After getting work experience in the north of Bangladesh with the DFID funded Chars Livelihoods Project, I headed down to Shatkira to meet NGO Forum and Protik Trust staff and see what I could do as an individual and around $1000 to help the relief effort in the wake of the devastating cyclone Aila.
Having come from a comfortable and secure life in the UK (not luxurious in any way but we always had food on the table, a bed, a TV and warm shelter), learning about life in Bangladesh has been a challenge and aroused a deep sense of compassion as I have started to understand the issues involved and how people respond emotionally to the every day struggles and challenges that are largely absent from life in the UK.
When I first arrived, I was jubilant, everyone was smiling and looked happy, everyone was very kind to me and offered to help and I was treated a bit like a prince; but everyday I got closer to the individual truths and feelings that lay behind the smile. In Dhaka the urban poverty, neglected disabled beggars and poor living conditions contrasted with high-rise apartment blocks was difficult to stomach for someone that holds the firm belief that everyone has a right to the basic needs required for healthy living. In Kurigram and the Char area, where I was working with the ultra-poor, learning the dangers they were exposed to, the power structures of the land owners and the local Parishad that often worked against the poor for personal gain, the health risks of poor sanitation, the 'Monga' period of annual starvation, environmental susceptibility to drought and floods, the stealthy take-over of kush-lands by relatively wealthy land owners, the multitude of symptoms of starvation; sleeplessness, stomach problems, gut problems, bruises from bed, aching joints, headaches, fainting, and extreme fatigue. How the Bangladeshi Char dwellers live like this I don’t know, but I have a deep respect and admiration for their resilience and capability to deal with these problems throughout their lives. Everyday I would learn about some new obstacle that got in the way of life that the rural poor would have to overcome to survive, things that made life less precious and more cheap, more expendable. Whether it’s child labour, the corruption of government, the violent and compromised political underground, widespread cholera that’s undeclared by the state, soil erosion victims, rampant domestic violence, or the arrogance of the perceived superiority of many people holding either economic or political power.
This piecemeal discovery of a mountain of problems and the heroic efforts the poor must exert to overcome them was, however, much easier to take in than my first day in the field in Shamnagur.
Having contracted ‘stomach problems’ after drinking some village water in the Chars and becoming substantially dehydrated before receiving treatment at the government run ‘people’s hospital’ in Kurigram lying on a stained sheet in a ward with an abandoned child lying fixed to a drip outside on the floor and a distinct smell of sick human, only feeling profound relief that I was getting some fluids in my system and that my headache was going; I can relate in some small way to having to choose between extreme thirst and water that you know is contaminated and will make you sick, causing even more extreme dehydration.
Dehydration to the extent common in Shamnagur is quite contrary to the normal and proper functioning of your body; you can do little but lie down and rest in a foggy dazed and mentally strange state, often with a blinding headache. Seeing hundreds without access to clean water huddled under makeshift shelter from large leaves and wood and what they could salvage from their now submerged homes, was so sad. Where is UNOCHA? Where is the government? Where is UNICEF? Where is the large, well co-ordinated response to this emergency? Probably being soaked up by beaurocrat’s salaries. I had just come from Palestine, where UNWRA, the UN Works and Relief Agency – a specific body created just for the 750,000 Palestinian refugees following the 1948 ethnic cleansing from villages and towns in what is now called Israel, can be proud to say that it is catering for the needs of the refugees. The Palestinian refugees get a food ration, each refugee camp has a cultural centre where the children and adults alike can take dancing lessons or play music, in a particularly large camp in Jordan there is even a UN school that children are encouraged to attend free of charge. Why is the same not done in Bangladesh? Why do ‘climate refugees’ not qualify for the same support and funding as refugees fleeing genocide, political violence or other natural disasters such as earthquakes? Or should we be asking a different question… Why is it a well co-ordinated response is left to NGOs and is not implemented by government – national or international?
With these questions racking my brain, I bore witness to fields and fields of destroyed crop. Knowing how people lived with such small margins in the Char areas, I was moved by the miles and miles of paddy that had been wiped out with the salt water. Not only was it labour days lost for the poor and lost income for the land-owners, it was food lost for the region which will push up prices, it was lost seed for farmers, and it was also degraded soil. Soil is a living thing and it’s productivity relies on a complex ecosystem of bacteria – I’m sure the balance that is so prized by organic farmers and that even farmers using fertilizer rely on to some extent, will have been upset by the salty and polluted water now sitting stagnant on the brown-grey soil where there should have been lush green crop. Not only the arable farming but also the shrimp farming had been affected, I’m not sure how salt water affects shrimp farms but they looked and smelt pretty dead and I didn’t see more than one pond being tendered to.
On top of the countless homes destroyed by the cyclone and the rising tide, the lack of shelter and poor response from the government and the international community, the loss of labour crops and land, people’s property and savings being washed away into the sea, the poor sanitation and meagre water supply coming from NGOs such as Oxfam, World Vision, Action Aid and businesses with a conscience and a desire to get their name seen on a tank of water in lorries or motor-rickshaws from treatment plants miles away, there was also another dimension to this; the heat.
