Activities of UNEP Special Envoy
Bangladesh and Nepal
(January 11-20, 2011)
UNEP Special Envoy Ms. Tokiko Kato visited Nepal and Bangladesh from 11 to 20 January 2011. In Bangladesh, Ms. Kato met with Minister of State Dr. Hasan Mahmud and Grameen Bank founder and managing director Dr. Muhammad Yunus to discuss environmental and agricultural issues, and then visited a groundwater arsenic contamination treatment initiative and waste landfill site located in Dhaka.
In Nepal, Ms. Kato met with Environment Minister Mr. Thakur Sharma and International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) Director General Mr. Andreas Schild to discuss climate change, and then visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site Chitwan National Park where she experienced Nepalese-style eco-tourism.
Groundwater Arsenic Contamination in Bangladesh
Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a major social problem in Bangladesh that was first detected in 1993. Following a survey in 1999, around 30% of the country's shallow wells were found to contain arsenic concentrations exceeding the level stipulated by the nation's water quality standard. The Bangladeshi Government has since been working to address the problem by enlisting the cooperation of Japan and other donor nations to set up emergency relief measures and, in 2004, the government adopted the 'National Policy for Arsenic Mitigation' and 'Implementation Plan'. However, there is a continued need to combat the problem as highlighted by a 2009 survey by Bangladesh's Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) reporting that the number of confirmed symptomatic arsenic poisoning cases alone was around 38,000.
Special Envoy Kato received a detailed explanation from JICA Expert Mr. Kazuyuki Suenaga on the mechanism of groundwater arsenic contamination, pollution control measures, and support from Japan. Next, Ms. Kato visited a well in the Manikganj District of Dhaka constructed by UNICEF and the Bangladeshi Government where she discussed the well's maintenance with local caretakers.
Shrinking Glaciers & Expanding Glacial Lakes
Special Envoy Kato visited the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD*) where Director Andreas Schild explained that melting of glaciers and consequent expansion of glacial lakes has been occurring in the Himalayan region since the 1960s, increasing the risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). In recent years, black carbon (atmospheric soot caused by incomplete combustion of fuels) from big cities in India has contributed to glacial melting, and ICIMOD is working to tackle this and other environmental issues that transcend national borders.
Special Envoy Kato asked about the effects of establishing the platform that is ICIMOD on the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, to which Director Schild responded that ICIMOD's long-term practice of continuously publishing the findings of surveys on climate change-induced glacial melting had caused a recent shift in awareness among policymakers.
Next, Special Envoy Kato listened to a presentation by ICIMOD researchers who used slides and video to explain the formation of glaciers, flood prevention measures including construction of weirs and warning systems, and the results of a simulation on the downstream impact of a GLOF event.
*ICIMOD: a regional organization consisting of 8 regional member countries (RMCs) of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan – that conducts surveys and research on the state of regional climate change-induced glacial melting, its effect on communities, and adaptation strategies. Much of ICIMOD's research is conducted jointly with Japanese researchers.
Ms. Kato's Impressions
Bangladesh - a chaotic clash of past & present
11-14 January 2011
◆ The bustling city of Dhaka
Dhaka is a frenzy of human activity. The city is a clutter of manual and auto rickshaws, carts, automobiles and people.
This is, however, no surprise given that Bangladesh is a densely overcrowded nation of more than 140 million people occupying an area about 40% of the size of Japan. Rickshaws are the primary mode of transport so the roads are also heavily congested.
January is the dry season when the chance of rain is nil but the sky is dull without a hint of blue. Still, I couldn't help but be transfixed by the chaotic yet vibrant hustle and bustle of women dressed in saris, men wrapped in lungis, and the brightly decorated rickshaws.
Children weaving their way amongst the hustle and bustle; old people and vendors lining the road side; a man on a rickshaw carrying enough luggage on his knees to constitute all of his earthly possessions; and a family of five happily riding close together. Every frame reveals a story of humanity in its sheer, unadulterated form.
Life is many things but never simple.
At dusk, families lay out their straw sleeping mats here and there along the cold roadside. They are street families.
Gallantly living their lives amidst the chaotic crowds with no idea of when it will end. While admiring their energy I find my eyes inexplicably filled with tears.
◆ Meeting with Muhammad Yunus
The name Bangladesh means 'Country of Bengal'. When India gained independence from the British, East Pakistan separated from India together with West Pakistan. The ensuing conflict with West Pakistan resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971.
Muhammad Yunus, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank, was a university assistant professor in the United States at the time and was also one of the people involved in lobbying the U.S. to recognize Bangladesh's independence. He returned home upon the nation's independence with the intention of working to rebuild his homeland.
Mr. Yunus recounted this story to me from his office at Grameen Bank.
“The first issue that Bangladesh faced following its independence was the famine of 1974. People were dying in front of my very eyes. It all began when I left Chittagong University one day and visited the nearby village of Jobra where I saw the suffering of the villagers firsthand. When I learned that their hardship was due to a debt of just US$27, I took the money out of my own pocket and rescued them from their misfortune."
