Bitter Truth: Only awareness can help save environment

Photo: A.M.Ahad/ DrikNews

For the last three decades scientists and world leaders have been trying to cope with the consequences of exponential growth of humans and their increasing demand for resources that only nature can provide. They have been working to save threatened species from extinction and give nature’s process the chance to maintain a healthy global biosphere. This means sacrifices and restraint because we can no longer pursue short-term prosperity without a thought for long-term survival.

Some people in industrialised countries mistakenly think that conservation of nature will threaten economic welfare. But it cannot be denied that both material well-being and a healthy, productive and beautiful natural environment are necessary for good quality life. For those in the less prosperous parts of the world, care and conservation of natural resources, restraint and cautious disposal of toxic wastes, hazardous effluents and sludge from industries are ways to improve conditions.

Build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and toxic landfills to ozone depletion are causing degradation of the natural environment and extinction of the natural species of plants and animals. Humans are in conflict with nature, and the world’s biosphere is all that keeps us from extinction. We must preserve the web of life, and any action that we take to threaten it or exploit it beyond its natural capacity is a threat to the quality of life of those who will come after us.

To preserve our environment, we need to limit the release of carbon dioxide, solve the problem posed by chlorofluorocarbons (CFC); cut pollution and waste — like toughening fuel efficiency standard for autos — launch large-scale tree plantation programme; ban dumping of waste by industrialised countries; make birth control information and devices available; develop educational programmes to teach people the value of genetic diversity; promote waste recycling; and encourage nature swaps.

CFCs have been linked to the depletion of the ozone layer which shields the earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. In deference to Montreal protocol, some industrialised countries have phased out CFCs from their production lines.

Pollution occurs largely due to industrial inefficiency, increase in motorised transportation and some modern agricultural practices. Humanity has used the world as a waste bin — but the bin is now overflowing. Every year, millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released by industrialised nations, causing acid rain.

These airborne pollutants are no respecters of national boundaries, and tackling them successfully depends on international cooperation. Thus, acid rain is creeping into Bangladesh, India, and most countries of Asia.

The strange tree disease that is causing extinction of trees in the Sundarbans must be attributed to acid rain. Surely these forest resources have to be protected by all possible means. Nature is like business. Business sense dictates that we preserve our capital and live from the interest. Nature’s capital is the enormous diversity of living things. Without it, we can not feed ourselves, cure ourselves or provide industry with the raw materials of wealth creation. Prof. Edward Wilson of Harvard University rightly says: “The folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us is the ongoing loss of genetic and species diversity.”

So far as is known, only 150 plant species have been cultivated. Yet over 75,000 edible plants grow in the wild. With world population growing by 90 million each year, this extinction of plant species needed for human survival is tragic. Over 5,000 plants are known to have potential for fighting diseases including cancer. Scientists estimate that the number of species is between 10 and 30 million — with only around 1.4 million identified. The places that support most diversity are tropical rain forests, mangrove swamps and coastal wetlands. But these are being degraded. Habitat destruction triggers large scale extinction of species.

The Sundarbans might be a vast trove of medicinal plants that are undiscovered. Most children with leukemia now survive by the use of the chemicals found in Rosy Periwinkle (sarna lata). Many people with heart ailment depend on Foxgloves (shialkata). People with hypertension and high blood pressure get relief from the Indian Snake Root (sorpo mul). The enormous benefit and relief that human beings can get from plant diversity is still a subject of continuing research.

Large quantities of hazardous wastes are still being generated in the industrialised countries. Bangladesh has to bear the brunt of the progress achieved by others. It is high time that our country entered into an agreement detailing legislation that would stop trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes.

Issues relating to dumping of hazardous wastes, cross-sectoral linkages among biodiversity, land, and water use; sustainable growth; forest management, and desertification control on regional basis, must come up in the next UNFCC meet in Doha in December.

In Bangladesh, things are at variance with the oft-repeated proclamations preached at high levels. Rajuk, Wasa, DCC and BIWTA, mandated to save city environment from being fouled, water bodies from being encroached and open spaces meant for park and recreational facilities from being invaded, seem to be busy creating new residential and commercial plots in flagrant violation of the Master Plan as well as Water Bodies Protection Act relating to Environmental Regulations.

A report in The Daily Star (May 12) indicated that government action in demarcating the Dhaka rivers excluding the foreshores that, by legal definition, are part of the river, will turn these rivers into streams unfit for navigability.

Rivers, lakes and wetlands have become lifeless receptacles of human wastes and toxic materials, pesticide residues, and effluents from the dyeing units and textile industries, fertiliser factories, paper and pulp mills. Effluent treatment plants (ETP) have not yet been set up in all these factories and plants. These poisoned waters now symbolise not life but death. The country has already encountered the danger of arsenic pollution as a result of excessive use of ground water and chemical fertiliser. All these are indications of our long and dangerous neglect of the environment.

The question is how to prevent our environment wallowing in waste and poisonous materials that we are producing. Higher fines, taxes, and strict enforcement can force the manufacturing industries to curb waste and toxic materials. We can also separate out waste that can be reused and use alternative raw materials instead of hazardous substances.

Recycling is, of course, the best way to reduce waste. Experts point out that even with most efficient recycling, there will still be refuse. If we dump waste in land fills, it should be covered with impermeable clay or synthetic liners to contain toxic materials and have pumps to drain out liquid waste for treatment elsewhere. In line with the technology used in Delhi, landfill waste could also be burned to generate electricity.

The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star. E-mail: