CNG and an unlikely eco saviour

Posted: February 15, 2011 in Bangladesh
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You wouldn’t think one of the world’s poorest countries would be at the vanguard of environmental protection but Bangladesh puts most western countries to shame. It is one of the first countries to completely ban plastic bags, allegedly, in response to high levels of litter (some roadsides are strewn with non-degradable rubbish). Whilst a recent measure and with decades of wanton littering to clear, it is a bold and commendable move. Wherever possible, goods are packed in paper or jute bags, helping support the local jute industry. Alas, not all companies follow the guidelines and from time to time you will be given a plastic bag with your purchase; try explaining in Bangla that you don’t want it!

Steps have also been taken to reduce the shocking vehicle pollution levels in Dhaka by banning all petrol and diesel vehicles from the capital and replacing them with cleaner, greener CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicles. It takes time to make such a huge scale change and it’s not perfect – you can clearly see dark clouds of gasoline fumes belching from older buses and cars – but it gets our admiration for aspiration. The project has apparently been such a success, not to mention an economic respite for the millions of Bangladeshis because CNG is cheaper, that it is being rolled out in the Chittagong district as well. As you crawl through the Dhaka traffic you can see a long line of CNG filling stations and little sign of their damaging ancestors.

Sitting in a CNG fuelled car as it is filled is an interesting experience; the compressed gas fills a cylinder in the back and the noise is incredibly loud. As the cylinder fills the high-pitch squeal reduces and an eerie silence follows and you start to wonder whether or not these things have cut off valves. It’s probably a deeply patronising comment but you just feel that in poorer nations, where health and safety planning is not always the sharpest, that a newspaper story of tourists killed by an exploding CNG tank would not be beyond the realms of possibility.

Sitting tight in a precarious location

When you stop to think, the reasons behind this eco-friendly focus are blindingly obvious. Bangladesh sits on a giant flood plain and faces stern natural pressures. Every few years it is hit with a natural disaster. Floods and droughts are part and parcel of its existence but more recently it has been devastated by the human impact of cyclones. In 1970 a cyclone killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people. The 1991 cyclone wreaked greater havoc, destroying 4x as many house and affecting more people but luckily with fewer deaths – approximately 200,000. In 2007 cyclone Sidr, the strongest storm in 15 years, hit the southwest coast and left 3,500 people dead. The death toll would have been far greater if it hadn’t have been for the early warning system and defenses, including storm shelters,  that were put in place after the 1991 storm.

It has been estimated that a 1m rise in the sea-levels in the Bay of Bengal would result in a loss of between 12 and 17% of the country’s land. With a population of over 150m and many villages adjacent to the tributaries and rivers, you can imagine the devastation that would entail. Global warming is a genuine threat to people’s lives. Western countries need to think more laterally when considering their commitment to global environmental targets. It’s no use tidying up our front yards when the back yards are dirty. Outsourcing manufacturing to future economic powerhouses like India, China and Brazil may be cost effective but their standards of environmental protection are often criticised. Spend time in India and see just how bad the pollution really is and how contaminated the water sources. If we don’t watch out, we’ll heap yet more misery on the people who are least able to handle it.

The future’s bright, the future’s green and red

It feels us with hope that the leadership of a developing nation can place environmental protection so high up on its agenda, especially in an area of the world renowned for its political corruption and self-interest of leaders who often amass great wealth whilst their people descend further into poverty and isolation.

However, there is a long way to go. Traffic in Bangladesh is chaotic. It makes India look like a gentle stroll in the country lanes on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. The vehicles are battered, the engines arthritic and the cloud of exhaust fumes not uncommon.  The CNG move seems, on the surface, a wise one. We just hope this level of thinking extends to other areas such as reducing pollution of the water sources and stopping people from littering. In the Indian sub-continent, water contamination from human waste is one of the key drivers for water born diseases; a grim stat, the prevalence of faecal parts per million is thousands of times higher than in developed nations (people will literally do their business anywhere – we’ve seen it). It all contributes and there is a wider picture the Bangladeshi people need to embrace. They are some of the loveliest people in the world yet their devotion to their environment wouldn’t yet come close to the pass mark.

love jamer & muneeza x

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