Tuesday 18 November 2014

Bangladesh - a watery place

Bangladesh is the 11th most densely populated country in the world, but all those ahead of it in the list are micronations like Macau and Monaco where people are stacked like cord-wood - each person in either of those places is allotted less than 50 sq.m. each (our humble home has a foot print 60sq.m shared by two people . . . but we've got a garden and a landscape of fields).  Singapore and Hong Kong have some millions of people but are rather limited in extend as are less populous Gibraltar, Vatican City, Bahrain, Malta, Bermuda and Sint Maarten.  But Bangladesh is a big place AND it is home to teeming millions of people.  The only countries that come close to this level of extensive population density are Taiwan and S. Korea which have less than half as many people per sq.km.  Other densities per sq.km: Ukraine 75, Ireland 65; Kazakhstan 6; Nigeria 190.

Just after independence, in 1950, East Pakistan had a modest 40 million people aboard, that has since increased by a factor of 4x so that today there 160 million Bangladeshis.  Tomorrow there will be 160,009,000 and the day after 160,018,000 - the clock is ticking. Bangladesh is actually doing better at controlling its population than a lot of other third world countries: Venezuela, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia all have higher rates of increase.  But the climate change prognosis is not good for the country because pretty huge wet prairies of the country are made up of the delta of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers.  90% of the people of Bangladesh live a few metres above the high water mark.  "Pakistan" - Muslim rump of India that didn't trust the Hindu minority to see them square in an independent India - was created in 1947 from the two chunks of the Raj where the followers of The Prophet lived.  East Pakistan grew increasingly unhappy about paying taxes to Islamabad and not getting a fair share of the money back - a bit like Ireland before independence. Things came to a head in the aftermath of a devastating storm surge driven by a cyclone on 12th November 1970.  The low lying areas of the delta were washed away and half a million people drowned.  Islamabad was seen to be slow in responding to this natural disaster but quick to send in the military when the local people objected. The soldiers from the West killed somewhere between 30,000 and 3 million Bengalis in a turmoil of ethnic cleansing. There was a disconcerting amount of intellectual cleansing as well with academics, doctors, writers and other intellectuals being driven to the killing fields. With help from the Indian Army, the Bengalis eventually won their war of independence but it took a year of bloody mayhem. A sad and inauspicious birth for the nation.

As the population exploded during the 60s and 70s, access to clean water was increasingly compromised.  The rate of childhood dysentery and diarrhoea was getting to unacceptably high levels, even for the Third World. UNICEF recommended sinking boreholes to tap the ground water rather than the coliform-rich soup that passed for drinking water on the surface, and somehow funding was found to make this happen across width swathes of the country. The rate of dehydrating-to-death among children fell in a gratifyingly direct manner.  Unfortunately the rate of acute and chronic arsenic poisoning increased in a similarly direct way. In 2000, a WHO report, finding that between 35 and 75 million people (about half the then population of Bangladesh) were affected, named this "largest mass poisoning of a population in history". The sub-surface geology of Bangladesh is notably rich in this element which is quite soluble in water.  The proposed solution was to sink even deeper bore-holes to tap older sub-sub-surface bedrock that is depleted in arsenic and other heavy metals. But, in large measure, the well of money had run dry.  Death by arsenic is slower than death by enteric so, in the grossly unfair scale of things by which life in the Third World is weighed, the Bengalis are better off.

The plain people of Ireland are currently in a state of self-righteous indignation claiming that clean drinking water is an Inalienable Right that shall be delivered to their kitchen tap for free.  After their first-born dies of cholera or dysentery or falls into the final coma of acute arsenic poisoning, they might re-evaluate how much they are be prepared to pay for what falls from the sky but is rather difficult to pick up.


  1. Are not the protestors protesting the concept of yet another tax for which there will be no clear accounting? I always felt that governments should produce a statement, like a bank, at the end of the year saying "well done, you contributed towards 12 hospital beds, part of the new Carlow bypass, 100 school desks and a section of water pipe half way up your mountain". There is a real concern I think that one can hand over one's money to a group of incompetent nitwits who will just fritter it away. Although the Singaporean tax office doesn't produce such a statement, I happily see the fruits of my labour and taxes resulting in more trees plants, expansion of garden walkways which will encircle and criss cross the island by 2020, water I can drink from the tap, telephone cables which are neatly sunk into the ground so my view is more pleasant, extending public transport in an effort to stop people buying cars (no matter how heavily taxed they are). So I'm good, they can have a little more if they want. I would however object to having an additional tax or bill foistered on me if I wasn't sure how well thought out it was, that I felt would be managed by a group of people who don't really take care of the pennies and flash away my pounds.

    1. But it's not a tax, it's a utility like gas and electricity. At least that's the model the govt (driven by the Euromoney troika) is attempting to move towards. Lefties want to have the old model where "the rich" subsidise the water usage of the indigent as a form of 'progressive taxation'. By backing off from metering water as we've just done, there is no incentive to conserve it. An uber-quango with proper governance would have the economies of scale to fix the 45% water loss between treatment and tap; and meters allow people to save money money by using less. Irish Water OTOH was created with built-in inefficiencies and over-manning because the government couldn't bite the bullet of sacking a third of the current staff who work in water for CoCos. Harrrumph