Yunus used the money acquired from lending minor sums to poor farmers as capital for a small business which later evolved into the Grameen Bank ("village bank") which supports the independent subsistence of its borrowers. The company has since become a major force in restoring poor villages through a range of business including 'Grameen check' clothing, water ventures in partnership with foreign companies, and a mobile phone business.
◆ Cleaning up a mountain of garbage
The next day I was in a car stuck in traffic when I noticed a large rubbish dump.
This dump previously resembled the 'Smokey Mountain' dump in the Philippines, with overflowing waste water, odor and emission of dioxins from spontaneous combustion of methane gas giving off a foul stench. Large earthen pipes were installed below ground to collect sewage from waste and gas removal pipes have been set up as part of a system to prevent fires. The dump has also introduced compactor garbage collection trucks with assistance from Japan.
Mr. Akio Ishii is a member of the team responsible for implementing this project.
He is a JICA expert who has a great deal of experience in dealing with garbage issues in Japan.
"When I first visited this dump it was like hell on earth. Now it is much better. I asked the people who work here to take pride in their jobs. Many women and children make a living here by collecting plastic waste but they always clean themselves thoroughly before leaving the dump. It is my wish that they can work here with confidence and in relative comfort."
The sewage from the dump is collected in a pond that is purified with bacteria, and I had my picture taken with Mr. Ishii in front of this pond as a reminder of my visit. Through his kindness, Mr. Ishii supports the staff who work at the dump.
◆ The women who protect the water
Arsenic was first detected in well water in Bangladesh in early 1990’s, resulting in a major environmental issue. Mr. Kazuyuki Suenaga is currently working on a project to ensure that water remains free of arsenic contamination. He claims that arsenic is contained in water from the Himalayas and was detected in wells that collect shallow groundwater. Under the current project, deep wells are being dug to pump water from layers that do not contain arsenic.
I visited a deep well built in the village of Singair in Manikganj District together with Mr. Suenaga.
This single well provides the drinking water for 50 households.
The locals are in charge of cleaning and managing the well. When we arrived we were greeted by the village elders, children, and pleasant women.
I was reminded just how important it is to maintain a sense of community.
In Bangladesh, national government systems are reportedly very unstable but NGOs are the most active in the world. There has been an emergence of initiative among the citizens who make the most of their own resources in order to get by. It is impossible to calculate the precise number of people involved in some capacity in NGOs but my interpreter Alam informs me that it is probably around half of the country's population.
◆ Fostering future farmers
On the same day, I visited the campus of a school involved in tree planting as well as an agricultural training school.
The first school was surrounded by a thick mahogany forest, and the students are now visiting other schools to assist their tree-planting efforts.
Once the mahogany is grown it is cut and used as a building material, and has even been used to make new classrooms. By planting trees, the students develop an interest in the environment and even gain self-confidence.
At the agricultural training school supported by OISCA, I met with students studying agriculture in a two-year curriculum while boarding at the school.
Although the students receive their food and accommodation as well as a small stipend, the number of applicants still fails to meet the annual quota of 25 students.
In recent years, there has been a deficit in the number of young villagers continuing the traditional vocation of farming, and even the sons of farming families who own their own farmland are shunning the profession.
I see young students belonging to ethnic minorities working happily in the school's chicken coop. These youngsters who have suffered discrimination throughout their lives tell me of their enthusiasm for agriculture. The chicken coop is divided into two levels, with the manure collected below used to fertilize the fields. The school utilizes a cyclical system of organic farming.
I can't help but hope and pray for the future of agriculture that sustains this nation.
Nepal -- a land spinning in eternity
15-20 January 2011
◆ The holy land of Kathmandu
The valley of Kathmandu is watched over by the Himalayas. From the air, I can see what appears to be endless stretches of terraced rice fields between the mountains.
Nepal is the main artery connecting traffic between the major nations of China and India. It has long been a prosperous commercial region and has never succumbed to invasion by another nation.
The city is home to beautiful old districts built by the commercially-adept Newar people as well as the head temple of the Hindu religion. Even today, the Newars maintain a caste system and observe ancient ceremonies and rituals.
However, the old district remains in only a small section of modern Kathmandu and the majority has been transformed into a frighteningly large city.
Motorbikes weave noisily through the streets as exhaust billows into the air. Even the female students strolling through Patan Durbar Square are dressed in the modern fashion.
The ghats on the Bagmati River where the head Hindu temple is situated still emit the smoke of cremated dead but the river has become a dumping ground and its water is contaminated. The river's flow has slowed to a trickle, perhaps because it is the dry season.
Where is this holy land heading?
In the 21st century, there is no other place on earth where this question looms larger.
◆ The road to Chitwan National Park
It is a long five-hour drive from Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park.
