Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Environment in Bangladesh

Working on environmental issues in Qatar presented its own set of new challenges to a North American sustainability advocate- different government system, low awareness, hydrocarbon economy, developing infrastructure, little economic incentives, low regulation and simply my own lack of knowledge about the country's environment, politics and culture. Bangladesh is a whole different set of challenges.

Low awareness comes into play again but it's compounded by non or low-literacy and education of the general public. The huge population, small and poorly-developed infrastructure, along with few monetary resources contribute to Bangladesh's environmental woes: pollution, litter and poor air and water quality. Social norms and expectations also play a part, as a recent Science Daily article pointed out. If one sees others around them acting a certain way, they follow. In Qatar, it can be a mixed message; while expats, schools and corporations struggle to recycle, I'd have a Qatari male student confess to simply tossing his half-eaten shwarma out the car window- wrapper and all. Cultural norms of having servants/maids clean up after you in Qatar led many students to simply leave their lunch and snack trash throughout the cafeteria. The professors would be agog but that's what simply what these students have known and experienced. 

Given the homogenous population in Bangladesh, individuals receive fairly consistent cultural and environmental action cues- especially regarding trash disposal. I had prepared myself for the garbage and waste situation during my visit to India last April but the issue continues to strike me here in Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshis, young and old, educated and non, think nothing of tossing their wrapper, paper napkin, cigarette package or bag on the street, in the gutter, on the floor or in the water (always a 'public' location).  The trash sometimes collects in an area (removed? by whom?) and occasionally it's burned. 

I though at first this was an education issue- but then I saw a teenage female student toss her napkin out a shop door. My University-educated coworker once dropped his gum wrapper and cigarette package and I had to pick them up. He stopped, startled and commented that he had never thought about it. During the village visit, I'd carry my empty Sprite bottle for kilometers, looking for some designated trash spot, even making a point to ask the UNO (local government official) where I could toss my garbage. Only then did my colleague begin to notice the gobs of bottles, bags and wrappers strewn in the village woods and waterways. He had never noticed before. 

After the visit, this coworker realized that the Village Information Profile (VIP) of the GramWeb project did not have any environmental indicators and asked that I develop some for the next version of the document. I've included indicators asking about waste disposal (organic, inorganic and hazardous), fertilizer/pesticide use, cancer rates, birth defects, irrigation stress, distance to nearest moving water source and other details. By simply getting villagers to consider these topics is a huge step toward greater awareness and action.

Learn more more about the Environmental Performance Index ranking of Bangladesh (Qatar is not ranked for some reason. Perhaps data collection is not done or readily available/freely shared). 

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