Return to Stories

Bengal's Burden

Wedged into a great arch of north-eastern India which loops around and almost totally envelops it, Bangladesh sits on the silty and soggy estuaries of two of the world's largest rivers - the Ganges and the Bhramaputra. The majority of the country's 143 million inhabitants live on what are effectively the two rivers' floodplains and annual floods - some of which have engulfed swathes of the country with unprecedented volumes of muddy water - are a part of the cycle of life.

In recent years, however, Bangladesh's usual travails have been exacerbated by rising sea levels, an inexorably growing population competing over ever shrinking resources and farmland and toxic - often violent - politics dominated by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the grandes dames of Bangladeshi politics.

Patrick Brown visited Bangladesh earlier this year and identified three issues which are symptomatic of the current challenges the country is facing.

Overpopulation has long been an issue for Bangladesh, the 8th most populous country in the world and one of the most densely populated regions overall. In recent years, however, the country's meteorological bane of flooding has become fiercer and more destructive, submerging 2/3 of the country in 1988, 1998 and 2004 with devastating loss of life and livelihood.

Freak weather patterns are only part of the reason for floods becoming an ever greater menace. Deforestation, dam building upstream in India, the building of cities on floodplains and the poor maintenance of flood levies have all contributed to the havoc wreaked by rising waters. Patrick visited the island of Bhola, Bangladesh's largest offshore island territory, to see how locals are dealing with the ever present threat of rising waters.

In the capital Dhaka, a city that is by no means immune to the annual scourge of inundation, the fierce competition for space between people and industry poses a different set of problems.

The armies of urban poor, in desperation, have made their homes among the few urban spaces that remain available in this metropolis of 15 million. These include industrial wasteland, rubbish dumps and slums built atop sewage pipes that empty untreated effluent straight into the city's many waterways. With only the most rudimentary official controls in place, much of Dhaka's toxic waste - the leather industry, the country's 4th largest foreign exchange earner, being one of the worst offenders - often ends up spilling into slums, poisoning water supplies and causing various illnesses.

The city's air pollution is blamed for an estimated 15,000 premature deaths, as well as several million cases of pulmonary, respiratory and neurological illness, according to the Air Quality Management Project.

In an attempt to satisfy the housing needs of the more affluent city dwellers, developers are resorting to increasingly forceful ways in acquiring plots of urban land to build on, often at the expense of slum dwellers who build their shacks on any plot of unclaimed land. With urban planning in complete disarray, illegal construction is proliferating and intensifying the fight for living space that will only become worse as Dhaka grows to most likely become the fourth largest city in the world by 2015.

The images here are very much work in progress and Patrick hopes to return to Bangladesh in the near future to further investigate the many issues affecting this vibrant, yet troubled nation.

Click HERE to view the Multimedia.

powered by