I live in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, yet still have to show my peers where Bangladesh — my homeland — is on a map. For the geographically challenged, it is the small country to the right of India. Though it doesn't get as much international media attention as its neighbor, the extent to which Bangladesh is affected by environmental and social calamities deserves recognition.
The country is an environmental laboratory. It is roughly the size of Iowa, but with over 160 million people (that's 50 Bengalis for every Hawkeye), it is one of the most densely populated nations in
the world. There is a weak infrastructure holding the exponential growth and massive urbanization
together, and the effects of climate change are not too far off in the future — not to mention the massive poverty, lack of purified drinking water and constant flooding. Needless to say, without elaborating on the impracticalities that result from the flakiness of its bureaucratic government, Bangladesh requires a lot of work.
I traveled to Bangladesh this August and stayed for the month. I hadn't been there in seven years, and going back as a teenager made it an especially formative experience. I was more susceptible to the infrastructural development that was not and should have been taking place. Living in New York spoiled me for too long, and it was easy to be critical of the relatively little that was being done about the rapid urbanization as village dwellers swarmed to Dhaka — the capital of Bangladesh.
A problem of planning
As opposed to Dhaka's poor urban planning, because of which the city has no discernable skyline and the roads are nearly always packed with two hour traffic jams, New York City has an organized infrastructure. There are over eight million people living in the five boroughs, and the main reasons,
arguably, that the city maintains a constant flow of movement is because of its dependence on mass transit and its concentric model, with which the rest of the city is developed around a central business district. Mass transit not only significantly reduces gas emissions and traffic, as large portions of New Yorkers commute to work and school daily, but it also causes New Yorkers to feel part of a greater network.
This feeling of community is desperately lost in Dhaka, though perhaps a sense of camaraderie is indirectly formed when everyone is stuck in a jam on the road (it is a common conversation topic to woefully talk about the "jam" you were stuck in earlier). At any given time, at least five different types of vehicles (rickshaws, buses, cars, "baby taxis," etc.) are in transit, and there are no traffic lights or crosswalk cues. That's why it is necessary to drive everywhere, unless you want to be
part of the hundreds that run impromptu onto traffic hoping to make it onto the other side without looking too flustered.
The state of the clogged city is made even worse by the lack of open recreational spaces, leading to overcrowding in every market place and public area. There are barely any parks and there is no sense of respect for the environment — there are heaps of garbage and abandoned construction rubble in the middle of streets.
Adding to the poor urban planning, there is no consistent source of drinking water in Dhaka. The city is bordered on four sides by interconnected rivers, and there are four water and sewage treatment plants on each side. But by the time the treated water reaches its intended neighborhoods, it is often contaminated because the water pipes are intercepted by slum dwellers trying to profit from the purification. Technically, Bangladesh should not even be having problems with supplying drinking water. There is heavy rainfall for one-fourth of the year, flooding every time it rains, and the city has ample freshwater sources.
Fostering environmental innovations
Although New York City does not have to deal with the environmental and urban strife that Dhaka must endure, it is interesting to see how the metropolitan super power keeps on thriving. One point is that the city has an amazing water purification system that taps into three different
subsystems, including the Catskill Aqueduct and New Croton Reservoir. New York City water is so pure that New Yorkers don't need to filter their water at the sink. Additionally, many new buildings are encouraged to follow LEED standards. Even mass transit buses are powered by "cleaner" energy.
In Dhaka, there has been a switch to use Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) instead of regular gas for vehicles. CNG is cheaper and also releases less gas emissions, which is great considering how many vehicles are used daily. There are also environmentally-minded
organizations that try to educate the public about environmental policies and improve roads; one engineering firm
is even constructing the largest solar power plant in the region, and thus inspiring future projects with renewable energy.
Anticipating a sustainable future
It is important to understand that though Dhaka is not as prominent internationally as New York is, it is still grappling with intense environmental and social calamities. Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in the world, and 45 percent of people live below the poverty line. Those living in poverty are affected the most when it rains heavily, during which rainwater runs off into the slums and floods the area—possessions are lost and diseases become rampant. Flooding, along with the
mass poverty, are two of the biggest problems that Bengalis face, yet there are no concrete solutions for either.
The imminent rising of sea levels due to climate change hasn't even properly been addressed by the Bengali government. It is simple to compare developments in New York to those in Dhaka, but either city is at a different stage of growth — and New York isn't nearly as likely to be underwater in 50 years as Dhaka is. New York has already demonstrated its potential to be a leading metropolitan area. Dhaka is still growing, and will have gained nine million residents in the span of 15 years, reaching 19 million by 2015.
The rapid urbanization of Bengali society doesn't just affect the millions of people living in poverty and inflicted with cholera, or whole slum communities with destroyed shelters after every flood. Third world mega cities like Dhaka are at the forefront of the global battle against this century's two biggest environmental problems: climate change and overpopulation. The majority of people in the world now live in urban areas, and these two predicaments will affect such communities in the future. If the infrastructure of Bangladesh is improved enough, and more innovative environmental solutions are implemented, then the nation will no doubt be a model for a more sustainable global community.
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