Archive for the 'Environment' Category



Demolished Office Pictures

I wrote about two weeks ago that our office had fallen foul of the interim administration’s new clampdown on illegal property, and the two feet in question that were encroaching on public land was going to be demolished.

The red line you can see drawn on to the side of the building here, denoted where they were going to demolish:

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That was the warning we had. You turn up for work, and see your office is going to be demolished in 72 hours. A red mark like the plague.

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Then – and this is typical for Bangladesh – we discovered that the suspect two feet of building wasn’t encroaching over a public road – the road was on private land owned by our landlord, so he could build over it how he liked. Hooray!

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A different world in Bangladesh

Despite the urban behemoth that is Dhaka, Bangladesh is still overwhelmingly a rural country, and a few weeks ago I finally got to leave our office in Sylhet city to go out and visit one of the villages my organisation works with. ECDO currently operates in two districts of the main Sylhet division, and we 22 villages are involved with our projects, over a very wide geographical area.

Our purpose of the visit was to set up a new Education Support Centre in the village of Guabari, where we have already done a few smaller interventions, including the building of a Rain Water Harvesting Plant last year. To get there was a real mission, step by step extracting us from the modern world; taking first the bus for an hour, then when the bus could go no further we took a rickshaw, and when the rickshaw could go no further due to the deteriorating road, we simply had to walk out of the town and continue two miles across a dried-up valley towards this little hamlet tucked away on a hill. It was virtually on the border with India, and you could clearly see an Indian border post high up on the top of a larger hill-side, gazing suspiciously at Bangladesh below.

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Raindrops are falling…

Since about mid-October the country has been bone dry, and the Desh was beginning to become a single shade of ochre brown as dust settled over everything. However, a few weeks ago whilst watching Spurs play Man Utd, almost exactly a second after Paul Scholes scored his goal at the Lane, about 5000 miles away in Bangladesh it began to rain. I took my hands away from my face, trying to avoid the site of that ugly little ginger, and looked up at my ceiling as the heavens began to hammer down. To compound my misery, my washing was still out on the line.

I thought it might have been a one-off, but now the weather is definitely beginning to change. After a genuinely cold January, the heat is in the high twenties at mid-day and the humidity is in the seventies all evening. We’ve had a couple of thunderstorms, and I really mean thunder; so loud it’s woken me up at night and during the day you’d think we’re being bombed. No low distant rumble, a thick, tumultuous crash of sound seemingly directly overhead.

The positive aspect of the rise in temperature is that soon I’m going to be able to save time in the mornings by having a cold shower, rather than having to wait and boil up some water and then wash using a bucket, which has been my routine for the last three months. I never thought I’d look forward to a cold shower before.

Overall though, the fact that the weather’s changing isn’t a great sign; Bangladesh is one of the wettest countries in the world, and Sylhet is the wettest town in Bangladesh. Although I think my roof is solid, my route through the slums to work will certainly flood, as will quite a lot of the town, and country. The VSO reception guy in Dhaka told us that last monsoon he walked to work waist deep in water, which I can barely imagine, and of course, we’re not talking Evian water here. So after nearly three months without any rain, it looks like in a month or so it will be time to test my brolly and maybe swap my bike for a kayak.

Ethnic Community Development Organisation Website!

Tuesday was a momentous day for me, my organisation and the indigenous people of Sylhet Division – http://www.ecdo-bd.org was launched.

This is the new website of my NGO, which details all the work we do, our aims, and also features unique information and resources about the indigenous peoples of the region, the very latest academic research and analysis on their situation and future.

It also hosts photos of our work and the area we work in.

Our website makes me proud for several reasons – firstly, I hope it can serve as a new bridge between the indigenous people of Sylhet and the rest of the world, sharing information and highlighting their problems. In creating access for development professionals, international donors and academics, we are creating awareness, and opportunity for change.

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The Sundarbans

This is the story of my trip to the Sundarbans jungle, annotated with photos taken by Tom Wipperman and Georgia Newsam. You can go straight to the photo page here. Or read on…

When I discovered I was coming to Bangladesh, in terms of the environment my first mental images were ‘floods’, ‘rice’ and ‘tigers’. To turn those visions in to reality – the first two are easy, they come to you. But you’ve got to go on a quest to find a Royal Bengal Tiger.

