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A recent filming trip to Satkhira and Khulna took me close to the Sunderbans and past the site of the controversial new power plant at Rampal. Already, a flotilla of dredgers is collecting sand from the river bed to create a large enough platform to hold the 1320 MW coal fired station, a joint venture between India and Bangladesh.
I don’t need to add my voice to those calling for the project to be moved. I think it is obvious enough that nothing like this should be built so close (just 14 kms) to one of South Asia’s last great wildernesses. The government insists that it won’t allow the plant to pollute the forest, but its record of protecting the environment from industry is laughable – just look at its continued failure to move the tanneries from Hazaribagh in Dhaka, and its poor record of monitoring other industrial plants close to the forest (as recently reported by the Daily Star).
But there’s one other thing that bothers me about this project. It is what it says about Bangladesh’s attitude towards climate change.
Now I have no doubt that global warming exists and that it is caused by man’s actions. I also don’t doubt that Bangladesh is especially vulnerable to climate change, because it is low-lying, because of its many rivers that flow from the Himalayas, and because of its large and largely poor population. I strongly believe that it is important that rich, western countries continue to put millions into Bangladesh to help it become less vulnerable.
However I do also think that the standard account of the likely impact of climate change on Bangladesh is a huge over-simplification that ignores the role that the country itself should play in protecting the environment.
For example, it is often reported as fact that rising sea levels are causing Bangladesh’s rivers to become more saline every year, and that an increase in the ocean’s temperature makes cyclones more likely. These claims are made by leading Bangladesh climate scientists, the government, donor countries, aid groups and journalists.
They might well turn out to be true, but at the moment they are just theories.
The argument that cyclones are becoming more frequent appears to be supported by the fact that the last few years have seen five major storms in the Bay of Bengal. But that is not a lot of data on which to make such a big claim.
“It might well be the case that climate change has caused these, but we won’t know for sure for another 100 years,” a leading water engineer told me.
Other experts have played down the notion that rising sea levels are the sole or even the main cause for salt-water intrusion. As surely every Bangladeshi who lives in the estuary knows, water quality is affected by the amount of water coming downstream as well as the amount of water going upstream. Thus saline levels are affected by the size of the monsoon and the amount of water that flows from India – as well as the tides and sea level rise that push sea water inland.
Furthermore, standard accounts of the likely impact of climate change on Bangladesh tend overlook local actions. But the large-scale replacement of paddy fields with shrimp ponds, and the chopping down of mangrove forests have vastly contributed to salt water intrusion and to Bangladesh becoming more vulnerable to cyclones.
And what about Bangladesh’s own carbon emissions? This is a rapidly industrialising and rapidly urbanising country. It needs kilns to make bricks, it needs power stations for electricity. But does it really have to build a coal-burning power plant right in the middle of the Climate Change Ground Zero, as some like to call it?
Wouldn’t some of the foreign aid money being used to help communities adapt to the supposed affects of climate change not in fact be better spent helping the country find cleaner energy sources?
On 13 June 1971, an article in the UK’s Sunday Times exposed the brutality of Pakistan’s suppression of the Bangladeshi uprising. It forced the reporter’s family into hiding and changed history.
Abdul Bari had run out of luck. Like thousands of other people in East Bengal, he had made the mistake – the fatal mistake – of running within sight of a Pakistani patrol. He was 24 years old, a slight man surrounded by soldiers. He was trembling because he was about to be shot.
So starts one of the most influential pieces of South Asian journalism of the past half century.
Written by Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani reporter, and printed in the UK’s Sunday Times, it exposed for the first time the scale of the Pakistan army’s brutal campaign to suppress its breakaway eastern province in 1971.
Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed, but certainly a huge number of people lost their lives. Independent researchers think that between 300,000 and 500,000 died. The Bangladesh government puts the figure at three million.
I’m researching a story at the moment on 1971, pegged to the start of the war crime trials of alleged Pakistani collaborators and the upcoming anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence 40 years ago. In so doing, I’ve come across the following videos on YouTube. Various people have found and posted up some of the original TV news reports. Here are some of the ones I found most interesting:
Pakistani troops launch Operation Searchlight and attack Dhaka Uni (An expelled BBC reporter gives his account of what he saw from the Sheraton’s windows)
Amateur footage that seems to show Pakistani troops executing people at the university (shown on NBC) This is of historical importance, because of course 40 years ago very few people had cameras and very little of the war and the atrocities committed by both sides were actually filmed. There’s a reference to this footage in Sharmila’s Bose’s controversial (and bitter) new book, “Dead Reckoning”, but typically she complains that no-one in Dhaka has a copy of it.
