The Financial Express

Day zeros: How the local impacts the global

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: February 10, 2020 22:00:55

People in Dhaka have been facing waterborne diseases as they are yet to be provided with safe water . —Photo: bdnews24.com People in Dhaka have been facing waterborne diseases as they are yet to be provided with safe water . —Photo: bdnews24.com

'Day zeros' are not days when positives and negatives cancel each other out, leaving a zero balance. Nor are they futuristic moments when pollution, for instance, is reduced to nothing, or plastic usage is eliminated. Instead, the term refers to water supplies ending. Such a predicament could affect metropolitans, as Dhaka, or select neighbourhoods within a city. Will Sarni, Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Water Foundry, argues such a day descends when past practices rather than future expectations influence water-control construction ("Water inequality is a global issue: Here's what we must do to solve it," World Economic Forum Newsletter, October 09, 2019): climate change exemplifies future impacts, for which we have not retooled water planning or usage, whereas the past haunts us through the policies and practices of building water-pipes, particularly with lead, a substance subsequently shown to have detrimental health effects.

Those comments may hold words of wisdom for Dhaka and Bangladesh. The country's capital city is so besieged by actual and potential problems from a laissez-faire policy-making past that the scope to envision the future is barely there. Home to a still exploding population of more than 21 million, Greater Dhaka is running out water perhaps at a faster rate (the city core  itself has a 8.0 million population). One-third of groundwater has simply disappeared, most of it in a very short, very recent span. It is not hard to see how and why, with an accumulating of passive or manipulated policies exposing precisely why preparing for the future is virtually impossible.

First off, not only does the city sprawl across too tiny a land (roughly 300 square kilometers) to hold so many people, making it the world's most congested city (47,500 people per square kilometre). That means there is more concrete covering surface soil than is viable for such a small-sized settlement: concrete prevents rainwater or surplus water from seeping down to the water-table. Runoffs get so contaminated or intoxicated, especially in neighbourhoods riddled with ready-made garment (RMG) or leather factories, that the rivers that actually receive the overflows have become lifeless (and as they flow into the mightier Meghna and Padma rivers, they carry the seeds of death into the Bay of Bengal, predicating an even more threatened future, of which the Meghna is already showing signs).

Then there is land-grabbing, facilitated by mighty monsoon rain-fed rivers shrinking over winter and spring, thus opening up space for territorial-minded wolves to pounce upon. This is where land titles and deeds get forged, re-fixed, or left foot-loose at the mercy of predators. In other words, the scope to readjust the metropolitan hydraulic infrastructure cannot even be put on the typical policy-making agenda. When, indeed, a step is taken in this regard, often driven by an emergency or two, it may be a case of too little too late, eventually to be engulfed by past practices. We hope the current drive to re-grab usurped land, as evident in the structure-smashing drive along the Turog River-banks, is not only real, but also expands the soil surface the city desperately needs. Similarly, fitting subterranean water-distribution pipes illustrated not only the huge deficits in water distribution, but also how the most important previous water pipe-laying exercise date back to the Pakistan era, in the 1960s, when Dhaka's population was far under one million.

Grabbing land, followed by its concrete conversion, imposes an ecologically game-changing factor that is hard for the public (and policy-makers) to comprehend through concurrent lenses, but whose long-term impacts may be too far away for status-quo minded, well-heeled consumers, policy-makers, and clearly the 60 per cent population of migrant masses to estimate. Shrinking ground water supplies/reservoirs, in conjunction with the rapidly migrant influxes, will force the city to expand outwards, depicting a case of 'future' policy-planning, but 'future' policy-planning with old formulas and under past legislations built upon completely different calculations and considerations. Missed in the policymaker's analysis were the new elements encroaching and enclosing 21st century populations worldwide: from MDG (Millennial Development Goals) and SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) imperatives to climate change adjustments, which must include Dhaka eventually becoming an ocean-front city after mid-century, given the ocean water-increments and continuous land-erosion. For example, discovery of Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier melting means an ultimate ocean-level rising 10 estimated feet. All but the hills of Bangladesh would be engulfed.

Dhaka exemplifies how the 'local' impacts the 'global', but also of how the 'global' trickles down to the 'local'. In this case, Dhaka's toxic rivers affect the Bay of Bengal, eventually chipping in to polluting the Indian Ocean, as so many of South Asia's sub-continental rivers have been. One dramatic case of this local-global relationship is how plastic bottles thrown into, for example, Dhaka's rivers end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. On the reverse track, climate changes in the form of seawater-rises corroding coastal embankments show how the small actions in one part of the world (automobile emissions, for instance), have large consequences elsewhere (Barishal/Khulna embankment erosion pushing migrants into Dhaka city).

That mindset can help Dhaka citizens and residents think of Bangladesh's coastal embankments and the Bay of Bengal more sensitively than they have been. It is a start to building the 'future' policy actions that must begin now to avoid Dhaka's 'day zeros'. With 'water replenishment' and 'water conservation' as the explicit objectives, what must Dhaka policy-makers and residents do to ensure their grandchildren will have enough water to survive without conflict, and playgrounds to build themselves upon, physically and mentally?

For a monsoon country like Bangladesh, the answers may be straightforward enough to not have to list some options; but it is equally surprising how excessive information accesses (and deducible analysis thereafter), still breeds ignorance. Fighting indifference of this kind successfully could take the form of rainwater collection: if the surface is too polluted or strewn with toxics (like the dyes and chemicals used in RMG and leather industries), containing rain before it hits the surface helps. In this case, huge troughs (water cups) built alongside roads or intersections could capture the water, even funnel them, through lead-free pipes to the subterranean. Studies show how up to 25 millimetres of rain can be captured for every hour of monsoon rain (Rafiqul Islam, "Dhaka could be underwater in a decade," Inter Press Service, August 19, 2016), an amount that typically causes flooding on Dhaka's streets, contamination, and policy-making embarrassment as barely a trickle or two ever reaches the ground water-table. Once made a top-priority, attitudes can be quickly changed.

Complementing this cup-building public exercise could be tax incentives to Dhaka home-owners to do likewise on their own rooftops: meters monitored by officials can measure the amount captured to determine the degree of tax incentives. Such carefully monitored accounts also open up a larger, long-term global-level water-preserving action Dhaka citizens can take: fit in solar panels alongside the water-cups to breed enough energy, certainly for that specific building, perhaps with a surplus the city could buy. One impact would be to reduce the fossil-fuel dependence Dhaka and Bangladesh have been ever more tightly gripped by.

All of these require automation to some degree, Fourth Industrial Revolution inculcation, also to some degree, and citizen mobilisation to a degree getting difficult to muster as the city bloats further each day: without collective action, none of these will be possible, and displacing the concurrent growth of anomie in a city filled with so many inter-relationships before, is difficult to fathom.

Even more difficult will be monitoring these developments, then channelling them into future-oriented water-preserving policies. This is why the private component in a public-private partnership is so crucial, as evident in the roof-top, cup-creating, water-conservation proposal.

Without steps like these, Dhaka will become as parched a strip of land as a desert and submerged under the wrong kind of water, as some believe seems inevitable. 'Day zeros' require Dhaka heroes to pave that future pathway. In this case, every citizen could be hero in a game that is not a competition, but where the outcome may turn out to be far larger than the sum of the parts.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent

University, Bangladesh



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