HYDERABAD, India — It feels like a foreign land. Well, it is India, but that's not what I mean. Here I am, an infrastructure guy at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity's Conference of the Parties. What I am seeing in real time is global architecture at work on finding ways to protect the planet's natural resources in the face of manmade problems and changing climatic conditions. It is important work, and almost every country is laboring to find solutions that fit its unique needs. But you can imagine that common ground is not easily come by.
Dhaka. Chittagong. Khulna. Just a handful of cities where construction is booming. In Bangladesh, the construction sector is driven by a single fuel: bricks. But making bricks is not neat. It is messy and backbreaking. In Bangladesh, most bricks are manually made from mud, and then burnt in kilns. Workers have to use hammers to break up tons of coal every day. Then they carry the coal on their shoulders to the ovens used to fire bricks. There are more than 4,500 traditional kilns in Bangladesh that operate this way.
The country’s capital, Dhaka, is surrounded by more than 1,200 kilns. Most kilns operate only 6 months during the year (between November and April). Because more than 90% are located in low-lying areas which experience flooding during the rainy season. During the 6 months of operation, Dhaka becomes one of the most polluted cities in the world. Every day, the chimneys blow black smoke that clouds the city’s sky. The smoke is dense and contains fine particulates, which are very damaging to health. They cause no less than 20 percent of the premature deaths related to urban air pollution in Dhaka.
How long can the country afford to make bricks in this way? The current status is by no means sustainable. To make 100,000 bricks, one needs to burn 20 tons of coal, which has high sulfur content. China, the world’s leading brick producer, uses only 6 tons of coal to make the same amount of bricks. China’s experience suggests that adopting cleaner and more energy-efficient technologies is key to success.
Farmers in Bangladesh adapting to increased soil salinity and climate change.
Barguna is at the very southern end of Bangladesh and looks nothing like the rest of the country.
Bangladesh is very green – driving through you can see the luxuriant green rice fields stretching out endlessly, the spread interrupted only by clusters of dark trees surrounding a small village, and sometimes by the yellow patches of mustard fields. But Barguna is not green and vibrant - it has now become drab brown.
Stepping onto the soil of Barguna, one is reminded of a parched desert. The ground is rock-hard, cracked and mostly barren. I was careful, threading lightly - afraid of stepping too hard in case the ground suddenly gave away.
The district wasn’t always this desolate. But devastated by repeated cyclones, erratic weather patterns and saline intrusion along the coast, farmers in these coastal communities have seen their lands yield less and less with the passing years.
“I still remember Cyclone Sidr in 2007,” said Hasina Begum, Headmistress of Paschim Napitkhali Primary School in Barguna, Bangladesh.
She fell silent, her face slowly crumpling up - the shadows in her dark eyes gathering into deep pools of sadness.
“There were warnings, but nothing could really prepare us for what happened. Cyclone Sidr hit my hometown, Barguna with ferocious intensity. Powerful gusts of winds and heavy rainfalls frightened the helpless people, many of whom had left their homes and processions to seek the protection of cyclone-shelters, like my school.”
The Paschim Napitkhali Primary School, a non-descript two storied building had played a life-saving role in 2007, when Barguna and other coastal regions were hit hard by the storm surge of over 5 meters (16 ft). Initially established by Hasina’s father, the school was later rebuilt and converted into a school-cum-cyclone-shelter. During the year, the primary school bustles with children – but during cyclones and other natural disasters, the building doubles up as a shelter. In 2007, this cyclone-shelter alone had helped save more than 800 people.
I was in Karnataka, travelling to the village of Kudur in Ramanagara district, about 35 kms from Bengeluru (formerly Bangalore). The dusty road leading to Hulikal and Kudur village seemed monotonous, but for a four kilometer stretch, it came alive with massive trees, spreading shade and providing home to innumerable birds and animals. This unique pattern of the line of trees attracted everyone's attention and appreciation. That's when accompanying officials told us about environmentalist Saalu Marada Thimmakka.
