Saturday, October 02, 2004

Rethink The Solutions

On September 13th 2004, the capital city of Dhaka was completely inundated after a 72-hour splurge of torrential rain. One of Asia’s megacities, for three days thereafter, came to a grinding halt, and the centre of the economy of a nation of more than 120 million people was shut down.

The rainwater inundated 25 of WASA’s water pumps, used to pump water out of the city, rendering them unserviceable. The remaining pumps were ineffective anyway, as the heavy winds that accompanied the rain took down the power lines servicing them. As Mother Nature’s attack, seemingly engineered for the suffering of her inhabitants, withdrew, and the city officially at a stop, rickhsaw pullers were charging exorbitant rates for trafficking passengers because of the increase in demand, businesses were forced to close down and drinking water became scarce as 10 million souls in and around Dhaka, bewildered, wondered if God had no decency, sending down such untold suffering only weeks after the “official” floods receded.

It is too simplistic to say that the natural disasters God sends at us are divine punishment. However, we pave the way for our own suffering, by divorcing ourselves from the land and from ourselves, unleashing the forces of nature, long held at bay by our connection and realization of the realities in which we live.

The world exists as a play between the attributes of the Divine. The Compassionate, The Merciful and the Gentle also appears as the Overwhelming, the Just and the Avenger. Thus the world is a play of darkness and light, of joy and hardships and of celebration and mourning.

It is a strange thing to witness that after so many years of thriving civilization in the low-lying delta lands now known as Bangladesh, only with the advent of the promises of “modern technology” do floods cause suffering to more people.

As Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad so eloquently puts it, modernity serves but one idol: money. What is termed today as “progress,” serves neither the people nor the realities of the land, but dedicates itself wholesale to the outward semblance of the corporal world.

As Dhaka grows horizontally and vertically without rest or restriction, already-impotent city authorities are being pushed to the blinding edge. Their incompetence, indulgence in bribery and corruption, short-sightedness and complete disregard of their responsibilities are destroying one of the world’s largest cities.

The concrete monstrosities that have mushroomed in modern-day Dhaka are partly to blame. An inflated indicator of economic progress, many of these ill-constructed, badly maintained and sometimes abandoned structures are built on former water bodies that served as buffer storage for the sudden deluge of rainwater that hits randomly. These high-capacity structures also put a tremendous strain on a neglected low-capacity sewage and power distribution system that the authorities just cannot be bothered to cope with.

But we all know this. The news regurgitates these reasons every day. Where, then lies the solution? A thousand-kilometre coastal barrier along the shores of the Bay of Bengal? I believed Bangladesh missed an immense opportunity at being a miracle of modern innovation by reverting wholesale and without thought to the architecture of her former European masters.

The "modern" outlook of infrastructure in Bangladesh should be completely abandoned and the traditional solutions brought back to the fore. The roads that line Bangladesh's countryside and run shamelessly through what used to be rivers should all be dismantled, and the nation put on a program to regenerate the rivers, ultimately to be reinstated as the primary mode of locomotion through the country. A new industry of research, development, innovation and ingenuity should be built from the ground up for these vehicles. Major roads such as those that run between Chittagong, Dhaka, Khulna and other major cities should remain intact, but remodeled to allow rivers to do their job.

Dhaka and other major cities should be cordoned off, their limits set and the city authorities should set up long-term plans for raising these cities to the skies if they need to expand outside their generous boundaries. Major cities should be modeled after the villages, dotted with ponds and lakes that the villagers know are excellent storage for excess rainwater, and sections of the city should be leveled and gardens planted to improve the water uptake of the soil that is essential to ground water regeneration. All areas within city bounds should be landscaped to allow water to run off into these water bodies and parks, that have the capacity to store the excess rainwater.

If corruption was erradicated, funding even these ambitious projects would become much less of a problem. International aid has always been ready, but our politicians don't have the credibility to make our case. International organizations like the World Bank come in, sanction multi-billion dollar projects modeled after the solutions they used in wherever, by foreign engineers who have never lived in the country, that know nothing of the realities of Bangladesh and spend a lot of money churning up good, God-given soil only to be hit harder by the floods the next year. The politicians don't mind, because they get a healthy 10% of the aid and several hundreds of thousands of taka in bribes from local contractors who need the contracts. Overpaid foreign specialists are brought in, that siphon most of the aid money back with their luxurious salaries as engineering graduates from our most prestigious institutes loiter unemployed and after wallowing for years, take their brilliance to a foreign land. This vicious cycle must end.

Our people stand at a crossroads. We can either choose to realize the realities in which we live and mend our ways, or we can continue on the path to perdition, in which case natural disasters are just the beginning. The world’s climate is changing, and Bangladesh will be among the first nations to be swallowed by the sea. Radical solutions are needed. We must do something.

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)