She writes that it was filmed by Professor Nural Ula, who’s apartment overlooked the killing field, and who had, in his opinion, the only amateur, portable camera in the country at the time.
Pakistan’s locally recruited militia (The Razakars) (I think this was Mike Nicholson of ITN)
The arrest and harsh treatment of alleged collaborators (NBC reporting on the debate still going on today – is the treatment of the alleged war criminals justice or revenge?)
You can get a cup of chai by the side of pretty much every road in Bangladesh, but finding decent coffee has been a struggle – until now.
I was back in Dhaka over the weekend, for the first time in a year and a half, and one of my first visits was to the city’s newest and finest coffee shop, North End: http://www.northendcoffee.com
Located on the first floor of what used to be a garments sweat shop, the place is a credit to its American owners, Chris and Rick Hubbard, who I’ve known since our sons attended the same school.
They both worked as teachers in Chittagong some years ago, but then lived in the US where Rick worked for Starbucks and Chris trained as a chef.
About two years ago, they returned to Bangladesh with the twin goals of creating much needed employment, and introducing to its citizens the pleasures of locally roasted coffee.
Most of the beans that Rick roasts are imported, but he is also buying from farmers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which is the only place in the country where coffee can grow.
He says that years ago one of the aid agencies handed out lots of coffee plants to farmers, but then forgot about the project. Happily the plants survived and Rick is now trying to find out where they all are. He says the beans aren’t great, but he can work with the famers to improve them.
In the meantime he can blend them with finer beans to make a tasty brew.
We had cappuccinos and Chris’ cinnamon rolls, and they were delicious.
One of the great things about Bangladesh is that there are so many people (both Bangladeshis and Bideshis) with so much positive energy, trying to help the country out. Chris and Rick are one couple, our other friends Andrew and Jan Jenkins are another.
They kindly took us out on their boat for an afternoon, which was a real treat for us and the kids. They used to moor it on the outskirts of Dhaka, but the city is growing so fast and the water is so polluted they now have to leave it at Savar, 30 Kms away.
But what that meant was that we were in the countryside in no time. We saw black and white Pied Kingfishers, and green Bee Eaters swooping low over the water. There were fishing boats with coloured sails drifting slowly downstream and children playing by the banks.
Best of all we passed very close to two (or three) Ganges River Dolphins, known locally as Shushuks, an endangered species.
Close by, fishermen were stringing a net across the river as dusk fell, but Andrew thought the dolphins, which have poor eyesight, would be treated well if caught by mistake.
“Sushuk sounds very much like the Bangla word for child, shishu,” he told us, “and that’s what the fishermen sometimes call them as well.”
Andrew and Jan have been working, on and off, in Bangladesh since the mid-Seventies. Their experience gives them some very interesting insights.
The big gripes of everyone I met this weekend were the worsening traffic and high rents in Dhaka. They are definitely awful, but as Andrew reminded me, in the Seventies Bangladeshis were actually starving to death. The population has more than doubled since then, but the country can now feed itself.
Andrew reckons that if the economy continues to grow by about 6% a year, foreign aid may start to be reduced in 15 years time.
The challenge now seems to be managing wealth (i.e. too many cars) rather than managing poverty (i.e. too little food).
Not bad for a place condemned by Kissinger as a basket case. He should drop by for a coffee one day to see how it has changed.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that I haven’t put anything up on the blog for ages. I did actually leave Dhaka last July after three fascinating years, and then moved back to Delhi. I’m weighing up whether or not to start a D is for Delhi blog next, but the fact is that it feels like there are more than enough people writing about India, whereas for Bangladesh that is clearly not the case.
With that in mind I’m also going to keep the blog open. It is still receiving a few hundred hits every month so no reason to shut it down.
I’m also thinking about writing something longer on the Liberation War so might use the blog as way of posting up material.
Meanwhile if you want to follow what I do write on India and the rest of the region you can follow me at www.twitter.com/Mark_Dummett
In the end, in the dead of night, it all happened very quickly.
Five former soldiers, convicted of the killing of Bangladesh’s independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were hanged just after midnight, hours after the Supreme Court had rejected their final appeal.
Their relatives were called in to Dhaka Central Jail for a last, rushed visit before the executions.
Later, they were allowed to collect the corpses and take them home in ambulances.