Thimmaka was married young to a landless laborer Chinnappa and they made their living tilling land and cutting stones. Despite a long wait and countless prayers and poojas, the couple did not have any children. The personal suffering coupled with snide remarks of the society that looked down at childless couples as a curse from gods that lead them to a unique engagement that is now widely recognized.
Bangladesh can be described as “ground zero” at the intersection of climate change and food security.
The country is widely recognized as one of the places most vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate, which strains food systems alongside rapidly growing and urbanizing populations. Yet, despite these dual challenges, the World Bank expects Bangladesh will meet its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.
Given the impact of the global food crisis and numerous natural disasters, how is Bangladesh managing this feat? And can we map the country’s progress?
Lives no longer interrupted by the setting sun…
We were walking towards the small bridge over the canal. The sun had already set and dusk was gradually fading into darkness. The winter air was quiet and still. Approaching the highest point of the bridge, I could sense the excitement in our quickening footsteps - we were almost there.
The project officials had told us that we could see it all, if we stood and looked out from the highest point of the bridge. So we leaned over the railings and waited, straining to see. But there was nothing – just the fuzzy darkness, gradually thickening and settling quietly on the land. I was left wondering whether we were just on a wild goose chase.
Then down below, a faint light suddenly flickered to life. A bulb was turned on in the darkness. Then another glowed – and yet another! In a few minutes, the area lying below us was glimmering with the tiny dots of faint white light bulbs. And from our high vantage point we could clearly see that the sleepy little rural marketplace - Garjon Bunia Bazaar – had woken up; ready for another evening.
This season in Bangladesh marks the 40th anniversary of the 1970 cyclone which ravaged the southern coast and killed over half a million people, decimated the homes of countless families, destroyed millions of livestock, key infrastructure, and damaged productive land. The recent cyclones Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2008 also claimed the lives of over 3000 people each, leaving millions of poor more vulnerable to climate change than ever before. In the wake of all these cyclones, questions were raised about how to build resilience to climate change impacts without compromising national development goals. Is Bangladesh developing differently? What lessons can be learned from experience of Bangladesh to reframe development and climate action as mutually supportive objectives?
As my plane glides over the lush, green forest on the side of the mountains and descends into the narrow valley where the airport is located, I start to feel ...happy? Yes, happiness is the motto of the country of Bhutan—which is actually a kingdom. Interestingly, Bhutan is known for its development philosophy of Gross National Happiness.
While working to finalize the poverty mapping work that our World Bank team has been collaborating on with Bhutan’s National Statistics Bureau (NSB) and the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC), I realized that I am happy not just because I have had the opportunity to be in such a beautiful place, but also as I have had the chance to work with some highly dedicated, capable (and yes, happy!) civil servants.
The poverty-mapping exercise in Bhutan was carried out by a joint team of staff members from the NSB and the World Bank. The team uses a “Small Area Estimation” method developed by Elbers et al. (2003) . This method uses both the 2005 Population Census and the 2007 household living standard survey (BLSS) to produce reliable poverty estimates at lower levels of disaggregation than existing survey data permits. In the case of Bhutan, the team managed to come up with reliable poverty estimates at the sub-district (known as Gewog in Bhutan) level .This work was also supported in part by AusAID through the South Asia Policy Facility for Decentralization and Service Delivery.
With urbanization in Sri Lanka expected to increase from 20% in 2000 to 60% in 2030, perpetual gridlock, polluted waterways, and smoggy skies could all be potential side effects. However, Managing Cities for Sri Lanka Green Growth, organized by the Urban Development Authority and attended by representatives from all major cities taught me some ways we may mitigate some of the negative effects and create a sustainable urban development through innovative locally driven initiatives.
The workshop introduced the Eco2Cities approach to urban development which looks at helping developing countries achieve ecological and economic sustainability in urban areas. Although all Sri Lankan cities currently face challenges related to poor urban planning, it was enriching to hear some successful and innovative initiatives carried out by certain communities that can be used as examples for others.