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|Volume 11 |Issue 17 | April 27, 2012 ||
A Dying Landscape
Fuad H Mallick
Grey is what would describe the landscape. Not the colour, but Grey, as in desolate, unresponsive and lifeless. Miles and miles stretch out where the earth refuses to let anything grow. All that is left are a few scraggly trees and shrubs here and there, reminiscent of a life that once proliferated. Houses and huts, although some new, are devoid of the expected surrounding greenery. Hopelessness on people’s faces, betrayed by nature and a soil that once gave them life, now dying.
Three years after cyclone Aila hit the south west coast of the country, the land and community is far from recovering from its aftermath. Along with high winds came a storm surge that broke through the embankments and flooded the land with saline water. Shrimp farming had already made parts of the land unsuitable for cultivation and whatever remained has been made saline. Land where paddy once grew now yields none. There is water all around but like a Coleridgeian nightmare, not suitable for drinking. To make it drinkable, a lengthy filtration process is needed. No crops grow and there are hardly any cattle. People eke out an existence from almost nothing. Some were collecting wet leaves brought in with the tide, to dry them in the sun and later use them for cooking.
People who had lived there for generations are leaving. Going off to unknown destinations in search of employment. There are villages where the womenfolk greatly outnumber the men, since most of them have left, gone to the city or even the neighbouring country. Abandoned homesteads bear testimony of better days. Empty chicken coops, cattle sheds and granaries, trees that no longer bear fruit.
Agencies have come forward to build houses for the homeless, offer rainwater harvesting possibilities etc. But, once left on their own, the people are unable to sustain such efforts because there are no opportunities for sustaining their own lives.
In some parts of the place a culture of aid dependency prevails. With international concern for climate change and disasters, many agencies have been there, offering instant relief from homelessness and lack of food. These are mostly stopgap interventions without a long-term vision. The people are aware of this 'Santa Claus' syndrome and try to get whatever they can. They are clever enough to gauge the donors' intentions and lay down their wish list and end up getting something, whether it is of use or not, in the long term. A witty local NGO leader refers to impractical housing solutions as being “planned in a/c rooms” far from the context.
The natural and human landscape is dying, but is not dead yet. There is the opportunity to bring it all back to life. This calls for a deeper understanding of the problem, both technical and social. Apparently, in principle all that needs to be done is to wash off the salt from the soil, easy as it may sound, this requires a well-designed and effective method. It calls for a partnership between the community, to better understand what the real problems are and people with technical understanding of these problems who have the expertise to devise the appropriate solutions. Bangladesh has such people.
The country has gone through famines, disasters and even genocide. We are aware what all these entail. We are a resilient people and there is no reason why we cannot solve our own problems. Strengths will evolve from weaknesses provided the will prevails.
The writer teaches architecture at BRAC University.
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