

‘We want to convert this dumpsite into 700 ton capacity composting and landfill gas recovery site, turning trash into fertiliser and emitted greenhouse gases into usable energy,’ explains Iftekhar. Besides the improvement task at Matuail, the project also includes two composting sub-projects based in Dhaka and Chittagong as well as a landfill gas recovery project in Chittagong. Moreover, Waste Concern is also preparing a baseline for poultry waste in Bangladesh. The project has also proven how foreign investment in developing countries can contribute to the improvement of global environment as World Wide Recycling has already agreed to finance the project at a cost of $10 million, in return for credit and percentage of gas production.

In the long run, Waste Concern aims to revolutionise the whole waste dumping scenario throughout the country. What once seemed impossible and began as a struggle, is now slowly transforming into reality and a bright future. The two pioneering researchers have not only earned local fame but also global recognition for their tremendous effort. Recently, the two men received the ‘Race Against Poverty Award’ from the United Nations in recognition of their contributions to recycling waste and providing training to hundreds of waste pickers. However, according to them, this is just the beginning of a long journey ahead to convert ‘trash into cash’.

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