The park is situated amidst the Terai plains sweeping along the border with India.
At the town of Mugling about 100 km west of Kathmandu, we stopped to drink chai tea at a roadside shop. At the rear of the store is a large kitchen beyond which lies a courtyard and an upstairs toilet.
Firewood burned in a furnace on the earthen floor, emitting a very pleasant smell. Longing to take a photo of this quaint scene, I aimed my camera lens at the lady who poured our tea when her husband swiftly appeared cradling their baby and proceeded to pose for a photograph. Such a lovely married couple.
After traveling south from Mugling for 20 km we came to Narayanghat
From here we made our way along a winding road that runs beside the Narayani River. There were fields and rice paddies as far as the eye could see. Besides every household were heaps of rice straw, cow sheds, and throngs of women dressed in colourful saris and children playing in the garden in altogether picturesque scene. When I point my camera in their direction I am met with lovely smiles.
These scenes wipe away completely the anxieties I felt in the city! I find myself appreciative of this rural beauty.
◆ Island Jungle Resort
Traveling about 40 minutes from Narayanghat to a tranquil country road where a small boat awaited us.
Traveling about 40 minutes from Narayanghat to a tranquil country road where a small boat awaited us. Crossing the Narayani River in a row boat, we arrived at the Island Jungle Resort. There is a cafeteria resembling a wooden mountain hut and along the river are lodges each containing two guest rooms. I took my luggage to my designated room and then made my way to the bonfire at the cafeteria, which is the only source of warmth. The other guests are families from Europe and the United States while another female guest has even brought her one-year old child.
The most enjoyable activity at the resort is the safari on elephant back.
A number of rivers flow through the forest. The safari crosses several of these rivers on a swaggering journey into the forest. Upon entering the dense forest we find ourselves whacked in the head and face on several occasions by tree branches and vines.
When the guide signals that a wild animal has been sighted, the elephant sometimes takes off at full pace, making for a thrilling safari. Equipped with my SLR camera with zoom lens, I managed to photograph a rhinoceros.
This national park is said to be inhabited by tigers, crocodiles and even bears. It is a popular destination among tourists from around the world.
The next day we departed early amidst the morning fog. Returning to Narayanghat, we then headed to Pokhara by car.
Pokhara is a beautiful city which provides a vista of the Annapurna Range in the Himalayas. It is the most renowned resort area in Nepal and is also a mecca for mountain trekking.
Although I felt slightly disappointed at the sight of a heavily overcast sky as we approached Pokhara, as soon as we entered the city the cloud began to dissipate to reveal a mountain rising jaggedly upwards into the wide expanse of bright blue sky as though made of glass.
Standing at a height of 6,993 metres, the mountain was none other than Machapuchare
I was astonished by the sheer beauty of the atmosphere which was clearer than anything I had ever seen.
Even after arriving at the lakeside Fishtail Lodge, I couldn't take my eyes off Machapuchare beyond the lake and part of the Annapurna Range visible in the distance.
◆ A life devoted to breeding snow trout
On the final day of our visit, we headed to Godawari nestled in the mountains about 2 hours south of Kathmandu to visit Mr. Tadashi Murata who has devoted his life to breeding snow trout.
The area is home to a fish breeding facility for rainbow trout originally introduced from the U.S. but recent warming has melted the snow in the mountains, creating a water shortage and causing most of the facility's breeding ponds to dry up. Rainbow trout require a considerable amount of running water and, being carnivores, consume imported feed.
"In addition to being very difficult, breeding red salmon is also far too expensive. Snow trout is a local fish belonging to the Cyprinidae family that can be bred in still ponds. It is an omnivorous fish that can be fed almost anything found locally including cereals, grasses and insects, and can grow up to 50 cm in length. However, it is easily caught in rivers so snow trout typically do not reach this size in the wild. We first succeeded in breeding snow trout by capturing fish of 15 cm from Trisuli River and returning their eggs. Once the snow trout gets slightly bigger, we can have local farmers build ponds in order to breed them. It could become a popular form of local produce for European tourists to enjoy.
The facility has water tank that collect mountain water in order to save every drop, and access to the breeding ponds is prohibited by a padlocked fence. Mr. Murata lives alone in a small hut located beside the ponds, and I was very impressed by his passionate devotion to this cause.
Even in this fantastic country of Nepal, rapid modernization has given rise to the serious problems of traffic chaos and a deluge of garbage.
Melting of glaciers in the Himalayas has created many lakes that are further expanded by summer rains, increasing the risk of outburst floods.
Developed nations are largely responsible for global warming but even developing nations such as Nepal are causing a substantial amount of emissions wherever you look.
The more I visit Asian nations that still maintain some semblance of simple lifestyles, the more I understand just how rapidly interminable economic activities are transforming the earth.
These visits to Bangladesh and Nepal have made me painfully aware of the need to firmly advocate a way of living that is more down-to-earth.