It was hot and especially humid because of all the surrounding water, and the salty air made things that much worse. It was a warm front coming through at the beginning of the monsoon season when there should have been rain. People were sweating, and it must have contributed to major fluid loss and to a heightened fever and headache in the dehydrated or those with contaminated guts. I was thirsty after a few hours, having given a bottle of water away to a woman sweating on the side of one of the roads, waiting for an NGO to come and fill her jar with clean water; she had been waiting for 3 full days and her family of 5 was awaiting her return. I just thought that the old and the weak that had no strong family member or close friend to care for them or fetch the water or no money to buy their right to life would have dehydrated and died.
The thirst that I witnessed moved me more than anything else I had seen or hear about before in my short stay in Bangladesh, and I was moved to action. Luckily, I had arranged with NGO Forum before that I wanted to construct a Pond Sand Filter – an amazing piece of equipment that doesn’t deplete the underground aquifers like bore holes and deep tube-wells, but instead filters and cleans the rain water collected in ponds, providing a clean supply of water for between 150 and 800 people each day. But it would take 20 or so days to construct and another 40 or so days to come online as the water had to be slowly filtered through the sand – that was 2 months away and people were suffering now. I see water as essential as air to life, not drinking is like living without oxygen – to be forced to go thirsty because of the neglect of those that can make it possible (which is most of us, even if it’s only to contribute in a small way) is a travesty and a very very sad thing to acknowledge. So I asked a local NGO, Protik Trust, what I could do.
Earlier, I had visited the government clinic attached to the local Parishad in Shamnagur, it was over-run and had no clean water of it’s own as the pond, like every other pond in the region that hadn’t been pumped, was contaminated and the PSF was in need of repair. The children and the sick in that clinic were very sick and the drips looked like they needed supplementing with some drinking water – the local market also uses the pond to supply drinking water to travellers. We agreed that this was a key resource to the area and the sooner it came back online the better, especially as if it was not pumped by the time the monsoon comes, it would take a long time to fill the pond again with water fit to be filtered by the PSF. So, I figured out that it would cost only ₤90 to pump the pond if the Parishad was prepared to pay the rest needed to repair the filter; they agreed. When I say ‘only ₤90’, I’m talking about UK standards, in the UK the minimum wage is ₤5 an hour, and while it can’t buy you much at all in the UK, it can buy you quite a lot in Bangladesh – so significantly contributing towards a safe supply of drinking water for a large number of people to use in Bangladesh could be done by me with the purchasing power of only 2 days easy work in the UK (which I do). Perhaps an example of the ‘structural advantage’ the UK has over other economies, facilitated by agricultural subsidies, wars for oil in the Middle East, unfair trade and international mechanisms like the IMF and the World Bank ensuring that UK businesses have access to cheap third world labour to increase profit margins. But this still wasn’t good enough; it would still take 40 days for the water to flow clean from the PSF next to the clinic. Something more needed to be done.
Shahidullah Osmani, the director of the small but effective local NGO ‘Protik Trust’, suggested a buying a water tank and renting a rickshaw. I asked where the water would come from, but Shahidullah managed to get Oxfam to agree to supply the water free of charge. The rickshaw and water tank cost more, but it will run for a month before the funds run-out, and hopefully for longer if Protik Trust can find the funds to continue from somewhere. I went on one of the trips to hand out the water, which was great – 1,000 litres fills about 75 jars – some 10 litres and some 20. It was great to know that some people didn’t have to wait so long for water to come and that there was more to go around, but there still wasn’t enough. We stopped on a quiet spot on the road and within 10 minutes there was a long queue. I was filling jars for a while, and after tipping the bucket to get the last bit of water, there were still 30 women in dire need of water to bring back to their family. It was a sad moment – I don’t know how I would feel if I was in their situation; if I was waiting and waiting for this most essential commodity, and then there was hope – I found a queue, I joined it, I waited for a significant time, and then the water ran out just before I got to it….
However distressing the situation is, however scary the future of the planet is in the face of climate change, however unjust the international economic system, however corrupt and neglecting the government is, however abusive the land-owners, however poor the people, however much suffering there is in the world – we can do something about it; and, perhaps surprisingly, acting on compassion rather than ignoring it or letting it fester inside you, can bring a deep and subtle happiness. My experiences in Bangladesh have spurned me on to do more for the global south, to encourage more action from the rich nations, and to study more about meeting the essential needs of the human population – including the need to stop or at least mitigate catastrophic climate change. If we are going to survive in any desirable state as a human race, it will be because we have successfully and intelligently pooled our resources and worked together in the world to overcome these global challenges and meet our needs.
I feel privileged and honoured to have had NGO Forum’s support and contributed in some small way to their admirable mission to supply all of Bangladesh with sufficient clean drinking water. They have staff with notable integrity and knowledge, skill and understanding, and I hope that this is the start of a more significant relationship between us in the future. I wish NGO Forum continued success in their efforts to bring positive change to Bangladesh.