Saving and restoring the environment

It is no overstatement to say that among the ministries of the government, the performance of the environment ministry has been specially poor since it was set up in the late eighties in response to the growing environmental hazards. The environment of Bangladesh has gone on declining during the last nearly three decades. But the ministry that was exclusively created to address this worsening environmental situation seemed to do little of substance as the environment steadily deteriorated and environmental concerns multiplied and intensified.
Dhaka city that was one of the world’s most air polluted cities in the past became the worst air polluted city in the world some years ago. It may have improved its status since that time by pushing the worst air polluting autorickshaws away from the metropolitan areas of Dhaka. But the air in the city still remains heavily polluted by international comparisons in the absence of other follow up measures.
Sections of rivers flowing around the big concentrations of urban population of Bangladesh have turned so polluted from unregulated discharge of effluents that these are like dark liquids devoid of oxygen and aquatic life. Biodiversity of large parts of Bangladesh have been threatened by a number of man-made factors. One of them is the country’s overpopulation and its consequent impact on the environment. But compared to the devastating population bomb that is building up for this small country, the response to it appears to be hardly a proportionate one against the threat.
Widespread presence of arsenic in underground water, the loss of soil fertility from mono-cropping without crop rotation, toxicity and loss of fertility of the soil from unregulated use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, are among the growingly formidable environmental problems.
Deforestation has whittled down to below ten per cent the country’s forests and vegetation cover ; the country’s basic environmental balance has been threatened as a result. Afforestation programmes may have had only a marginal impact on these conditions. This is because deforestation activities are considered to be greater than afforestation ones.
The coastal areas of the country are poorly supervised. Foreign vessels dump their waste matters too freely in the coastal areas and perhaps such vessels had dumped on occasions cargoes of very hazardous wastes in Bangladesh’s territorial waters finding the same an unchallenged zone while indulging in such activities.
There are many sides to the environmental crisis that is gradually building up in Bangladesh. Many are in the making from unregulated human activities within the country. But a very serious threat to the environment of the country has external origins. Bangladesh as a low lying country stands to be among the few countries to be worst hit by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the consequent earth warming phenomenon. Although Bangladesh should have long ago started an all outclamour to sensitize the international community to its plight and sought adequate international compensation and assistance to meet the nearing catastrophe, the leaders of this country remained very surprisingly mum and unconcerned about it for a long time. Only recently they have been showing a greater concern but that probably has a lot to do with external prodding for it.
The increasingly environment conscious people in the country expect the government to take a hard look at the major environmental problems at the soonest . If this is done, then environment surely would be recognised as an area requiring highest priority attention. The government will then need to urgently get down to preparing a comprehensive environmental policy including, most importantly, the ways and means to enforce it.
The environmental decline has already much eroded the quality of life in Bangladesh. If it goes on like this, without a strong enough check and abatement, then this country could turn into a poisonous hell hole with worse unclean air, water, soil and surroundings where decent human existence and happiness would not be possible. Already such existence and happiness has disappeared considerably from the life and living of Bangladeshis in many places due to the stressful environment. The environment related woes are likely to be worse and worse and, finally the worst, without a policy to save and restore the environment and its proper implementation.
What things the environmental policy must aim for are obvious : it should set up a system for all polluters to be warned and identified and made to suffer penalties for their unwillingness or inability to adhere to the policy. For instance, it should make a rule that all industries creating hazardous wastes must have a waste treatment plant for treating such waste before discharging them on soil, air or water bodies. Violators of the rule should have the choice of either conforming strictly to the rule or closing down operation.
Air pollution in the cities can be reduced by requiring automotive vehicles to compulsorily use catalytic converters and by fining or not allowing the movement of vehicles that do not keep clean engines or exhaust systems. Air pollution can be also reduced by compulsorily producing and distributing lead and sulphur free fuel for vehicles.
Arsenic in underground water can be tackled by spreading the know-how of inexpensive ways of filtering arsenic from the water. Similar dissemination of information about the benefits of crop rotation, regulated use of chemical fertlisers and natural pest control, can work wonders in preserving the fertility of the soil or preventing soil from becoming toxic. Even the passing of laws and their enforcement need to be considered urgently to this end.
The environmental policy should lead to environmental laws to protect and expand the country’s forests and vegetation, to protect and increase the number of its reserved forests, to protect its bio-diversity, to promote environment friendly urban areas, etc. Externally, under the environment policy, Bangladesh must pursue a more strident and vocal role internationally to draw attention to the plight of Bangladesh from the earth warming.
But the policy will remain ineffectual as long as it remains on paper and is not enforced. For the environmental policy to be fruitful, it must go the whole hog with the creation of apparatuses such as the environmental courts, the environmental police, etc and their efficient functioning.