If you want to see them in their natural habitat, then you need to go to the Sundarbans – a littoral mangrove forest that covers around 3600 sq km of Bangladesh, right along the South West coast of the country, and then another 2500 sq km of India. About a third of the Sundarbans is covered by water; it’s essentially a giant flood plain that serves as crucial protection for Bangladesh against tidal surges, typhoons and other surges of natural energy. The Himalayas finally drain off through the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers of India here in to the Bay of Bengal, and the mixture of mountain silt and tidal sea-water has created fluctuating levels of salinity which in turn has resulted in a unique ecological balance.

Therefore you can enter an environment like no other on the earth. A wildlife sanctuary since 1966, and a World Heritage site since 1997, the Sundarbans is a haven for the natural world in Bangladesh; almost the only part of this densely populated country where you can be surrounded by life and none of it human.

It’s a maze of rivers, channels and tiny tributaries though, and not the kind of place one can explore armed with a good picnic and a pedalo. Luckily for me, one of VSO’s partner NGOs operates an ‘eco-tour’ of the Sundarbans, so nine of us set off on December 29th for five days of cruising through the deltas. We boarded our little boat in the early evening at Khulna, the nearest big city to the Sundarbans. It was small but snug, and we were soon eating the first of many huge meals out on deck and chugging along the river in to the night.

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Just a Little Prang

Dhaka has apparently 600,000 rickshaws ferrying people around, and Bangladesh itself must have millions. You can get nearly everything and anything on a back of a rickshaw, and if you can’t, you use a rickshaw van. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a single street, anywhere, at any time of the day, and not seen one. Rickshaws are simply an embedded feature of the Bangladesh environment, culture, and economy.

The average rickshaw driver (rickshaw-wallah) makes about 100-200 taka a day (130 taka to one pound sterling), and most fares are very short distances of under a mile, for maybe 5-10 taka, unless it’s me on the back because I always pay a bit more. They usually rent their rickshaw from a gang-master, who takes a bit of their pay in return for providing the most basic food and lodging.

They work completely exposed to all elements ranging from monsoon, 100% humidity, 40 degree heat, and currently fairly cold fog, usually wearing extremely little, and also battle through horrendous traffic and sickening pollution. It should be said that half the congestion is their fault, because busy streets can literally become locked with rickshaws nose to tail, and nothing gets along.

But overall, I’ve got a lot of respect for them, because they’re truly the cogs in Bangladesh‘s machine.

 

Since I arrived in Bangladesh, as a really keen cyclist I’ve been desperate to drive a rickshaw to see how what they’re like. On Boxing Day I found out.

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Cycling in Sylhet

I now have a quick five minute ride in to work, which I still find surreal because I go past wedding-cake style mansions and also through a slum of shacks made from dried mud and crooked bits of tin. It’s a bit like cycling back in time to the middle of the 19th century, naked children running around, kids pushing tires down the path or pulling rocks tied to string along for fun. Old women sit and stare at you as you whiz past, faces leathered by thousands and thousands of consecutive days of hard work in the dust and sun and mud and monsoon, yet you know they’re probably only thirty.

And then a few sharp turnings and I’m back on the main road and in the modern world again. It blows my mind, every time.

My bike is an absolute relic, but its lack of manoeuvrability and braking makes it even more exciting to ride at night. I’ve started to go out in the dark, especially when there’s a power cut on, because there’s this mist that sets in and you can’t really see anything. Zooming around with only five feet of visibility is kind of cool, because you never know what’s suddenly going to appear in front of you. The streets are packed with the rush hour, but because only half the hazards on the road have lights (rickshaws, bikes, people and animals don’t) something can rear up at you out of nowhere, lit up only by a murky beam of light from a distant motorbike, or you might just catch half their face from a candle that’s in a small shack on the road, for a split second and then they’re gone. Continue reading ‘Cycling in Sylhet’