You can't eat money!

When will we realise we cannot eat money? Cartoon: Prothom Alo
When will we realise we cannot eat money? Cartoon: Prothom Alo

There is a Native American adage, “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.”

Environment or development? Perhaps, this is the most powerful debate in the world right now, especially in the fastest growing economies like Bangladesh, India and China.

Consequently, Bangladesh is now caught between the lines of economic development and environmental sustainability as the relationship between economic progress and environmental sustainability are always found incompatible.

Bangladesh, nowadays dubbed as the next ‘Asian Tiger’, has already made great strides in a couple of sectors such as human resources, economic development, child education, women's empowerment, health and food.

On the flip side, Bangladesh has headed towards a point of no return with its shrinking forest spaces and water bodies, rising air and water pollution and widespread waste. The pace of development is gradually eating up the peace of natural environment.

Bangladesh has already overtaken its neighbours in many sectors. It has become a growth leader in South Asia with an ‘average over 6% annual growth for nearly a decade and reached 7.86% in 2018.’

The average age of Bangladeshis has been lifted above average age of other South Asians.

Bangladesh has climbed up seven notches in the Human Development Index in the past five years. It has become the world’s third in fish production from the natural sources. It has also attained a lead in many other socio-economic areas.

A UK-based research organisation Center for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) has recently ranked Bangladesh as the 41st largest economy of the world. CEBR also predicts that the country will emerge 24th on the list by 2033. Its export volume has risen from zero to $35.8bn since independence to last year.

Aforesaid statistics demonstrate that Bangladesh has championed many successes in the past few years. However, in the process, it has also attained many ‘bad labels’.

In the past ‘development-decade’, Bangladesh has consistently degraded in the global environmental performance. It has failed to save its rivers from being poisoned and encroached upon, its forest and agricultural lands from decline. These were keys to the unprecedented development. These are a must for sustainable development as well.

Bangladesh has lost more than three-fourths of the cheapest and easiest navigable waterways in four decades. We had approximately 24,000 km of inland waterways after the independence, but today we have navigable waterways just between 3,865 km during the dry season and 5,968 km during rainy season. On the other hand, four rivers, the lifelines of the Dhaka city, have become uninhabitable for aquatic animals. Meghna, Dhaleshwari and Karnaphuni and many others have recently been added to the list of precarious rivers.

Bangladesh has slipped down 40 places in the past eight years in the global Environmental Performance Index 2018. The major causes behind the degradation were shrinking forests, air and water pollution and polythene and plastic waste.

Last year, Global Forest Watch (GFW) and World Resource Institute (WRI) estimated that in Bangladesh 332,000 hectares forest has been destroyed in the past seven years. This means we had lost nearly 50,000 hectares of forest each year. If this pace continues and we fail to raise walls of resistance against the deforestation, Bangladesh will turn into a desert in next few decades.

In a recent study, the local experts presented more dangerous statistics. The experts say ‘total forest coverage in Bangladesh has shrunk to less than 10% (23 March 2018, Dhaka Tribune).

Though the government claims that Bangladesh has 17 per cent forests, the GFW and WRI estimated Bangladesh had 1,800,000 hectares of forest in 2010, which is 12.9 per cent of the total land of the country. At least 25 per cent forest is essential for a sustainable economy.

The agricultural land has also been reduced significantly in the last couple of decades. A UN report in 2018 observed that the agricultural land has shrunk by 114,500 hectares between 1990 and 2010.

World Bank ranks Bangladesh top on the world’s list of death caused by environmental pollution-related illnesses. A World Bank report published last September says 28 per cent of the people died due to such causes in 2015 alone.

Another study by two US-based health research institutes shows poor air quality causes nearly 122,400 premature deaths every year in Bangladesh. The average number of deaths climbed from 81,200 in 1990 to 122,400 in 2015.

In response, we have failed to do anything while political interference and violation of law by the influential quarters have made the tasks tougher.

We have failed to rein in the rising number of brick kilns that contribute to 56 per cent of the country’s air pollution.

The government enacted a law in 2018 to make brick kilns environment friendly, but a recent report identifies thousands of brick kilns out of mostly illegal 7,772 kilns, still lack required modern and environment-friendly technology.

The natural environment in the cities has declined considerably. The capital city, Dhaka, has ranked top second polluted city in the world. It maintains the position for the last couple of years. The city of nearly 20 million people has been sustaining its place among the top five most polluted cities of the world for the last few years.

Bangladesh has also failed to modernise the transport sector, which contributes to 16 per cent of Dhaka city’s air pollution.

We need development, progress and wellbeing for a better life, no doubt. But, do we want it at the cost of our future and a safe environment?

Coexistence between environment and development is tough, but we have to do it. It is high time to look for an answer to the dilemma.

Through 'astonishing development', Bangladesh has developed a 'unique DNA'. It should be unique to save the environment as well.

If environmental degradation continues at this pace, no one will survive to enjoy the fruits of development in the future. At least the statistics tell us so.

When we speak of economic prosperity, we often give example of GDP growth. Unfortunately, GDP explains only the financial perks of an economy. It neither tells us the costs incurred nor the whole scenario. It is high time to look beyond the financial perks.

We need money to buy clothes. We need food to live, need mobile phones to communicate, need transport to commute from one place to another. These are basics and we cannot survive without these resources.

We also require a safe environment. If we lose money, we can borrow it from others. If we do not have clothes, we have alternatives. If we do not have mobile phones, we still can communicate in one way or the other, but once the forest vanishes, the rivers are dried up, the water bodies are filled, we will never be able to bring them back.

Who will win the debate between the developmentalists and environmentalists that makes no sense? The concern should be ‘connecting the dots between economic development, water and food security, energy shortage, health services and finally the environmental safety.’

Still there is a way out if we join in the chorus with former secretary-general of United Nations Ban Ki-moon, “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth... these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.”

*Toriqul Islam is a journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]