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Monday, 22 June 2009


Small confession – I’ve spent the last 48 hours lying in bed with a headache, sitting on the toilet or spending time in the ‘popular hospital’ funded by a Lutheran organization lying on a bloodstained mattress on a bed next to a baby crying with pain from dysentery.

As I haven’t been able to sleep much, this has really given me time to think about diarrhea and deaths from preventable illnesses (and about how silly I was to eat food prepared by a chef that didn’t wash his hands, or to drink ‘shallow tube well’ water from a village). Well, I’m not sure ‘think’ is the right word as when you’re dehydrated your mind doesn’t work in the same way as usual – it’s more of a kind of lazy frantic thought.

I’m pretty much fine now, after having 2 litres of saline fluids dripped into me, 3 anti-biotic pills, and about 6 men from the program crowding around me to check that I was alright! I feel much better (although still have water-like ‘motion’)

When people die from diarrhea they essentially die from a fever and dehydration that work together to give you an insufferable headache.

I was ‘in the field’ today in the South West, Shamnagur and the surrounding area – Cyclone Aila victims lined the road in their makeshift huts made from bamboo and leaves and contained far too many people to be comfortable and whatever bits and bobs they were able to salvage from their houses that are now resting flattened under sea water.

After walking through an embankment of 11,000 ‘climate refugees’ – unlike Palestinian refugees (which have a pretty terrible life, especially in Lebanon for example), these refugees are, apart from the odd plastic sheet from Unicef, completely ignored by the international relief institutions or the government. They aren’t political enough, aren’t rich enough to be of any value to these organisations and don’t shout loud enough – indeed don’t have a voice at all. They are shut off from the mainland, they have no access to safe drinking water and they are drinking from tube wells that are surrounded by saline water (which you really can’t drink and besides it’s polluted with this strange brown/yellow/green foam), the underground aquifers are themselves contaminated now with numerous nasty bacteria, arsenic that turns the skin black and pains the joints and gives blinding headaches, and salt, which can further dehydrate in such high concentration.

I took many pictures and will put them up but it’s nigh on impossible with Bangladeshi speed Internet connection.

The ‘pond sand filter’ idea was certainly a good one! Ask anyone in the area and no matter what question you pose they come back at you with ‘we need water’.

Not having water is like not having oxygen in the air. In fact, it’s worse than that ‘water water everywhere but not a drop to drink’ is almost the national saying of grievance. Because there is so much undrinkable water around, it’s like not having any oxygen in the air and being surrounded by oxygen masks and tanks that are all contaminated with mustard gas.

After boating around 1 meter above the now redundant paddy fields on sea water, seeing the ‘union parishad’ or local government building jammed with people (it’s a concrete structure that survived the cyclone) but surrounded by a significant depth of sea water, a telephone pole or two sicking out at a strange angle, and countless ‘living houses’ that are demolished, flattened, some little mounds just present a chair and a bed, the whole structure having been blown away, I went to the local government ‘clinic’. The clinic was small but depressing, the people there were packed on 5 beds in a small room, each hooked up to a drip, with ages from about 5 to 65, the 5 year old’s skin stretching over his ribs as he drew long tired breaths, his mother quietly rocking over him (or her actually, the child was so emaciated and bald that I couldn’t really determine the sex). There was a large queue ready to see the doctor. I was escorted outside by Shahidullah so that we could see the pond and pond sand filter next to the clinic that was contaminated with sea water and ‘polluted’. This was interesting for me because it was the same technology that I’m installing in a different area – filtering the pond water of bacteria through a slow sand filter so that it’s drinkable, no matter what’s in it except high concentrations of fine metals like cadmium and arsenic, or sea water and too much salt. Unfortunately this had them both.

The Doctor came out when he Shahidullah and me and shook my hand, Shahidullah knew him relatively well. The long line of patients formed a little crowd around us, looking at me with slight wonder (there aren’t nearly as many ‘internationals’ in Bangladesh, especially the rural coastal south-west, as there are in Palestine). The doctor said that it would only cost 10000Tk to pump out the water from the pond and repair the pond sand filter – literally 100 quid... Incidentally I’m here and I’m sure that if we got 80 quid together the local ‘elites’ would fund the next 20, so email me with a commitment if you feel at all like you would like to help a hospital get a clean water supply a lot quicker than it would otherwise, a couple of hundred small vendors at the local market also use the water for drinking and currently have none. It’s just a shot in the dark that anybody reads this at all, yet alone reads it in time.... Anyway.

So what people are relying on now, is coming in the form of 3000 litre containers transporting safe drinking water on the back of a rickshaw, which comes from an Oxfam treatment plant about 100 km away. The little vans cost 1200TK (12 quid) for the day, which translates to 6000 to 9000 litres depending on traffic etc. I’m just going to fund a few... it would feel kind of wrong not to, especially after speaking to the women waiting on the side of the road for the trucks, one woman I spoke to had been waiting for 3 days, and who’s family hadn’t drunk since. I promptly gave her my litre bottle of ‘mineral water’ (treated water), after which she responded that she had a family of 5, and what was she supposed to give the rest of them?

Thirsty for 3 days.... 3 days without water. I’ve done 3 days without food once on purpose and once when I was sick, but I can’t imagine 3 days without water, 72 hours without water, and you’re basically in a sauna. It’s hot and humid and there’s salt in the air, which somehow kind of makes the thirst worse, she was sweating and probably had been for 3 days, obviously no where near as profusely as I was because she was dehydrated and had a husky throat, but she was still sweating, which was disturbing. How can you sweat with nothing to drink for three days? I’m thirsty just thinking about it and I drank a substantial amount 10 minutes ago.

Climate change is on the lips of every literate person that I’ve encountered. It is real, it exists, it kills, it destroys crops, it pollutes water, it makes things hotter (studies have consistently shown that the locals here can feel it getting warmer, and say that there is something going wrong with the climate, the frequency of floods, the rising sea levels, the frequency of cyclones and, very significantly but not while I’m here – devastating drought). I feel ashamed that I flew here to see it but glad that I can bear witness to what’s happening, show some empathy and some practical help in the form of water.

If you drive around south of Shamnagur, you will see the effect that rising sea levels will have on the rest of the planet. Bangladesh as a whole doesn’t have much hope and is only a couple of meters above sea level in most places, but then again East Anglia isn’t so far above the sea either. Salt kills crops. It’s really important, especially when there is still an incredible amount of food misallocation and scarcity in the world, especially when you have just come from a region that witnesses biyearly months of malnutrition and starvation called ‘monga’ (wanting). Driving past paddy field after paddy field that’s drowned in this polluted water, black and brown instead of bright and lush and green as it should be at this time of year, was a harrowing experience, almost as harrowing as seeing direct suffering, because you knew how important that food was to Bangladesh, and seeing the vast areas of crop failure is like seeing massive destruction of the rain forest, or like seeing a great mass of dead floating fish from pollution, and to me, having been exposed to malnutrition I had this strange vision. It was like the hovis advert where the models are walking through the sunset-lit wheat field with bountiful crop and agricultural beauty, just replace the wheat field with the destroyed polluted mud that used to be paddy and replace the models with starving children looking hopelessly into space with their big wide eyes.

As my friends Simon wisely pointed out on facebook, it isn’t all because of climate change, a lot of the problem is mismanagement by corrupt government, a lot of it is the lack of communal pullingtogetherness, a lot of the suffering is cause by poverty and the Machiavellian workings of the IMF and other international institutions in collusion with the corrupt elites, a lot of the suffering is because of the lack of the UN presence and the failure to respond well to disasters – but there isn’t that much you can do about that from the UK. There is something you can do about climate change. You can drive less, you can take a holiday in the UK, check out Brighton or Liverpool instead of getting sunburn and sand in your pants, switch banks to a more sustainable one like Triodos or the Co-operative, cycle and walk and rediscover these lost treasures, get your electricity from ‘good energy’ or ‘ecotricity’ which aren’t incidentally much more expensive at all, and are cheaper than some of the more shortsighted energy suppliers. I don’t want to tell you how to live, you can figure it out for yourself, I would just be really really grateful if we all did a little less each day to destroy the planet :).

Right, so, my stomach’s back to normal now!! Wohoo! (it’s been a few intermittent snatches at the computer to write this...)

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